Monday, October 31, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #606-#607: Long-Term Arrangement

** (two of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "Pretty rude of him not to spill the master plan when he thought we were going to die.  I don't think he read the handbook."  -- the Black Cat, on Diablo

Summary
Spidey stops a mugger and encounters the Black Cat in the process (after her bad-luck powers short-circuit his Web-Shooters while he's swinging the mugger around town).  Spidey discovers that the Cat was in the process of breaking into Dexter Bennett's safe, in which the duo discover a guy whose intestines have been turned into granite.  (No joke.)  The body then explodes, sending explosive spikes throughout the room.  (Seriously, not kidding.)  Diablo appears and chases the duo from the apartment.  (Felicia doesn't reveal why she was there in the first place and for whom she's working.)  With nothing better to do, they wind up sneaking into an empty hotel room and, well, you know.  (They do it in the dark, by the way, so Felicia doesn't accidentally see Peter's face and remember who Spidey is.)  The next day, Spidey confronts Bennett, showing him a picture of the guy in the safe.  Bennett reveals it's an old business partner.  Bennett became a silent partner when the guy bought some material at a discounted rate, without telling Bennett beforehand.  Spidey realizes Bennett hadn't known that the guy's corpse had been in his safe.  At a building owned by the old business partner, Spidey again encounters the Cat, where they again encounter Diablo, who has frozen all the workers and is going through old files.  Diablo escapes and Spidey and the Cat realize that it was Diablo who supplied the "discounted material," which was actually steel meant to dissolve now.  The reason?  The companies in the building the old business partner built with the dissolving steel all had large insurance policies, which Diablo (presumably) bought for pennies on the dollar when the building was new.  (He wanted Bennett and the old business partner dead so they couldn't connect the material to him.)  Spidey and the Cat have a talk and decide to try to keep their "relationship" loose.  The issue ends with Kraven's daughter approaching Diablo on behalf of her mother.

Review
The Cat is Back!  To be honest, I don't know what to make of this arc.  Some of it -- like the misogyny -- sucked.  Some of it -- like the Felicia -- was awesome.

The Good
I heart the Black Cat.  Srsly.  Actually, she's my earliest comic memory.  "Amazing Spider-Man" #227 was my first comic book, and it features the Black Cat.  She's pretty much my definition of awesome.  I'm thrilled to see her return.  However, I was a little disappointed with the way Kelly handles her here (particularly the way he handles the "sexy talk;" see below), but I do like that Kelly gets how the Cat is a calming influence on Peter.  We see him happy here, despite being in the middle of serious girl drama (which I'm also not thrilled by the way Kelly handles), and it's great to see that.

The Meh
The sex conversations between Peter and Felicia (and Spider-Man and the Black Cat) were a mixed bag.  For example, I never, ever, EVER want to hear Spider-Man refer to the Black Cat's breasts as "the kittens" again.  EVER.  A lot of their exchanges were equally badly juvenile.  (I mean, I'm not a prude.  I would've enjoyed artfully juvenile sex talk.)  To be fair, Peter has always been kind of juvenile about sex.  But, a lot of it seemed more Kelly's inability to write conversations about sex than a deliberate attempt to mimic Peter's juvenile sex banter.  That said, some of it wasn't bad at all.  I liked the last page of issue #606, with Peter allowing himself to become all body and not all mind.  I thought that represented a great moment of Peter allowing himself to be Peter for the first time in a while.  I also thought their conversation at the start of issue #607, with Felicia asking Peter to wait until the sun rose for them to be "grown-ups," was poignant.  As I said, it was a mixed bag, so I'm giving it a meh.

The Bad
1) The misogyny was a little OTT here.  Actually, it was a lot OTT.  The comment about coffee being invented so that men could deal with women in the morning?  WTF?  I don't believe for a minute that Peter would actually think that.  Kelly -- like Van Lente before -- portrays Michele as totally insane, to such a point that you wonder why she hasn't been committed.  Kelly, however, adds Norah to the "women acting insane" act, having her inexplicably burst into their apartment to deciding she urgently needs a hug from Peter since she feels like a coward for sitting on the Osborn story...for weeks.  Um, yeah.  Kelly even has Peter refer to how all the "females" in his life were crazy.  This whole "crazy, swinging Peter Parker" storyline could've been done a LOT better, with more interesting dramatic tension than "crazy females."  Both Waid, Van Lente, and Kelly need to go to a corner (as Spidey tells the Cat to do) and to think about how to write modern female characters.

2) Reading issue #606, it sounded like Felicia had re-learned who Peter was, making me wonder if it happened in yet another side-project.  I mean, she says "...The second I saw you, even though I forgot who you are under that mask...it all came rushing back."  It sounds like what happened with the Fantastic Four when, the minute Spidey unmasked, they remembered everything.  The lack of clarity comes, I think, from the ambiguous wording of the sentence.  "Forgot" is in the past tense there, so I wasn't sure if she was talking about now (referring to the ten-minutes ago past) or a while ago (referring to a past possibly depicted in a side project in which she saw Spider-Man again for the first time in a while AND then learned who he was).  It became clear in issue #607 that she meant the ten-minutes ago past and didn't know who he was/is.  She's actually fairly nonchalant about it (unlike Johnny Storm), which makes me feel like some side project addressed the fact that she no longer knew his identity.  Re-reading the last few sentences, I feel even more confused than I already was.  At any rate, we keep suffering from this sort of problem, the Mephisto deal hangover, particularly with people finding out Spidey's identity in other books and the Mephisto deal itself being complicated by some cover story regarding a mindwipe (that Peter may or may not know is a cover story).  Anyway, it's all confusing, and they need to bring this whole issue of who knows and who doesn't know to a close.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Comics!: The Avengers Edition (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Avengers #18:  This issue serves more or less as a sequel to "New Avengers" #16.1, showing us a former S.H.I.E.L.D. forensics expert, Dr. Carolina Washington, providing biological samples she stole from superhero crime scenes to Norman Osborn, who re-took control of H.A.M.M.E.R. in the aforementioned issue.  Bendis uses an interesting device here to build the story (and tension), showing Washington stealing the samples from the scenes of Goliath's and Captain America's murders during the Civil War and from Central Park after the final battle of the Skrull Invasion.  I thought it was a clever way to demonstrate that "Fear Itself" is just the most recent in a long string of terrible events that have created a sense of doom and gloom among the heroes.  (Thing speaks to this fact as well when he notes that it's been "a really crappy year," referring of course to Johnny Storm's death in addition to the matter at hand, his destruction of Avengers Tower.)

I have two complaints about this issue, though.  One, I don't believe for a minute that Luke Cage and Jessica Jones would complain about the fact that some of the Avengers were going to have to stay temporarily in the Mansion.  Second, and most importantly, in perhaps the best example of pet peeve #1 ever, we don't get what seemingly is promised on the cover, the resolution of who will be an Avenger.  Cap alludes to the need to make a decision at the end of the issue, but no decisions are actually made.  I've been hoping that Bendis would pare down the roster for months (maybe Ms. Marvel, Spidey, and Wolverine could actually chose between the two teams) so that we could begin seeing coherent teams.  The beauty of the Avengers has always been the dynamics of the team, but it's hard to get a strong sense of that when you're dealing with a 25+ person roster where everyone gets one or two panels of witty banter an issue, if they're lucky.  I think going toe-to-toe with Norman Osborn and H.A.M.M.E.R. would be a great team-building exercise, if Bendis actually gets the rosters under control.  (Maybe I'll find out who Squid Lady is...)

New Avengers #17:  OK, as promised at the end of last issue, it looks like this year is all about H.A.M.M.E.R.  Just as "Avengers" #17 appeared to flow from "New Avengers"# 16.1, this issue seems to flow from "Avengers" #17, with Osborn and his crew seeking to continue collecting items from the superhero community, in the form of Stark's armor and Wolverine's blood.  (Osborn fails to get the former, but does get the latter.)  It's unclear whether Osborn is planning on creating his own U-Men or something more sinister, but I think Bendis is on the right track here in building the mystery and keeping Norman sinister.  In another pet peeve #2 moment this month, we see Daredevil on the cover here, but he doesn't appear anywhere in the book.  Given that he had an entire issue dedicated to him in "New Avengers" #16, you'd think he would actually appear at some point.  Of course, considering that we already have a nine-person squad AND Iron Man and War Machine in play in this issue, I can understand why Bendis found it hard to work him into the script.  Overall, I was pretty pleased with this issue and the direction Bendis seems to be going.  I was a little surprised to hear that the Hand and HYDRA had thrown in their lot with Osborn, though it makes sense.  (We saw A.I.M. involved with H.A.M.M.E.R. last issue.  But, I feel like I missed something with the addition of the Hand and HYDRA.  Is Squid Lady attached to one of those groups?)  Now, as I mentioned above, if he could just pare down the teams a bit, I'd be a happy camper.

