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.

Dr. Dinosaur, On My Desk?! And An Award…

This summer’s been kind of a wild ride for us, with ups and downs. We certainly haven’t stopped reading and keeping up with things. Two things this week that I can’t let pass without commenting on.

The first bit is just a light bit of squee. The fine people behind the Department-loved Atomic Robo have announced a follow up to the fantastic Robo limited statue they made last year- the one I own I love dearly- featuring the epically insane character Dr. Dinosaur. Here’s the unpainted prototype:


I cannot begin to express the joy I feel that he’s wearing the cooler. If you missed out on the Robo statue, you’re also in luck; they’ll be doing another run of that as well. Available first quarter, 2011.

Second, a moment to issue a congratulations to Matt Fraction for winning the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award for Graphic Literature for ‘his outstanding body of work.’ This is the first year they’re offering an award in this category, so it’s an extra special honor for him. It’s always nice to see the form recognized like this in new corners, and I can’t help but think it marks a similar point in his career as it did when Neil Gaiman won the World Fantasy Award in 1991. Cheers, Matt. Even Rex Mantooth elevates us all.

About Those Five Lights…

…well, well, well. Looks like Mr. Fraction is having a little Battlestar Galactica fun with the X-faithful.

I was discussing Uncanny X-Men #526 with Department operative Chris “Slarti” Pinard today, and he stopped and said:

“I keep seeing Laurie the new mutant’s blue skin and lines around the lips and expecting that there’ll eventually be some connection to Ol’ Pocky Lips.”

Laurie in UXM 526.

Gee, she looks just like her possible progenitor! Art by Whilce Portacio.

Being me, I hit up Google and typed in “five lights Apocalypse,” and, uh, well… I got this BSG episode recap. Which mentions “the five lights” of the eventual apocalypse in that universe, and also mentions a building called the “Temple of Five.”

Hm. Suspicious, certainly leading, but not quite enough to invoke a total nerd squeal. Let’s poke a little further.

Well, looking up the Temple of Five on BattlestarWiki gets you a swift redirect to “Temple of Hopes.” Most likely a reference both to Hope herself, back in 616 Marvel, and to the hope the new lights represent.

Is Fraction having it on with us a bit, tossing in some BSG references to send us all on a merry chase? After all, BSG is about the struggles of the last dying gasp of the human race; it’s an appropriate metaphor for the post-M-Day condition of mutantkind. Or are we being given some foreshadowing on the cause of these new, delayed X-gene manifestations?

I think “yes to all” is probably the best answer. After all, as Fraction himself said at his SDCC spotlight panel, why does Tony Stark keep digging up mandarin oranges in Stark: Disassembled?

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.)

Five Things about SDCC 2010

We are back from SDCC. The run-up to the con was challenging; I came down with episodic vertigo about two weeks before the show, and Chad’s had a crazy work schedule. We weren’t able to come hang out with you guys on the blog, but we’re here now, I have some vacation time, and I’m starting the SDCC recap posts with five things about the first day of the con.

1. The con is better if you’re hydrated.

I know, everyone says this in all the con survival guides. They’re really not joking.

Ten days or so prior to the con, my ENT gave me some new medication and noted that I would have to drink a LOT of water and Gatorade every day to stave off annoying side effects. This was the last thing I wanted to hear, but Chad and I sucked it up, hit REI, and brought home this sexy engine of hydration:

The 2010 Camelbak Lobo

Not quite a Fremen stillsuit, but it'll do.

That’s a Camelbak Lobo, 2010 edition. Three-liter capacity, slim form factor. Best $75 I’ve ever dropped on con prep, no joke.

And yes, I named it “Rescue.” You were expecting something else?

Once you’ve sunk the initial cash on a hydration pack that will last you for several con seasons, it’s easier, cheaper, and better for the environment than it is to keep getting overpriced bottles of water at Mrs. Fields or Starbucks inside the hall. You won’t have to interrupt your con experience to go on a quest for fluids. If you’re close with your friends, they’ll appreciate the occasional hit off the supply.

Plus, Jeff Bridges wants you to stop using disposable plastic bottles. You so don’t want to upset the Dude. Or Obadiah Stane.

2. That Jeff Bridges seems like a nice guy, really.

We ran into him for five seconds outside the Flynn’s Arcade replica in the Gaslamp on Thursday morning. He said hi; he seemed fantastically happy to be at the con hanging out.

3. We really like Cliff Chiang; we especially like paying his rent, it seems.

Thursday morning’s other two big scores were a signed copy of Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang’s adaptation of Neil Young’s album “Greendale,” and, for my supervisor at work, one of Cliff’s awesome Every Night I Have the Same Dream, Issue 3 shirts from the new Threadless comics collection.

Cliff’s not only a fantastic artist, he is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet on the con floor. You should check out his work and give him money. We can’t meet all his expenses alone, no matter how hard Chad’s been trying the last couple years.

4. You should go to w00tstock.

The Department’s main obligation to the con and related events was Thursday night’s w00tstock 2.4 performance at the 4th and B; we had arranged with w00tstock Dungeon Master Liz Smith to work the merch table and assist with anything else that came up. (Thanks again, Liz! We’re glad we could help.)

Adam Savage sang “I Will Survive” in Gollum’s voice, accompanied by a Wookiee on a guitar (video by k8greenisageek on YouTube). There was a Parry Gripp video, that, well, here:

Marian Call accompanied herself on a manual typewriter (and was incredibly great to me while I worked her end of the merch table). Molly Lewis had to be escorted into and out of the venue for her performance by security because she’s not yet 21– and graciously performed an awesome all-request ninja gig outside the venue for all the other under-21 folks who were screwed by the local liquor laws. Behold these videos from Kevin Savino-Riker, who was reporting for GeekyPleasures:

Len Peralta of Geek a Week fame drew an entire concert poster in four hours from the stage:

Official w00tstock San Diego Poster

(If you have mad geek art lust, Len’s taking orders on the poster until Friday. Details are on his Flickr page; he’s also on Twitter as jawboneradio. Len and his wife Nora are completely awesome people, and they were a real pleasure to work with at the show– support them!)

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait showed us every single schlong-shaped celestial object he could think of, and then dropped a bombshell of a trailer for his new Discovery Channel show, “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe:”

That? That there is some high-end science porn, kids. You want that. Three episodes, coming this fall.

And that was, uh, about a quarter of the awesome things that went on all night. Paul and Storm, Adam Savage, and Wil Wheaton serve as the w00tstock ringleaders and assemble a crew of performers for every concert; this one was particularly epic owing to everyone having shown up for SDCC in the first place. We were on our feet and on the move from 2pm until 3:30am, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“But,” you say, “that’s not much comics content, for an ensemble performance at a comics convention. Aren’t you guys comics bloggers?”


5. Matt Fraction speaks for the comics tribe at w00tstock.

Matt Fraction thinks about process and inspiration a great deal. He presented his spoken-word piece “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines” at the Portland w00tstock earlier this year, and he did it at SDCC twice– once at w00tstock, and once as a spotlight panel at the con proper.

Unfortunately, his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick (hey, she’s writing a new book about Norman Osborn! Buy that!), has never been able to make it to one of these presentations. She’s never seen Matt bust out a bunch of raunchy jokes about Stilt-Man’s taint in front of a screaming crowd.

We had to fix that. Fortunately for you guys, the Department acquired new iPhones prior to the con, and Chad shot the following video of Matt’s “The Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines.” The HD master went to Kelly Sue, and this one is up for everyone else’s delectation:

We know the angle is suboptimal– the rule at w00tstock is “record all you want, but don’t annoy other guests,” so we shot from the side. If you need a version of the talk that is slightly different in content and has a better view of the slide show, but not as much of a view of Matt himself, Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance recorded the SDCC spotlight panel.

Watch both recordings; they have different things to offer, but Matt is saying a lot of inspirational and important things about comics here. Can we get this man a speaking gig at TED?

Tomorrow, depending on how my morning goes: Isaiah Mustafa hits the con floor; a young man from Chad’s alma mater writes a book about historical badassery; Fraction and I get in trouble on the throne of Allfather Odin, and more.

The First Impression

Set the wayback machine for May 8th, 2010. Janice and I were in Portland, OR, bombing around the city after having had  a wonderful second show of w00tstock the night before. In a failed attempt to catch up with Brian Bendis as he biked around handing out early copies of Siege #4, we found ourselves at Excalibur Comics. The disappointment of missing him was rapidly quenched by being presented with what had to be the most well-stocked comic shop I’ve ever been in. I have never seen so many trades and back issues under one roof outside of a convention. It being late afternoon on a Sunday, we were the only people there, too. Heaven.