New Comics: The X-Edition

X-Factor #226:  OMG, I love so many things about this issue I have to number them:

1) The Night Shift arc of "Avengers West Coast" was one of my favorite ones in the entire run.  I love the fact that David brought back Hangman.  This arc just gets more and more intriguing.

2) Peter gives us so much character development here I can hardly stand it!  I loved everything about the Rictor/Shatterstar troubles.  I loved Layla telling Star not to act on his insecurities over whether Julio stll needs him, I loved Theresa (correctly) telling Julio he's more of an ass now that his powers have returned, I loved Layla essentially agreeing to be a pawn in their relationship to get Julio to see what an ass he's being, I loved Julio and Star fighting in the middle of a hunt.  Similarly, the religion "discussion" between Monet and Theresa was extremely well-handled.  Moreover, I loved that, when Madrox asked for an update on the search, everyone reported back their personal problems as if he were the dad.  Only Peter David could turn a search for a serial killer into an episode of a soap opera!

3) Longshot engages in a pratfall and finds a SAG card?  Brilliant.

X-Men #19:  Meh.  For an arc that had a lot of promise, I finished this issue kind of disappointed.  Gischler uses a lot of really clichéd dialogue to guide the interaction between the various characters, which detracted from the awesomeness of some of the pairings.  Emma Frost was pretty much the highlight of the arc for me, mainly because I love Gischler's take on her.  (I need to subscribe to Radio Frost.)  Plot-wise, everything was more or less predictable.  By the beginning of last issue, you pretty much knew how this arc was going to end, and Gischler didn't throw in any surprises to draw you back into the story.  So, meh.  I like the focus of this series, the X-Men interacting with the rest of the Marvel Universe, though the Spider-Man crossover, so far, is really the only one that got top marks in my book.  We'll see if War Machine can fare better than the FF. 

X-Men Legacy #257:  I feel like this arc has been happening forever, mainly because Carey seems to be recycling events that have already happened.  Rachel already defeated Friendless, but now he's back and they're fighting again.  Sorel already proved he was a scoundrel, but now he's acting like a scoundrel again.  Same plot, different issue.  I'm not sure why Sorel waited until now to teleport the length of the space station to steal the gravity device; it seems like something that would've been better done when everyone was fighting a few issues ago.  I also just can't get all that excited over a villain like Friendless.  I'm just hoping we leave space soon so we see how Alex, Lorna, and Rachel are going to fit in the new X-Men reality.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New Comics!: The "Fear Itself" Edition

Fear Itself #7:  OK, so, first:  The other day, I was going through my collection and ran across the recent "Avengers" issues where they fight the Hood after he steals the Infinity Gems.  I found myself instantly thinking, "Um, wouldn't now be a good time to go get them?"  "Siege" was such a great event because it built on years of story lines, such as "Civil War," "Secret Invasion," etc.  As such, it had a plot that didn't feel manufactured just for the event.  Everyone had watched Norman Osborn consolidate his power over a period of years.  We didn't just suddenly find him in charge of U.S. security.  Moreover, the ending of the event made sense.  The Sentry died and Norman Osborn went to jail.  The death of the Sentry felt pretty permanent, since he was a minor enough character to merit a long-lasting death.  Although you knew Norman would eventually free himself from jail, he at least was going to have to spend some time there cooling his jets.  The problem with the Infinity Gems story and "Fear Itself," however, is that they're random, discrete events that come and go.  As such, when you're reading the latest iteration of this sort of story, it's incredibly frustrating that the previous ones seemingly didn't happen.  Why didn't Cap say, "Hey, Tony, didn't we have the power to control reality a few months ago?"  The answer is that, unlike "Siege," "Fear Itself" doesn't build off previous events, so it's like the Inifinity Gems story never happened.  As such, when I saw the Infinity Gems issues, it was just a reminder of why this mini-series fell totally flat.  Despite assurances to the contrary, it was all meant to be temporary.

Turning to the issue at hand, as "Fear Itself" issues go, this one actually isn't bad.  It had some really great moments, like Cap picking up Thor's hammer, which even my Fraction-hating self had to admit was pretty cool, and an amped-up Widow screaming "Who's next?!"  I thought it was clever that the weapons Tony created went to eight Avengers, creating his own Worthy to combat the Serpent's.  (How bad-ass did Spidey look?)  I also liked how Odin banned the gods from Asgard, creating his own private memorial in which he alone will dwell.  The story ended as Fraction essentially told us it was going to end, with Thor sacrificing his life to stop the Serpent.  End scene.

This series, as we all understood it, was about tying together Captain America and Thor to take advantage of interest in the comics that came from their movies this summer.  So, Marvel does that by killing them?  As I expected would happen after the events of issue #3, I ended this series wondering how quickly it will all be retconned.  How long before artists stop drawing the crack in Cap's shield?  (It doesn't appear in his new series, which we're lead to believe happens after "Fear Itself.")  We already don't see anyone referring to a destroyed New York, Las Vegas, Paris, or Washington in the series that have moved past "Fear Itself."  (Manhattan doesn't suddenly go boom in the middle of "Spider-Island.")  How long before Thor (and hopefully Bucky) is resurrected?  How long before the various series Marvel is launching in the wake of "Fear Itself" are canceled?  I'm pretty sure that Sin will quickly get over her desire to dominate the Universe, because, unless she's going to gain the power of the Worthy again, it's not like she's all that powerful.  After "The Fearless," she's probably just going to be Sin again, with an occasional passing reference to her former deity-hood.

In other words, how long before this series is as meaningless as Fraction promised us it wouldn't be?  To my mind, at the end of the day, it was a colossal failure of imagination compounded by a marketing department run completely wild.  It hijacked almost every Marvel series I read and not a single one was better for it.  The fact that they're giving us three epilogues AND a maxi-series?  Unbelievable, actually.  Please, please Marvel, give us at least two or three years before you try doing so again.

Fear Itself:  The Home Front #7:  OK, I've been pretty down on the latest installments of this series, but this one isn't too bad.  Gage pulls out a decent ending to the Speedball story.  I actually got a little misty eyed over the conversation he had with Meredith, given that it seems to put the events of Stamford (the first time) firmly behind him.  The "Citizens of Broxton, OK" story was also good.  I had already read the adventures of, "Rick.  Just Rick." in "Fear Itself" #7 and found it to be one of the few moments of actual emotion in the entire series.  I enjoyed seeing a little more what went into his thought process here.  The faux Young Avengers story and the "Another Moment With..." story were as terrible as they've always been, but at least we get two decent stories in this issue (possibly for the first time). 

Fear Itself:  Youth in Revolt #6:  This title was one of the better "Fear Itself" tie-in series, particularly among the series created just for the event.  I liked how McKeever showed a group of ambivalent and/or wounded young heroes struggling with their insecurities and troubles to try to help people.  McKeever also made them make real decisions in the face of tough challenges, rather than giving them some easy way to resolve their immediate problems (such as Hardball having to take lives in Vegas to save the city and Prodigy having to allow Thor Girl to be arrested in order to quiet the mobs).  However, this issue unfortunately undoes some of that good work.

Throughout the series, I was confused why exactly the authorities tortured Thor Girl when she was in their custody.  McKeever seemed to be hinting at some larger plot where aspects of the government were supporting the Serpent (or using the chaos he was causing to advance their own secret agenda).  However, he never really went anywhere with that plot.  In the end, it wound up being a relevant point, because this whole issue turns on how Thor Girl holds Prodigy personally responsible for her imprisonment and, in her effort to get vengeance, winds up taking on the assembled superheroes.  McKeever portrays Thor Girl as almost completely irrational here, so it's hard to exactly feel sympathetic for her, even if understood what she was saying when she was saying it.  He also uses her departure as the deus ex machina needed to save the heroes stuck underground.  It's unfortunate, because it detracts from the sense he had built for most of the series that actions would have consequences.  Similarly, we see Hardball face no real repercussions for killing people in Vegas; in fact, McKeever seems to back away a bit form that event, having Hardball comment that few people died.  Conversely, Prodigy, who always seemed the coolest character of the bunch, gets pretty summarily dismissed, despite his efforts to hold the line during the entire conflict.

It's an unfortunate weak ending to a good mini-series I thought held a lot of promise and would serve as a staging ground for some of the more promising characters.  I'll keep my eyes open for them the next few months, because I don't want this series to fade into the background like the rest of "Fear Itself" will.

"Dark Reign: Mr. Negative" #1-#3

**** (four of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "Aahhh...using a street-light to take out Lightmaster.  'It's like rain on your wedding day!'"  -- a corrupted Spidey, who still has excellent taste in music despite being, you know, evil

Summary
The White Dragon tries to shake down Mr. Negative, telling him he has to turn over 65 percent of his profits to the Hood.  Instead, Mr. Negative corrupts him and sends him to attack the Hood in his hideout.  Meanwhile, Betty Brant exposits Martin Li's history:  he was the only survivor of a ship of smuggled Chinese immigrants that ran ashore outside New York City, who later converted his Chinatown garment shop into a financial empire and became one of the nation's leading philanthropists.  However, Betty discovers, on a deep background trip to his home province in China, that Li has a secret:  his wife is living in close to poverty in Chinatown.  The Hood uses his connection to Osborn to get H.A.M.M.E.R. to lock down Chinatown and sends in a bunch of his B- and C-list hoods to take down Mr. Negative's operations.  Aunt May is on the phone with Martin Li when he breaks off communication to address the issue and calls Peter in her worry.  Spidey goes to rescue Li, who instead corrupts him, just as the Hood's squad arrives at his front door.  Spidey makes quick work of the B- and C-list hoods and Mr. Negative sends Hammerhead on a special mission to deliver a canister to Norman Osborn.  Betty visits Li's wife and is close to her revealing her secret before she instead flees.  Betty follows her to Martin Li's home, where Li's wife tells Mr. Negative that she didn't tell Betty anything.  Mr. Negative sends Spidey to take care of Betty while he then battles the Hood.  Betty escapes Spidey and finds Mrs. Li, who tells her that the Martin Li the world knows is not her husband.  Meanwhile, Mr. Negative exposits his story to the Hood, revealing that he was in fact one of the smugglers (not smuggled) on the doomed ship, and he stole the Li identity from one of the victims who died in the crossing.  Spidey threatens to kill Betty until Peter recognizes her and shakes off the corruption.  The Hood is called by Osborn, who tells him to call off his attack, later revealing that the canister that Hammerhead couriered contained proof of Oscorp's experimentation on the illegal Chinese workers.  As such, Osborn agrees to let Mr. Negative keep operating.  Betty eventually visits Li at the site of reconstruction of many of his properties, where he reveals his plans to rebuild so he can keep doing good.

The Review
This mini-series is awesome.  Seriously, it's fast-paced and action-packed.  It keeps you guessing and makes you think.  But, I don't understand one thing:  why wasn't this story told in "Amazing Spider-Man?"  I read this mini-series two years after it was published, because I hadn't realized it existed at the time I was making my way through the "Amazing Spider-Man" back issues.  A lot of the questions that nagged me about Mr. Negative (though not all, I'll note) are answered in this mini-series.  I don't understand why the editors decided to shunt so many of the new characters introduced in "Brand New Day" outside "Amazing Spider-Man."  For example, Jackpot is handled almost entirely outside the core series:  she's killed in Annual #35 and her replacement (or predecessor, depending on how you look at it) is active only in her own three-issue mini-series.  Did they just wind up being too ambitious so they had to move these stories to the side?  Anyway, I hated pretty much everything about Fred Van Lente's run on the core series, but he's pretty great here, so it's a shame I didn't get to see this side of his talent earlier.  If, like me, you haven't read this mini-series because you didn't know about it, I highly recommend it.

The Good
1) Van Lente clears up A LOT about Mr. Negative here.  We discover that he was actually a human smuggler who took on the identity of one of his victims (who had died in transit).  It's revealed that he got his powers as part of the same Maggia-sponsored testing done on Cloak and Dagger (a brilliant twist), which also explains his vendetta against the Maggia.  We even get confirmation that Oscorp was experimenting on the Chinese sweat-shop workers, revealing that they appear to have been, in fact, the same groups of people as the ones freed by Spider-Man during "New Ways to Die!"  (See "Amazing Spider-Man Extra!" #2 for my questions about that.  Also:  man, Norman Osborn is a bastard.)  I still don't understand why these revelations come here and not in the core title, but at least we got 'em!

2) The series is really well paced.  It never got dull and it never moved too fast.

3) Norman's interaction with the kid who has to go potty is just effing brilliant.  Applause, Mr. Van Lente, applause.

4) Gugliotta's art is beautiful.  If only he drew Spidey more often!

The Bad
1) Some questions still remain, however.  We know that Martin Li, garment-factory owner, was not actually Martin Li, Mr. Negative.  However, it seems a stretch to make us believe that a small-time human smuggler really embraced his role as a garment-factory owner and converted himself into a billionaire.  I mean, sure, it's America, but it still seems a lot for us to believe.  Even if he was supplementing his income with his illegal activities as Mr. Negative, the core business' books would have to be somewhat clean or someone would've discovered the truth.

2) it had previously seemed that Martin Li might have been aware that he was Mr. Negative (see "New Ways to Die!" and "Amazing Spider-Man:  Extra!" #2) but the ending of this issue makes it seem like he didn't know (though Mr. Negative knows about Martin Li).  I don't know if I buy this whole "do good, do evil" dual-personality schtick.  It's an interesting concept, but I'm not sure Van Lente totally sells it here.

3) So, what does Betty write?  After learning that Martin Li isn't Martin Li, she appears really chummy with him at the end.  She seems to imply that she's going to write what she's learned, but I don't think we ever see the end result in "Amazing Spider-Man."  It seems weird that her investigation into Martin Li is basically the framework for the issue, but then we just kind of drop it at the end.

4) Mr. Negative expositing his origin to the Hood was a little eye-roll inducing, but it's hard to hold it against Van Lente, since it's not like he's the only one guilty of it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New Comics!: The X-Edition

X-Men:  Schism #5:  OK, as I've mentioned before, my problem with this series is that I don't buy Logan's sudden conversion to pacifism.  Aaron is a talented enough writer that he almost sells it to me here.  I could see where Logan hearing Idie explaining that she's OK with being a killer because she already feels like a monster as a mutant would inspire him to feel like they were failing the next generation.  I get that.  Although the conversation happens after the main events of this issue, I'm willing to see it as the most clear expression of what Wolverine's main argument has been throughout the series, that the adults were not preparing the children for the real world at all.  Again, I buy that.

At the end of the day, though, the question is whether or not I buy it enough to believe that Scott and Logan would be wrestling on Utopia's beach trying to kill one another while a Sentinel loomed over them trying to kill them.  Ultimately, no, I don't.  It would all make more sense if it were just a personality dispute between Cyclops and Wolverine, something that wouldn't have even raised an eyebrow for almost all of the X-Men's history, with the exception of the last few years.  But, Aaron's attempt to make it philosophical, not personal, just doesn't work for me.  I just can't believe that it's Cyclops advocating a line like, "Everyone is a soldier." and Wolverine is left yelling, "Would someone think of the children?"  It all feels like the '90s again, when I stopped reading comics, because new super-star authors took over books and changed everyone's personalities.  Logan might believe they could do better training the younger generation and shouldn't be hurling them into the world so unprepared.  But, would he really believe they should sit out fighting for Utopia when they were the only weapons available?  No, he wouldn't.  Storm?  Yes.  Logan?  No.

As such, I'm left only looking forward, since this series is more about the coming days than it is about the events that got us there.  Based on the images I've seen, I'm confused by who chooses which side and why.  For example, it looks like Storm picked Scott's team.  Really?  At the end of "Messiah Complex," wasn't she the one who told Logan they were sharing their last beer because she disapproved of his advocacy of pre-emptive lethal strikes against enemies?  Wouldn't she fully embrace Logan's position?  I mean, Beast and Shadowcat make sense.  But, why would Storm chose the more aggressive side?  Also, some people, like Hope, Kenji, and Psylocke appear to be on both sides.  How does that work?  Are they double agents?  I'm hoping that the four issues previewed at the back of this issue -- "X-Men:  Regenesis," "Uncanny X-Men #544," "Wolverine and the X-Men" #1, and "Uncanny X-Men" #1 -- actually give us some insights into the thought processes of the B- and C-list characters.  I'd like to see an X-Man like Iceman, whose allegiance wasn't as predictable to me, explain why he chose Wolverine over Cyclops.  If we see that in these issues, then I might feel better about "X-Men:  Schism" and what Aaron did here, even if I thought the road that got us there paved over some uncomfortable truths.  But, if we don't, it'll all feel exactly like what it is, a way for Marvel to get me to buy more comics. 

(P.S.  I have to say that, although I still think the kid angle is a tired trick, I thought the reveal that the Hellfire Club manufactured this event to sell new Sentinels was genius.  Full applause, Jason Aaron.) 