The night before, we’d seen Matt Fraction’s w00tstock presentation. It was a fun and inspirational piece of work, and one of the things that stuck out the most for me was hearing him talking about remembering the first comics he’d ever read by their covers. At the age when a lot of us discovered comics, a great cover was an easy sell, regardless of what was contained inside. One of those covers he flipped past on the screen mid-speech was of Transformers #2:

Transformers was one of the first comic series I ever bought, so to see him present it on stage like that was personally amusing. For completion’s sake, what was the other first series I ever bought, again based almost solely on its cover?

Art Adams was completely baffled by this admission when I related it to him at SDCC one year. And yet, somehow, I didn’t become a Marvel Zombie… although the years haven’t exactly been kind to my favorite Marvel character, so it’s probably for the best.

So, cut back to Sunday afternoon at Excalibur. Once I checked the walls of trades for a few things, I turned to the rows and rows of long boxes that filled the room. It was time to play a little “I wonder if they have this?” Think of an old title, scan to its location in the stacks, repeat. I forget almost everything else I looked for- well, except for the copy of Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter #3 that I actually bought- but it wasn’t long before I went looking for the original Transformers series. They didn’t have #1, sadly (else I might’ve walked out with 1-4) but they did have #2, and so I closed the circle a bit from the night before. There are a few covers from that early TF run, though, that are just as iconic. Transformers #9 comes to mind:

I was fond of Circuit Breaker when this issue was new. Obviously, my tastes ran towards B-list Marvel characters in 1986. All the more reason it’s probably best I didn’t follow them.

There was one specific book I was looking for, though: Transformers #5. The first four issues were presented as a miniseries that left things a bit open-ended in case of a continuing series. I remember there being a pause between those first four and the rest of the series; my childhood memories make it seem like much longer than it probably was in reality. Either way, I’m guessing they needed a hook to start things back up, and boy howdy, did this next issue make a good one. Excalibur *did* have a copy of this, and I was so excited I snapped a pic and sent it to Twitter:

Three friends of mine almost immediately tweeted back approval, so I guess I’m not the only one who feels this way. The cover art, drawn and inked by Mark Bright with colors by Nelson Yomtov, was compelling; it made you want to grab the book, tear into it, and find out what the hell had happened. It went a long way towards setting the benchmark in my young mind not only for great comic art, but for great sci-fi art in general.

I didn’t grab it, for some reason. We already had about $50 of books in hand, and it was getting late. Unlike my issues of Longshot, my collection of Transformers comics didn’t survive my ascent into adulthood. I’m sure I could find a copy somewhere here in LA, and I know I could find a copy at SDCC in July. It feels unsporting somehow, though. Like it would be more earned if I managed to find my way back to Excalibur and find that copy again. More like seeing it on the rack for the first time when I was 12. That might be worth the risk.

Friday Night Videos: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Tonight’s video is “Where Was My Brain (Interface),” from The Brutalist Bricks, the new Ted Leo and the Pharmacists album. (Feel free to buy it from the Amazon MP3 store.)

So what does a DC-based postpunk act like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have to do with comics? The connection may seem tenuous, but it’s there. Leo and his band are semi-regularly featured on Tom Scharpling’s long-form comedy show, The Best Show on WFMU. The Best Show has a big following of devoted listener-callers… among them Invincible Iron Man writer and Ted Leo fan Matt Fraction.

In fact, Fraction is such a Best Show fan, he even asked Terry Dodson to draw Pixie in a “Newbridge is for Lovers” shirt in Uncanny 507, Newbridge being the fictional town where a bunch of recurring Best Show gags are set. (If you share the love, you can score your own shirt here for $16.)

Unsurprisingly, Fraction’s also got a big love for Ted Leo… and c’mon, can’t you just see this song as an anthem for Tony Stark’s resurgence in the Heroic Age? Fraction, bent over his plot outlines, mouthing the words as he forces Tony to confront his Civil War-era sins?

Yeah. That’s why this is our Friday Night Video this week. Well, that, and Leo’s playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles tomorrow night. We’ll be there, of course, thinking of Tony.

Review: Uncanny X-Men #522

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

Terry Dodson puts the focus on Kitty Pryde.