(P.P.S. When exactly did "X-Men:  Prelude to Schism" happen, given that none of the people, except Wolverine, who were shown in the room waiting for Cyclops' decision were on Utopia and conscious when the Sentinel struck?  Am I missing something?)

Uncanny X-Men #484-#486: "The Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire:" Parts 10-12

Uncanny X-Men #484:  After nine issues, Brubaker does a great job here of maintaining a certain level of tension, building anticipation for the denouement.  Through his conversation with Darwin, Vulcan is portrayed as more or less firmly accepting the dark side, if you will.  Meanwhile, the X-Men are a mess.  Rachel is conflicted over her emotions toward Korvus, while at the same time embracing killing when it comes to seeking revenge on the Shi'Ar.  Brubaker blows past that, but you have to wonder how different from Vulcan she is, given that they're both killing people in revenge.  Alex and Lorna, both under stress, embrace old habits.  Only Nightcrawler and Warpath have gotten to this point relatively unscathed, so you know something's going to happen to them at some point.  (As someone said in one of the letters columns in this run, Brubaker clearly enjoys writing Warpath.)  The meandering Professor X sub-plot finally found a point, with Xavier serving as bait for Lilandra.  The next two issues should be epic.

Uncanny X-Men #485:  This issue descends into chaos pretty quickly, as everyone's plans don't exactly go the way they thought they would.  The Starjammers arrive earlier than D'Ken and his cronies thought they would, disrupting the wedding celebrations of Deathbird and Vulcan (though, importantly, not the wedding itself).  Vulcan gets his revenge on D'Ken, as we all knew he would, claiming the throne for himself.  Corsair sees just how insane his son has become, and Alex realizes that Vulcan has to be stopped.  The only off-note in this whole story, for me, continues to be the Xavier sub-plot.  Although I get the symmetry of, as Vulcan says, Vulcan trapping Xavier in a rock, I still don't know if I buy that they would go through the trouble of staging a public execution, rather than just kill him.  The only reason would be that they're using him as bait for Lilandra (which they are), but, if they're using him for bait, then I don't know why Vulcan would be surprised when the Starjammers arrived when they did.  After all, they would clearly need Xavier still alive to be successful bait, meaning they anticipated the Starjammers would arrive before they would throw Xavier into the M'Kraan Crystal.  But, Vulcan expresses frustration over not having gotten his revenge against Xavier when the Starjammers arrive.  Confusing.  Moreover, I still don't understand why Corsair and Ka'Ardum allow themselves to agree with Lilandra's plan to go after Charles.  Corsair implies that it's to prevent D'Ken from doing something more with the Crystal than imprisoning Xavier, but I'm not sure exactly what. 

Uncanny X-Men #486:  Wow.  OK, I think Brubaker really accomplishes here what he intended to do, bring all existing plots and sub-plots to their logical conclusions.  First, the death of Corsair isn't meaningless here.  It shows just how far gone Vulcan is.  Vulcan didn't agree to become part of the Shi'Ar royal family just because he needed to belong and wanted D'Ken's acceptance.  He always intended to kill D'Ken; it's only by becoming Emperor that he would get the acceptance he needed and, wow, talk about an ego, that you need to rule an Empire just to feel accepted.  As such, Corsair was never going to be able to save Vulcan, something Alex always knew.  Vulcan slaying Corsair just underlined this fact and represented the death of the idea that Vulcan could be reformed.  Lilandra is a total mess here and, to be honest, you almost see the Chancellor's point in deciding to overthrow her.  She just makes one series of bad decisions after another, all in the name of saving Charles.  She's largely just as petulant a child as Vulcan is, if less lethal.  The ending really works, with Alex deciding to take up the helm of the Starjammers and defeat Vulcan.  I'm excited about reading "X-Men:  Emperor Vulcan," because I think it'll avoid some of the pitfalls of this 12-issue arc.  That said, I think Brubaker managed to deliver a great conclusion to this long arc.

Final Thoughts:  This arc definitely had some weak moments, but, overall, I think Brubaker told an amazingly epic story that will be remembered by fans for a long time.  Although some of the sub-plots were confusing at times, Brubaker did actually more or less resolve them all in a way that made sense and (for the most part) didn't feel forced.  The Blade of the Phoenix sub-plot, to me, was the most well done, particularly because it gave us the awesome new character of Korvus.  I found the Professor X sub-plot to be the weakest link, mostly because it was the only one to feel forced, given that it's whole purpose was just to give D'Ken bait for Lilandra.  The Secret Order sub-plot didn't feel forced, since, as I said, I more or less agree with the Chancellor that Lilandra is unfit for the throne, but it was a little muddled.  I wasn't sure, from time to time, who was doing what on whose orders.  But, the good news is that, even when I was confused or doubtful, it was rarely because I questioned the characters' motivations.  Brubaker did a great job of keeping everyone true to their character, a real marvel when, by the end, he's juggling 15 characters or so.

Moving past the specifics and focusing on the overall story, Brubaker really tells a class tale here of revenge and how it twists those seeking it.  Besides the obvious example of Vulcan, we see Rachel mirror his descent into blood-lust as the arc progresses.  Moreover, beyond those seeking revenge, almost everyone involved in the arc finds him- or herself morally compromised.  Alex and Lorna commit themselves to killing Vulcan, breaking the cardinal rule of the X-Men (as Alex himself notes).  Lilandra makes a series of bad decisions in the attempt to save Charles, costing the life of Corsair (not to mention the Shi'Ar troops fighting on her side).  Xavier has once again led a personally-driven mission that results in him having blood on his hands and leaves his charges emotionally scarred.  It's not often that you see these sorts of dark turns of events in a Marvel comic, and I applaud Brubaker for avoiding wrapping up the story in a nice, neat bow and for making sure that the events have real, tangible effects on the characters.  At the end of the day, the X-Men's mission -- to stop and, hopefully, to redeem Vulcan -- failed.  You don't see that every day.

All in all, it's a great arc that presents a different take on the X-Men than we normally see.  It merits a read for anyone who enjoys intergalactic X-Men stories.

(P.S.:  If you enjoyed "Rise and Fall," check out "What If?  X-Men - Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire."  I actually bought it years ago and read it without having read "Rise and Fall."  I, obviously, likely understood few of the references, particularly because they involve nods to "Annihilation" in addition to "Rise and Fall."  But, in some ways, the ending is a more satisfying emotional conclusion to the arc than the real ending.  I won't spoil it if you haven't already read it, but I'd recommend it to anyone that really enjoyed this arc.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Comics! (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Batman #1:  Not surprisingly, Snyder does great work here.  First, we get a pretty soft reboot.  Unlike "Detective Comics," this issue essentially feels like issue #714.  The only difference that really leapt off the page for me (other than, obviously, Bruce now being the sole Batman of Gotham) was that everyone appears younger.  Bruce appears to be roughly Dick's age, Dick appears to be roughly Tim's age, etc.  In theory, the reboot didn't change the time frame of the DC Universe, so it could've just been the way Capullo drew them.  But, we saw something similar in "Brand New Day" in "Amazing Spider-Man," where no one, in theory, was de-aged, but, in practice, everyone looked and acted younger.  (Aunt May probably lost a good 20 years.)  I'll be looking for clues in the upcoming issues to see whether or not DC is going for something similar here.

Other than that, though, Snyder seems to do everything he can to assure us everything is more or less business as usual in the Bat-Universe, with a few tweaks and nips here and there.  We get a snarky Damian and astute Tim greeting Bruce and Dick, a Jim Gordon still shocked by the way the city corrupts even the good, and a cranky Bullock working with Bats because he wants to solve a crime, not because he's particularly happy about it.  (I was a little surprised that Alfred got the "highest" rating for access level, but, when you think about it, it is totally true.)  Snyder also gives us the scene in the Wayne Manor hallway with the four guys to stress that these relationships, which are the bedrock of the series, haven't changed.

Of course, he then raises the question that maybe, in fact, they have changed with the last page of the issue.  The only problem, though, is that I don't buy, for a minute, that Dick is trying to kill Bruce.  I mean, unless they're going to cancel "Nightwing" after five issues because Dick goes to jail, I think it's unlikely it's him.  I think Snyder knows that everyone would see through that, so I'm confused why he would set up a dramatic reveal that isn't so dramatic once you think about it for 30 seconds.  Moreover, I'm pretty skeptical of the way the clue was delivered.  I really don't buy that the victim of the crime we see in this issue would've known he was going to die on a specific day, known when the assassin was planning on killing Wayne, and used paint thinner to spell out the mystery.  Um, why not just call the cops?  Or, better yet, Wayne?  Clearly something else is happening, and I trust Snyder to get us there in a truly spectacular way.  But, he loses some points for setting up a dramatic cliff-hanger that isn't all that dramatic and an overly complicated crime scene that really defies belief.  But, I'm still intrigued by who the killer really is and why s/he might be gunning for Bruce.  (I'm guessing, if he's anything like other mayors, candidate March might somehow be involved.)  We shall see.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed the issue.  Dick posing as the Joker in Arkham was awesome.  I had no idea where Snyder was going with the Batman/Joker team-up, and I'm glad he left us hanging for a few pages.  I also liked the interaction between Bruce and Dick in the Batcave.  First, we see Bruce gruffly tell Dick not to bother him while he's working, which Dick questions, forcing Bruce to reveal what he's doing.  Second, we see Dick seeking some sort of approval for his "performance," which Bruce begrudgingly gives him, and Bruce referring to Dick's time in Arkham as a sort of vacation, which Dick thinks is just stereotypical Bruce.  In just those few panels, Snyder captures the warmth and tension of their relationship.  Bruce acts distant, Dick uses humor (and directness) to provoke him, and they meet somewhere in the middle.  I can't wait to see Snyder develop it further.  To that point, I'm also glad we see Dick (and Damian and Tim) in this issue.  Snyder seems to be implying that he's not going to write Bruce as a loner, given that he uses Dick as a colleague here.  I hope that's true, because, again, it's the relationships between them all that keep me buying these books every month.

Looking ahead, despite some reservations about the aforementioned negatives, Snyder does what he needed to do in this issue, laying out a really solid foundation for the coming stories.  By using Bruce's speech about the question "Gotham is...?" as a frame for the story -- and contrasting the hopeful rhetoric Bruce delivers at the speech with the brutal images Batman encounters on the streets -- Snyder is continuing the work he did on "Detective Comics," portraying a complicated and dark Gotham City that defies categorization and infects everyone.  We also see a more high-tech Bruce than we've seen before, with his fancy contact lenses, the new E.M.P. mask, the holographic Gotham map, etc.  It's going to take Snyder a few issues to get his groove and get over the forced reboot-related exposition, but I'm really excited by what he does with Bruce Wayne, given what he previously did with Dick Grayson. 

Nightwing #1:  OK, so, Higgins dispatches with the most important question here on the first page, confirming that Dick spent the last year acting as Batman while "Bruce Wayne was...away."  With that, Higgins proceeds to give us essentially a coda to Scott Snyder's run on "Detective Comics," having Dick ruminate on the theme that Snyder used throughout the run, of how Gotham changed him (for the better and the worse).  Higgins has a good ear for Dick's internal monologue, giving us a fairly loose narration with a lot of charm and wit.  I liked how Higgins isn't just ignoring the year Dick spent as Batman, instead using it as the centerpiece of the issue to show that Dick is more confident than he used to be.  I also thought the decision to make the first issue involve Haley's Circus was a good one, giving us a rumination on Dick's past that we probably need for new readers before we can move down different avenues.  I have three small complaints, though.  One, I think Higgins went a little overboard on the narration, veering too often into the "tell instead of show" category.  Second, I think Dick is a little TOO confident here at time, when he's talking about how awesome he is.  Higgins is setting up Dick for a fall, but Dick has been playing this game WAY too long to be as sure of himself (and his infallibility) as he is depicted here.  Finally, if the new villain winds up being Marc, I'm warning you right now be prepared for some serious eye-rolling.  I'm not sure if we're supposed to think it's him or the person who got off the bus and killed the two muggers.  That said, it seems that this issue might tie into the events of "Batman" #1, with Dick Grayson being "the fiercest killer in all of Gotham" despite apparently not knowing he is.  I was a little concerned when I saw Higgins on the title, since I found "Batman:  Gates of Gotham" to be pretty hit or miss.  But, it's a solid start, and I'm anxious to see where Higgins goes with it. 

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1:  YES!  This book is the book of the relaunch for me, the book that'll hopefully make it all worthwhile.  In just one issue, Lobdell and Rocafort essentially ditch all the annoying aspects of the various versions of Jason Todd (the emotionless attitude, the red hair) and keep all the great ones (the innate sexiness, the super badassness).  Awesome.  I was OK with the last version of Jason Todd that Judd Winick gave us in "Batman and Robin," but I have to say I like this one all the better.

First, I originally didn't mind the red hair, because it gave us a way to differentiate Jason from all the other brooding, dark-haired boys in Gotham.  But, Rocafort actually manages to do that here on his own.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but he draws Jason in a way that makes him more than just the carbon copy of Dick Grayson he's always been.  Second, Lobdell hints that Jason has made his peace with the Bats.  First, most obviously, he's wearing a bat emblem on his chest, clearly signifying at least his partial return to the fold.  Winick had actually done some work in that direction in his arc in "Batman and Robin," though Jason obviously still carried a lot of anger in that arc.  But, here, the anger seems to be a thing of the past.  I loved when he tells Roy that everyone in Gotham deserves one another.  You get the sense that Jason realized that it was Gotham that made him crazy (Scotty Snyder would be totally down with that assessment) and the fresh air is doing him good.  It's not like he cried on Robin Williams' couch for a few hours; you can tell the anger is still there, but he's dealt with it.  (Yes, I want him to hug out his problems with Bruce and Dick, but I accept the fact I'm going to have to wait for that.)  I don't know how Lobdell conveyed all that in one issue, but he did.  Third, along those lines, Jason is killing now more because he's a soldier than because he's a sociopath.  When authors took their time with him, Jason always had an understandable position, that certain bad guys need to be killed.  The problem was that he maybe enjoyed doing it too much to be a good guy.  Here, Lobdell seems to put him more fully back on this sane side of killing (such as it is.)  I love that.  Finally, I think this issue had such an impact on me because we actually see Jason have emotions (and not just rage).  He obviously feels some connection to Essence, and he exhibits real remorse over Ducra's death.  Obviously, we'll find out more in the months to come, but just those signs of emotions on his part are a sign that maybe we've got back a workable Jason Todd.

This book, though, isn't all about Jason.  I know nothing about Roy, but he's the perfect foil for Jason.  They had some really great moments, the best possibly being the "Too far?"/"Too far." thought-bubble conversation as they were fleeing the mercenaries.  I love a good redemption story, and these two boys could definitely use some redemption (and a friend).  The addition of Starfire gave this whole issue the feel of "Y Tu Mamá También," with two horny guys on a road trip with a girl who didn't exactly care.  It's a fun dynamic, though Lobdell has to be careful not just to make Starfire into some sort of straight, adolescent-boy, wish-fulfillment device.

This issue could be one of the issues of the year for me.  It combines so much and brings such coherence to Jason Todd, a coherence I don't know if we've ever seen, that I can't WAIT for next month.  I'm going to stop now so I can read it again!

Teen Titans #1:  If "Red Hood and the Outlaws" was my favorite issue of the reboot, this issue is #2.  Awesomeness.  I'm just all about Lobdell, apparently.  Just like he "gets" Jason Todd in the aforementioned title, I feel like he really gets Tim here as well.  Again, we're not talking about a hard reboot here when it comes to Tim.  I could see all the events of "Red Robin" (except, obviously, the Teen Titans cross-over arc) having more or less happened the way they were depicted.  Tim considered that time to be his efforts at working in the shadows, which he mentions here.  I like the idea that it's this N.O.W.H.E.R.E. organization that's forcing him to come into the open.  Giving the Titans a really clear villain to battle, at least for the first few issues, is a great idea, particularly becasue it involves teenagers rebelling against the Man, which go together like chocolate and peanut butter.  The reboots of Cassie and Conner are obviously more pronounced.  We saw that in the latter case in "Superboy," another Lobdell effort I enjoyed.  But, it's the first time I've seen the "new" Cassie, and I have to say I really dug her new edge.  I picked up a few "Teen Titans" issues last year, but they were so incredibly maudlin (partly due to the Cassie/Conner drama) that I dropped the title.  I'm excited about this one.  Titans Together!  (OK, maybe they could get a better slogan in the reboot, too...)

Uncanny X-Men #481-#483: "The Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire:" Parts 7-9

Uncanny X-Men #481:  Brubaker is really building steam now.  The plot to overthrow Lilandra gets more and more interesting, at least in part because I wonder where it's leading.  It appears that K'Tor is involved in the "Secret Order," given that, last issue, he put Vulcan in the same prison as Deathbird and the Secret Order agent who freed Vulcan sent him straight to Deathbird.  However, I'm not sure where the Chancellor fits into the scheme.  He seems unaware of K'Tor's actions, since he comments that one of their "people" would have not likely been the cause of her escape, so I'm not sure if the Secret Order people are his "people" or if he has different "people."  I'm also not entirely sure why the Order would want to free Deathbird, since she's from the same bloodline as Lilandra.  But, it's pretty clear that Vulcan's arrival in the Imperium has set a number of events in motion, and Brubaker is slowly fleshing out the details of these events.  The X-Men are still more or less drifting through space, but it looks like they may actually DO something next issue, which is exciting.  Alex's lament over their failures was a nice bit of characterization on Brubaker's part, even though I wish we'd one day get a confident Havok.  But, I'm digging Korvus and Rachel, so at least the X-Men side of the house isn't a total wash.  Bring on the Starjammers!