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: Invincible Iron Man #24

Invincible Iron Man 24 cover by Salvador Larocca and Rian Hughes.

Out with the new, in with the old?

“Stark: Disassembled, Part 5: •••••”

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Colorist: Frank D’Armata
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

The Marvel meta-plot of the last seven or so years hasn’t been too kind to Tony Stark. He’s been shoehorned into the role of technocratic fascist, put at the head of the charge for superhero registration, and vilified as the guy who failed to protect Earth from a Skrull invasion. He’s royally screwed up his friendships with Thor and Steve Rogers, he’s watched Norman Osborn run roughshod over the world, and he’s had to delete his own brain to escape HAMMER’s clutches.

So, what do you, as a Marvel writer, do to restore Tony’s heroic reputation after nearly a decade of mudslinging? How do you get from “universally reviled techno-fascist” to “one of the three pillars of the Heroic Age?”

If you’re Matt Fraction– and come on, you wish you were Matt Fraction– you go big. You trust in your own audacity of narrative. You do something so outrageous that it should annoy the living hell out of the fans who’ve been following the book for two years… and then you leave it on the last page and let them sweat for a month.

You also let Dr. Strange and Maria Hill rough up the Ghost a bit, just in case anyone was waiting for that. I was waiting for Pep, myself, but I’ll take Stephen instead. I’m a sucker for the sorts of characters Warren Ellis described with the line “I’m a doctor of mystery” in newuniversal.

A great deal of this issue is, of course, editorially-mandated board-shuffling before Thor, Cap, and Tony get together and sing “Kumbaya” in Avengers Prime: Siege Aftermath. The resolution of the Ghost’s plotline is necessary to move him into place for the post-SiegeThunderbolts arc, as much as it feels like a total cheat to those of us who were waiting for Pepper and JARVIS to beat hell out of the little rat bastard.

That being said, though, it’s still a gripping read. The sequences that take place within Tony’s internal landscape are gorgeously rendered, lending the proceedings an air of high fantasy. We get a little expansion on Tony’s evolving… whatever sort of romance it is… with Pepper, just enough to remind us that he’s got a lot to answer for with both Pep and Maria when he’s fully recovered. Chad points out, rightly, that the man both of them slept with in World’s Most Wanted is… not the man who’s going into the Heroic Age now, and wonders if either Pep or Maria is going to be having any of the new model.

There’s a pretty big open question of what that love triangle is going to mean for Tony’s future business affairs, too, since Pep and Maria are basically splitting the Bethany Cabe role between them at this point. Maria’s been acting in a bodyguard/ security capacity, while Pepper’s become Rescue and gotten her own Iron Man armor; both of them are sexually involved with Tony, and both of them are ambivalent about it. There’s part of me that looks forward to this book as a Pepper and Maria book more than a story about Tony some months, and I hope Fraction doesn’t move forward and drop the ball entirely on their uneasy shared story.

And yes, I’m going to sweat out the next month, trust in the synergy of the IIM creative team, and see how Tony works his way through this one. If it’s anywhere near as good as World’s Most Wanted, it’ll be well worth Fraction’s big trick this issue.

Capsule Reviews: Week of January 18th

Uncanny X-Men #520 (Marvel; Fraction, Land, Leisten, Ponsor)

As an old-school X-fan and a big Matt Fraction fan in general, I’m usually inclined to cut Uncanny a lot of slack. Dr. Nemesis and Madison Jeffries amuse me greatly, there’s a lot of love for Pixie, and watching Scott try to micromanage Erik, Charles, and Namor is always a good time. I know, I know, it’s an X-Men nostalgia trip, it can’t move the plot forward in any substantial way until Generation Lost gets underway and Hope comes back from the future… I know. It’s a book with fundamental editorial-scheduling-vs.-creator-initiative issues, and I still pick it up every month and enjoy it.

Unfortunately, this issue has problems that go beyond mandated wheel-spinning. Fraction’s juggling pretty much every mutant in the Marvel Universe these days, and the cast is straining my ability to keep track of what’s going on. #520 is no exception; I had to look up the first appearances of Verre and Burst, only to find out that they debuted a mere five issues ago in the same book. In the intervening time, I’ve already managed to lose track of who they are, what they do, and what their plot motivation is. Fraction seems to work best with a tight, close-knit cast– like his core Iron Man setup with Tony, Maria, Natasha, and Pepper– and the Nation-X concept doesn’t seem to showcase his strengths. The overall numbing effect of a never-ending firehose of mutants means I’m starting to tune out the C-list plot arcs, a decision I’m sure will come back to haunt me.