Uncanny X-Men #482:  Mysteries wrapped in enigmas!  First, the X-Men.  Finally, they do something!  I always love a good Starjammer story, and this one doesn't disappoint.  The conversation between Corsair and Havok mirrors thoughts I've been having about Vulcan.  On one hand, he's so tortured that you hope someone can make it right.  You hope that his father and brother appealing to him would break through his crazy and put him on the path to redemption.  But, as Alex says, it's hard to see how someone that far gone could be saved and, even if he is, his crimes are not easily dismissed.  On the Shi'Ar conspiracy front, everything gets muddled with the return of D'Ken, particularly given that he appears alongside Deathbird and Vulcan.  WTF?  I'm still not sure if we're dealing with one or multiple conspiracies against Lilandra.  If the Chancellor planned to return D'Ken to the throne, then why was he surprised when Deathbird was freed, particularly given that it appears her release played a role in D'Ken reclaiming the throne?  Moreover, I'm still not sure how Xavier fits into the mix.  Why exactly were they torturing him?  Where they planning something beyond torture for him?

Uncanny X-Men #483:  Huh.  I'm still not 100 percent sure what's happening with the Shi'Ar.  It appears that the Chancellor is in fact in charge of the Secret Order.  As such, I'm confused why he seemed unaware of the Secret Order's involvement in the release of Deathbird in issue #481.  But, I'm willing to just concede I'm misinterpreting that remark, since it's a small point.  Brubaker also clarifies here that the Secret Order isn't against the entire House of Neramani, as I originally thought, but just specifically Lilandra, for her actions when she was under the influence of Cassandra Nova.  I'm not sure what happened in that arc, though at least it makes sense now why they would free Deathbird.  Speaking of her, Brubaker does a great job with Deathbird and Vulcan here.  You can feel him slipping away, moving more and more past the point of any redemption.  Again, it reminds me of the conversation Dick Grayson and Jason Todd had in his first arc in "Batman and Robin," where he admits he's beyond redemption.  It's like watching an impressionable teenager get involved with the wrong crowd.  D'Ken uses Vulcan's need to belong to subvert his need for revenge, bringing him into the fold of the conspirators.  The last quarter of this arc has "tragedy" written all over it.

Final Thoughts:  At the end of the second quarter of this arc, the X-Men were still drifting in space and Vulcan just met Deathbird.  Now, he's formed an unholy union with her, on the verge of joining the House of Neramani, and the X-Men have joined with the Starjammers to enter full revolt against the Imperium.  It's pretty clear this arc isn't going to have a happy ending...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #601-#605: Red Headed Stranger

#601:  ** (two of five stars); #602-#605:  * (one of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "Lady, I served with the Black Cat; I knew the Black Cat; the Black Cat was a friend of mine.  Lady, you are no Black Cat." -- Peter upon seeing a model dressed as the Black Cat

Summary
In response to seeing his ex, MJ, at Aunt May's wedding, Peter gets drunk and sleeps with his roommate, Michele.  His old "Daily Bugle" colleague Glory Grant (JJJ, Jr.'s new press secretary) gets him a job in the Mayor's press office, just in time to photograph the Mayor's visit to NYC's secret counter-terrorism unit.  The Chameleon, who's been hired by a Pakistani terrorist to take down the unit, steals Peter Parker's identity to get access to the unit.  The Chameleon wrecks his usual havoc on Peter's private life while Spidey escapes death in the Chameleon's acid pit.  Spidey tracks down Chameleon and helps the Anti-Spider Squad disarm the dirty bomb he had planned to explode at the counter-terrorism unit.  In the "epilogue" issue, we see the story of how Mary Jane decided to return to New York (her boyfriend, Bobby Carr, started using mutant growth hormone to get the Captain America movie and suggested that her career was over), Peter "dumps" Michele, and Harry introduces Peter to e-dating.

The Review
This arc is...odd.  First, it's actually more a weird collection of stories than it is a coherent storyline.  The first issue (written by Mark Waid) is probably the best of the lot, since it's at least funny.  Then, Fred Van Lente takes the helm, and we get a boring three-issue Chameleon story that could spell trouble for Peter's private life but will probably just wind up getting ignored.  Finally, we get the three stories in the epilogue (two by Van Lente and one by Brian Reed), none of which were particularly good.  We've focused mostly on Spidey over the last few arcs, so I thought it would be fun to focus on Peter.  But, enough people (Peter, Glory Grant, Michele, MJ) act against previous characterizations that the arc winds up being more annoying than interesting.  Almost all the women in this arc are portrayed as either flighty, bipolar, or insane and, in the end, no one -- male or female -- was particularly likeable.  One star seems kind of harsh, but, seriously, I just wanted it to end.

The Good
1) MJ is back!  She also apparently knows Peter is Spider-Man.  MJ's sotto voce conversation with Mephisto has been a source of speculation, and the most commonly held view on it is that she asked to remember their past together.  Her comment revealing she knows Peter is Spider-Man seems to imply that might indeed be the case.  It's been a while since we're addressed the "One More Day" deal directly, particularly since the Web Heads have seemingly created a non-Mephisto reason for the mindwipe that undid everyone's memory of Peter being Spidey.  We still don't know the details of that mindwipe, so it's unclear whether MJ still knowing Spidey's identity has to do with the Mephisto deal (and a possible side deal) or the as-yet-unrevealed mindwipe.

2) As I mentioned in the last review, I was hoping we'd see Mario Alberti again...and here he is!  Although the art in #601 is kind of inconsistent (Michele looks like a ghoul on the full-page reveal that she and Peter slept together), it's great when it's good.

The Bad
1) Michele is criminally mishandled here.  First, we have our whiplash conversion in issue #600 where she went from hating Peter's guts to deciding to be his date, but I was OK with that because she was funny and charming and I actually started to like her.  Then, we have her sleeping with him because they're both drunk.  I mean, I'm all for Peter getting drunk and doing stupid things, but I just don't buy this one.  But, whatever, fine.  I can't say it isn't exactly in her character, because we don't actually know her character.  However, it's actually pretty definitely not in Peter's character, but, again, I'm willing to allow it.  The cookie bit was actually pretty hilarious (and got Mark Waid his second star here).  But, then, the wheels come off the bus.  They kiss the floor of their apartment when Peter is the Chameleon and Michelle decides they're dating; Van Lente started to lose me there.  But, he loses me even further when she goes full-on stalker, having the fashion show Peter is attending page him when he's not answering his phone.  Basically everything involving her in this arc annoyed me.  Waid didn't exactly do her any favors in issue #601, but Van Lente totally ruined her character in issues #602-#604 just when she started showing potential.  Also, a nitpick, but an important one:  they need to decide if Michele's name is spelled with one "l" or two.  It's spelled both ways several times and, really, nothing takes me outside the story more than inconsistent spelling.

2) I'm also kind of surprised by MJ here.  In issue #601, she sleeps through her date with Peter?  Really?  She was all excited to see him and then she sleeps through it?  Weird.  Then, when she does see him, he compares her to Gwen (or, at least, the Chameleon does), but, the next time she sees him, she's not mad at all.  In fact, she and he have a lovely moment about how they used to have good time.  Um, I'm sorry, if a guy I dated showed me a picture of his dead girlfriend and told me that I didn't compare to her, I'd probably be less than thrilled to see him again.  In fact, I'd probably tell him he needed serious therapy for carrying around a photo of his dead girlfriend.

3) OK, when the Reillys appear in issue #601, I was seriously confused, because I had no memory of JJJ, Sr. flying them to the wedding in issue #600.  Of course I didn't, because, eventually, in the "Peter Parker's P.O.V." section in issue #605, we learn it was in the Annual.  But, I think it might've been useful for Wacker to have mentioned it in an editorial note in issue #601.  He's so chatty in the letters page, it's weird he can't let us know what's happening in the actual comic book.

4) Wait, if Peter didn't reveal his identity, did he still work for Stark?  He notes to himself when he helps the Anti-Spider Squad that he knows what their armor can do since he worked for Stark.  But, I thought he worked for Stark after he revealed who he was.  If he didn't reveal who he was -- and, in fact, chose an opposing side than Stark in the Civil War -- then would Stark still have hired him?  Or, did Stark hire Peter without knowing about his Spidey connection?  If he did, it seems odd that regular ol' Peter Park would be given access to armor schematics...

5) So, is Harry on drugs or not?  Flash refers to Harry having a tough time in issue #600, which I assumed was partly due to the drugs.  But, here, he seems clean and sober, with the hard time being just that he's been disowned -- financially -- by Norman.  I'd be happy if he weren't on drugs, but I'd also be disappointed if it was just another plot that the Web Heads dropped.

6) Reed's story about Peter trying to go on a "date" as Spider-Man was just a hot, hot mess.  Seriously.  I'm not even going to say more.  It was just odd.

The Ugly
1) Speaking of hot messes, the Chameleon story was a disaster, and not just because of the chaos we usually see the Chameleon wreck.  It winds up having all sorts of unbelievable moments and unclear events.  Van Lente wraps up most of the loose ends (in mostly unbelievable ways) from the Chameleon's hijacking of Peter's life within this arc, except for the awful comment "Peter" makes to Flash.  I'm still bothered by it, and I would've liked for that to have been resolved, though I don't exactly know how Peter's going to do that, if he can't reveal it was the Chameleon (and if Flash doesn't mention the comment was made in the first place).  My guess is that we're just going to ignore it and pretend it didn't happen.  Also, the cliffhanger in issue #603 is just bizarre.  It shows "Peter" going into the Coffee Bean with his finger on a gun, and we're clearly meant to think he shoots Harry.  But, then, it's revealed in the next issue that he just offered Harry a place to stay.  Then, why was he fingering the gun?  Also, since when did the Chameleon ever care about the people he impersonates?  I don't remember that being part of his schtick.  These examples are just a few of the moments where I raised an eyebrow and found myself waiting for this arc to end.

2) I don't buy Peter escaping the Chameleon's acid pit AT ALL.  He subconsciously webbed himself?  Really?  I just...yeah...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Comics! (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Dungeons and Dragons #11:  This issue is awesome, the culmination of all the storylines Rogers has kept going over the last 12 issues.  As expected, he does indeed pull a rabbit (actually, several) from a hat in this issue.  The "guy," as I referred to him last issue, who I initially confused to be the Seneschal's master, turns out being a golem assigned to protect the Guide of Gates.  Last issue, when the Seneschal told Fell's Five (or, Four, at that time) that he was going to consult with his master, he was lying.  He was really just going to check to make sure the Guide was still in the vault, being guarded by the golem.  That makes much more sense.  Moreover, I'm clearer now that Thrumbolg stole the Guide AFTER the debacle in the dungeon from issue #5.  I think I knew that, but Rogers makes it more explicitly clear here.  Rogers gives us a great ending as well:  Toveliss gets his comeuppance when it's revealed that N'Ehlia, who he was willing to leave phased forever, is the long-lost Lord of Al'Bihel.  Adric gives him the Guide (which he promptly destroys), denying Toveliss the win.  I love that Rogers left their "relationship" as fraught as it was in the beginning, if not even more so.  The whole theme of this series so far is that, no matter how often Fell's Five win, they're almost always in a worst place than they were when the story started.  This issue is a great testament to that, showing just how attentive and tight of a storyteller Rogers is.

However, Rogers does border on some unbelievable events here.  The first appears to be an error.  In this issue, we discover that Trasgar is blind and his shout of recognition from the end of last issue is because he recognized Varis' voice (and not Adric himself, as implied).  However, Varis never says a word in his presence, not in this issue, nor in the end of issue #10.  Second, I'm still not sure why Adric mentioned N'Ehlia's name in the first place when they were fighting the golem.  If I remember correctly, the two of them were in each other's presence for all of five minutes or so in issue #5 and an even shorter time in issue #9.  So, I don't understand why Adric immediately thought that N'Ehlia would've known the shutdown word, even if Adric knew N'Ehlia knew about the Guide.  Finally, the fact that Thrumbolg's men carry out the Guide because Bree stashed it in the golem, who Fell's Five just happened to know the Seneschal would demand be removed from the premises, crossed into the deus ex machina territory for me. 

For the most part, though, this issue does such an amazing job of wrapping up the loose ends and tying together various storylines, all while giving us great dialogue and fast action, that I'm more than willing to overlook these oversights.  I'm intrigued to see what the next arc will be.

X-Men Legacy #256:  OK, honestly?  I'm just not a fan of Mike Carey.  Similar to the last arc on this title, I should be LOVING this story, given that it involves some of my favorite characters and a cool premise.  But something about his writing just leaves me cold.  This issue seems to lack emotion, so I have trouble really feeling the key moments, like the tour of Friendless' memories of torment or the fear over Rogue (and, to a lesser extent) Frenzy's well-being when they enter Kythri's Highway.  I mean, otherwise, the story is pretty solid.  I'm not entirely sure that I previously understood that the station contained close to a billion people, but everything else pretty much fits with what we knew.  I don't really want to cancel this title, but, honestly, I think I'm close, given that we're now going to have FOUR core X-Men titles.

New Comics!: The Avengers Edition (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

"Avengers:  The Children's Crusade" is the bright spot this month for Avengers-related titles.  As I mentioned in the "Fear Itself" post, I HATED "Avengers" #17.  I'm excited by the groundwork "New Avengers" #16.1 lays here, but the issue itself is pretty ordinary.  I liked the "Captain America and Bucky" story, but I'm pretty sure I'll be hard pressed to remember what happened in "Captain America" and "Secret Avengers" when I pick up those books next month, after fairly unmemorable stories this month.  With all the terribleness related to "Fear Itself," it was a bummer to feel so meh about so many Marvel books unrelated to "Fear Itself" as well.  I was hoping for more than just one bright spot.

Avengers:  The Children's Crusade #7:  I loved most of this issue.  Heinberg does an amazing job, particularly for someone who doesn't have decades of experience writing these characters, giving us perfect characterizations of such iconic characters as Captain America, Dr. Doom, and the Scarlet Witch.  The plot remains intricate, but I still generally remember what happened in the previous issue, even with the two-month gap between issues.  Heinberg does a good job keeping the Young Avengers in the mix even as this mini-series starts to focus more on the more big-name characters.  (Eli's impetuous decision to interrupt the spell was a pretty accurate portrayal of his character.)  Heinberg also keeps up the tension.  Since it's been made clear in "X-Factor" #225 that the results of this mini-series will, actually, affect the Marvel Universe when it's over, the fact that Wanda may -- or may not -- bring back all mutants really keeps you on the edge of your seat.  When you add Dr. Doom and his questionable motivations to the mix, it is really unclear how this series is going to end.  However, at this point, the end is the problem.  It's time.  This series at this point has spanned 16 months.  We have at least four to go.  I don't know why, but it's annoying me, to have the story extended over so many months.  Although, as I mentioned, I applaud Heinberg for maintaining the tension over the course of these eight issues (including the special) and 16 months, I think it's time to get some closure.

Captain America #3:  OK, to be honest, I'm still not really sure what's happening in this arc.  I mean, I think I sort of get it.  Bravo uses Jimmy Jupiter to transport Steve into the imaginary world where Bravo was trapped since the war.  To do so, he uses some crazy enormous Cap android created by the Red Skull as bait.  I get all that, I guess.  But, I'm still not really sure what Bravo's motivations are.  He seems to still be a good guy (I mean, people who kill Nazis are always good guys in comic books, right?), but he wants Steve dead.  Or, maybe he doesn't?  I'm still not sure.  I'm not even sure if he's angry, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure he wants revenge.  At any rate, McNiven's art is really what makes this book, which isn't normally something I'd say about a Brubaker-scribed book, but there you go.

Captain America and Bucky #622:  Although they're a little hokey, I'm still enjoying these stories.  I like how Bucky is narrating this series, because it's mostly giving me hope that this series is meant as a stop-gap measure to keep Bucky in our minds until they resurrect him.  (Hey, a guy can dream.)  At any rate, it's a pretty good self-contained story about Bucky dealing with his insecurities about being surrounded by the super-men of the Invaders.  I will say, though, at some point we're probably going to have to get past just "war stories."  I don't mean that the stories shouldn't be set during the war, but I think we're probably going to need some sort of epic Invaders arc or something to inject some energy into this book.