On the other hand, Magneto and Namor keep the A-plot running along nicely– they’ve come to Utopia to promote their own agendas, and if those ends don’t mesh with Scott’s plans, so much the better. Fraction obviously loves him some Namor, and I do too– the King of Atlantis is unfailingly arrogant, snidely funny, convinced of his own superiority over Scott, Erik, and anyone else in his way. For his part, Magneto is slickly disingenuous, solving problems behind Scott’s back and then returning to apologize in a way that makes his “I’m not trying to undermine you, Scott” sound like “All mutantkind’s going to be eating out of my purple-gloved hand in six months, Scott, suck it up.” This plot, at least, is worth following.

Unfortunately, Greg Land’s art is… Greg Land’s art, which other critics have panned all over the Internet. This issue, though, was the first one where I couldn’t ignore the bad design choices, weird perspectives, and stiff linework. I actually passed the book off to Chad at one point and turned to page 15, which is a particularly baffling splash page of Wolverine:

Wolverine and Psylocke vault a taxicab in NYC.

WA! It's Wolverine, Psylocke, and an unfortunate design choice.

What is that “WA” over his head? It appears to be attached to a sign (I think there’s an Aiwa sign behind that Canon sign in real life), which is all well and good, but it’s so poorly integrated into the shot that it almost passes as a sound effect. “WA!” says Wolverine, vaulting the perilous taxicab! Chad perused the image and made his own “WA” face, which I managed to capture with my phone’s camera:

Chad making the WA face.

Chad ponders the almighty WA.

Mysterious “WA” aside, there’s also a side angle on Namor where his ear appears to be attached to his head by a stalk, and a few other pictures of Logan where his mask might have been added long after the page was drawn, lending it a creepy opacity and a weird pointiness. Magneto, being a guy who habitually wears a giant bucket, is on-model more often than not, which is a relief.

Namor, from Uncanny X-Men 520, art by Greg Land.

Namor's lip is stuck to his kingly front teeth. Imperious Rex!

Oh, and there’s one panel where we’re told instead of shown that “the X-Men are kind of the coolest thing going.” Compare and contrast with Grant Morrison’s entire run building up the idea that mutants are actually tastemakers and trendsetters. Not Fraction’s best work, and certainly not Land’s.

Spider-Man: 1602 #4 of 5 (Marvel; Parker, Rosanas, Charalampidis, Bowland)

1602 proper was a tough book to like. Great art and Neil Gaiman dialogue aside, the story lapsed into incoherence by the last chapter. However, now that Gaiman’s created the universe, creators like Jeff Parker can bake us some rowdy faux-Colonial adventuring apple pie, and I’m all about pie.

Parker’s delivered the drama all along in this series– 1602 Norman Osborn has been completely, unrepentantly big-E Evil, instead of falling prey to the sort of bipolar incompetence of his 616 counterpart. He’s murdered, he’s attempted to frame Peter Parquagh for it, and he’s even given plague blankets to the natives, just in case the first two action items on his agenda weren’t evil enough. Victor Octavius is flat-out insane and keeping a captive science team comprised of the two Hanks– McCoy and Pym– in his basement to work out a cure for his condition. Peter, meanwhile, has been sent to England from the Colonies to secure Osborn’s conviction on murder charges and see him to the grave, romance Marion Jane Watsonne, and stop Octavius.

Michael Golden's cover for Spider-Man 1602 #4.

Things are getting kind of 4chan in here. Cover by Michael Golden.

It’s largely tense stuff, taking some of the brighter edge off Peter’s usual happy-go-lucky demeanor, and that approach continues in this issue, with a few familiar Spider-Man villains getting the full 1602 treatment. Given that the tech base is much less developed than that of the 616 Marvel Universe, Parker makes Osborn and Octavius into freaks of nature rather than technological terrors. The ongoing plight of Henri Pym and his wife Janette continues, although I’m starting to lose hope that Janette will ever escape from her confinement and kick some ass.

Rosanas does solid work on the art, and, really, if you like Spider-Man but can’t keep up with the 616 continuity, you’ll get just as much out of Spider-Man 1602 with much less of a reading burden.