New Avengers #16.1:  OK, so, first, let's do the bad.  First, the art is this book SUCKS.  Awful.  I mean, it's truly awful.  I know it's sacrilege to say that because it's Neal Adams, but I really felt like he drew this book in five minutes while playing the violin and ironing the drapes at the same time.  Second, I don't buy, for a minute, that Norman Osborn would've been able to staff the Raft entirely with people who are loyal to him.  As I've said before and I will (unfortunately) likely say again, simply because one of your characters (this time, Wolverine) acknowledges that the plot device is ridiculous doesn't mean it's OK for the plot device to be ridiculous in the first place.  Are we supposed to believe Steve Rogers would let that happen?  Moreover, if it were true, then why would he wait until the Avengers were there to try to escape?  Couldn't his flunkies just have left open the door and ignored a boat docked at the Raft?  I mean, if he had such total control over the facility's staff, then why wouldn't you do it that way?  Why risk a battle with the Avengers? Third, who the hell is the squid lady on the last page?  OK, now, let's do the good.  I'm totally down with a year-long Norman Osborn arc.  Although I didn't read "New Avengers" during the post-"Civil War" era, so their beef with Osborn is something I only know from reading Wikipedia, I have followed all the aspects of his war with Spider-Man since, like, forever.  I think having them take on Norman will actually go a long way to setting this series apart from the main title, and provide a villain who's suitable for street-level superheroes.  (Hawkeye seems doomed to just stand around the streets watching the Avengers fight in the main title, but I've more or less resigned myself to Bendis' unforgivable mis-handling of him.)  I hope, however, that Bendis is preparing to pare down the roster at some point.  With the addition of Daredevil, the New Avengers have a ten-person roster, which is actually enough for two separate Avengers teams.  I love all the characters on the roster and I enjoy their interactions, but I think we might be able to enjoy them all the more if everyone weren't fighting for screen time, if you will.  We shall see.  At any rate, this issue is exciting more for what it promises than anything Bendis does here, but I'll take what I can get, particularly post-"Fear Itself."

Secret Avengers #17:  Meh.  This issue is OK.  It's an interesting enough story, and the ending is a surprise but one that comes from clues left by Ellis as the issue progressed.  Ellis is a quirky writer, preferring grim stories with a lot of procedural elements.  Everyone spent a lot of time yelling, "War Machine engaged," or "Valkyrie en route."  It's like last issue, when the Beast essentially narrated the issue with his scientific mumbo-jumbo.  Essentially, I've found both issue #16 and this issue...slow.  I know people really like Ellis, but so far I'm pretty bored by his version of the Secret Avengers.  But, he tells a story that makes sense, more or less, so I can't complain too much, I guess.  Although Ellis is probably better suited to the stated goal of this title (black-ops missions), I'm not entirely sure if I enjoy them.  Let's see how we go post-"Fear Itself" and we'll see if I keep getting this title.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #600: "Last Legs"

***** (five of five stars) 

Favorite Quote:  "Anna Watson?!  What have you done?" -- Aunt May to Anna Watson, who, like we here at Untimely Comics, is Team MJ 

Summary
After busting up the Bar with No Name, Spidey tries to reveal his secret identity to Daredevil, who he tells him not to do so, given how special getting to put that genie back in the bottle is.  Pete almost misses Aunt May and JJJ, Sr.'s rehearsal dinner due to delivering the photos of the Bar with No Name fight to "Front Line."  Meanwhile, it is revealed that Dr. Octopus is dying from the damage his body has suffered over the years and has decided to take over New York for the benefit of its citizens.  In scanning data, he sees Aunt May's wedding announcement and Spidey's pictures in "Front Line."  Back in wedding world, all the wedding plans fall apart, and JJJ, Sr. publicly accuses JJJ, Jr. of being behind it.  JJJ, Sr. is then kidnapped by Doc Ock's mini-octopi drones.  In the middle of asking Carlie to Aunt May's wedding, Peter is interrupted by a call from Aunt May, expressing worry over the absence of JJJ, Sr.  Carlie agrees to meet Peter at JJJ, Sr.'s place, but Peter is waylaid by New York City attacking him, apparently at the sub-conscious direction of Doc Ock.  (Meanwhile, Carlie runs into Norah at JJJ, Sr.'s apartment; they go looking for him, but the mini-octopi capture them.)  The New Avengers and Fantastic Four decide to battle New York City, while Spidey and the Human Torch take down Doc Ock.  With all right in the world, May and JJJ, Sr. get married, and, arriving just in time, Mary Jane catches the bouquet. 

The Review
I really enjoyed this issue.  To be honest, it doesn't probably deserve the five I'm giving it, particularly since the more I think about the issue, the more I see its flaws.  It might not be textbook perfect, but it really has heart, more so than most issues.  The back-up stories were great, particularly "My Brother's Son," which, like the wedding, made me get a little misty.  Also, the art in "If I was Spider-Man..." was really eye-popping; well done, Mario Alberti!  The rest of the review will focus on the main story, but I wanted to give shout-outs to those two back-up stories. 

The Really Good
1) OK, I'm man enough to admit it:  I cried a little when Aunt May called Peter "son" and he called her "mom."  I don't recall Peter ever calling her mom, and it was a really lovely and powerful moment.  I feel like it was actually so well done that, in some way, I finally got why Peter was willing to sacrifice his marriage to Mary Jane to save Aunt May.  In "One More Day" itself, so much of the focus was on Peter's guilt and Mephisto's bargain that we didn't really spend much time considering the May/Peter relationship.  This issue actually somewhat accomplishes that, reminding us how important to Peter Aunt May is.

2) I enjoyed the Spidey/Torch banter.  The last time we saw the Torch, a lot of their banter was angry, because they were fighting over the fact that Peter hadn't revealed himself as Spidey to the FF.  But, here, we get to see the old Spidey/Torch magic.  I liked how Johnny told Carlie about being part of "the gang" (Flash, Gwen, Harry, and MJ), because it's another example of the Web Heads integrating old-school Spidey stories into the "Brand New Day" world.  It involved folding a lot of space and time, but increasingly the "Brand New Day" world feel like a more logical continuation of those old stories than what we had before "Brand New Day."

3) MJ!  'Nuff said. 

The Good
1) Thank God we're done with this "Michele Gonzalez, Angry Roommate" schtick.  I thought her appearance here was really well done and I actually found myself hoping we see more of her.  However, it would've been nice to see how they went from her leaving notes telling him not to eat her food to sitting in the bathroom while Pete gets ready in nothing other than a Mark Sanchez jersey.  (Of course she's wearing a Sanchez jersey.)  I'm gay, I've had female roommates before, and even we didn't exactly lounge around the apartment together in states of undress.  But, I can live with it so long as we don't have to deal with the "shrill female roommate" angle they were pushing for a while.

2) OK, so, Norah is apparently still with Randy and Harry apparently isn't with Carlie.  I'm glad we kind of sorted out that situation, because, as I mentioned in the "American Son" review, it was bothering me.  Plus, I love the fact that Carlie asked out Torch.  HA!  Good for you, Carlie.  (Of course, I'd like to mention that Pete did ask out Carlie during the "Mind on Fire" arc and, for reasons still mysterious to me, she got all angry and indignant.  But, I guess we're more or less pretending that didn't happen, which is fine by me.)  Also, I'm glad we finally see all the supporting players in the same room:  Carlie, Norah, etc.  I was starting to wonder if Peter was moving back and forth between parallel universes.

3) JR JR's art is awesome.  Sometimes you can tell he's rushed, but he clearly took him time here.  (Spidey in the FF sweatshirt was great.) 

The Bad
OK, the plot was a little convoluted.  So, Doc Ock was subconsciously sabotaging May's wedding and trying to off Spidey?  Really?  First, the reveal was WAY too exposition-y, with Spidey telling us that, rather than us getting a chance to realize it for ourselves.  (I actually had to look back to see if we had ruled out JJJ, Jr. as the culprit behind the wedding mishaps, because I initially hadn't really made the connection, which is when I found Spidey's "let me tell you what's happening" comment.)  Second, it still seems kind of odd.  I didn't really buy Doc Ock's deathbed conversion to good guy, and I guess Slott was also casting doubt on it by making Doc Ock act subconsciously badly.  But, Slott doesn't really treat Otto all that humanely here; he kind of glides over the tragedy of Otto dying because of the years of abuse his body has taken.  It's a shame, because addressing the issue more directly would've made the plot more believable, whether it was his (failed) attempts to do good or an alternative plot where he actually purposefully tries to disrupt May's wedding and kill Spider-Man.  Finally, the "stronger brainwave pattern" mumbo-jumbo was kind of weird.  I mean, do smarter people actually have "stronger" brainwave patterns?  That seemed kind of pseudo-sciencey to me.  I mean, I'm not a neurologist, so what do I know?  But, given that the plot was resolved based on it, it's kind of an important piece of the puzzle, and not one you should wind up questioning as the issue comes to a close.  Normally this sort of lazy plotting would probably bump down the story to a four, but, as I said above, everything else was so great that I'm letting it go.