Friday, December 30, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #634-#637: "Grim Hunt"

**** (four of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "God, were you a serial puppy strangler in a past life or something?"  -- Arachne to Spidey, after he reveals that, in addition to fighting Aly and Ana Kravinoff, he's fighting off swine flu

Summary (I'm going to try to be really brief, because a lot happens in this arc.)

Peter -- who has the flu -- finds a half-dead Kaine on his doorstep.  Before he can help him, he goes to investigate the sound of explosions, only to find Arachne (Julia Carpenter, formerly Spider-Woman) escaping Aly and Ana Kravinoff.  The two flee to Mattie Franklin's apartment, where they discover a resurrected Ezekiel.  Franklin, meanwhile, is sacrificed to resurrect Vladimir Kraven, who returns as a beast; Sasha realizes that only Peter can fully resurrect Kraven.  Ezekiel convinces Spidey that the Kravens are going after all the "spiders" and leads him and Arachne to Arana, who's being attacked by Aly, Ana, and Vladimir.  Arachne and Arana are kidnapped, but Peter is stopped from pursuing them by Kaine, who's cut his hair and shaved to look more like Peter.  Kaine tries to tell him that he needs to save himself, but Peter hits him, calling him selfish and telling him to get over his hurt like Peter did.  Ezekiel tells Spidey he'll lead him to Venom and Anti-Venom, but, in reality, leads him to the Kravinoffs, revealing he was actually the Chameleon in disguise.  (Mysterio helped with the creepy parts.)  The Kravinoffs chase Spidey, who falls into a grave, but then goes on the offensive.  He's stabbed by Aly and then killed by Sasha, who then successfully raises Kraven.  Kraven, however, is displeased at being resurrected; he reveals that Sasha has killed the clone, not Peter, leaving Kraven undead.  In a flashback, we see that Kaine knocked out Peter and stole the Spidey costume; he then buried Peter in the grave.  Peter claws his way from the grave (again) and sees that Kraven wants him to hunt him, because only by the real Spider-Man killing him can he die.  Spidey, in the black costume, stalks and incapacitates all the Kravinoffs before almost killing Kraven; he's stopped by Arachne, who's taken on Madame Web's powers after she was killed by Sasha.  Arachne reveals the dark future in store for Peter if he kills Kraven.  Peter buries Kaine, and Julia (who's now blind) gives her Spider-Woman costume to Arana.  Kraven takes his family to the Savage Land, kills Sasha and Vladimir, and sends Ana after Aly, telling her that whichever one of them survives will rebuild the family with him.  In the epilogue, Kaine rises from the dead as the Tarantula.

The Review
OK, one of the great things about this arc -- if not the greatest -- is that it really lets you put aside all the annoying aspects of "The Gauntlet" -- all the confusion, all the "how does this fit in the larger story they're trying to tell here" -- and enjoy a story told based on its best aspects.  It's a dark story, but it doesn't veer into the "horribly, terribly depressing" category of some of the 400s "Amazing Spider-Man" issues.  Kelly undoubtedly creates a new status quo here -- maybe our first since "Brand New Day" started -- delivering us a Spidey more similar to the late 200s/early 300s then the one we've seen in "Brand New Day."  I loved that Spidey -- a little dark, but no too dark -- and I really hope he stays.  I don't know where exactly we go from here, but this storyline helps us shed some of the baggage of both "Brand New Day" and "The Gauntlet" and gives us a good place to start for some really great new stories.  Peter's been through the ringer, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he starts to rebuild his life.

The Good
1) One of the things that rang the most true to me was the behavior of all the Kravinoffs.  First, I'm glad that Sergei was displeased at being resurrected.  After all, as the Chameleon himself notes, he did kill himself.  It wasn't like Spidey put a bullet in his head and Kraven's happy now that he has a shot at revenge.  I couldn't help but think about Buffy being brought back to life by her friends and admitting to Spike that she wished they wouldn't have done so, since she had been in Heaven.  Kraven's displeased here and, truthfully, he's got a right to be.  Moreover, I'm also glad that Sasha is pretty stunned that he's not thrilled with her, and we see her get angrier and angrier until their final confrontation.  Aly and Ana's reactions also totally gel with their personalities and how I think they'd react to the events of this arc.  This attention to character is what really makes this arc great.

2) I like that Spidey got to channel our rage over the role the Kravinoffs played in some of the tragedies of the last few issues.  As I said in my review of "Shed," I really, really wanted to see Spidey kick Sasha's ass, and I'm glad that Kelly channeled that feeling in Spidey.  I loved watching them all get scared when Spidey cuts the lights and starts to hunt them.  Kelly really does a great job here creating an almost "Scream" sense of dread as the Kravinoffs wander through the dark.  I will note that I was a little taken aback when Spidey disfigured Sasha (more on that in the "The Bad" section).  But, I think it went a long way toward conveying his rage, which was key to believing that he was actually on the brink of killing Kraven.

3) I was really excited to see all the "spiders" pulled into this arc.  I was a huge "Avengers West Coast" fan, so I was happy to see Julia Carpenter and see where she winds up finding herself at the end of this arc.  It also gave Kaine a connection to Peter's life beyond his usual "I hate you because I don't get to be you" schtick.

4) The twist that the Chameleon was Ezekiel was awesome.  I honestly totally didn't see it coming.  Also, in the "didn't see it coming" category is Kaine rising from the dead as the Tarantula.  Awesome.  I don't know how they're going to explain that, but the whole feel of it was cool, appearing on the last page after another story, almost like a scene in a movie after the credits rolled.

5) I loved Mary Jane looking at the rats in the street and being reminded of the "Kraven's Last Hunt" storyline.

6) The black suit!

7) I thought the passing of Madame Web's gifts to Julie Carpenter, her intervention to stop Spidey from killing Kraven, and the awesome splash page of the future post-killing Spidey was really well done.   Dealing with the "with great power comes great responsibility" schtick can be really hokey, but Kelly does a great job here staying just on this side of hokey, instead making it feel honest and respectful.  Really well done.

The Bad
1) OK, I missed the Ezekiel/totem/The Other era of Spider-Man so I don't know who Ezekiel is, really.  All I know is I'm glad that I don't have to worry about fitting Peter's lack of organic Web-Shooters and other natural powers into the "Brand New Day" continuity.  His appearance here is one of the ongoing problems we see when we're reminded of the old status quo, because it reminds us that, in all likelihood, we're just never going to get a straight answer about how the new status quo meshes with the old.  We'll get some hints and brief explanations, but we're never really going to know everything.  I know it's a necessary evil, because it's always going to be awkward when you have to re-insert someone like Ezekiel into the new status quo.  But, it doesn't mean it's any less annoying.

2) OK, again, it was a necessary evil.  But we all knew that Kaine was in the Spider-Man costume when he was "killed."

3) The art in the last issue was a little uneven, often at really important points.  I'm still not entirely sure what Peter did to Sasha.  Did he use his webs to rip off part of her face?  He almost seemed to use Kaine's acid powers, which, last I checked, Peter didn't have...

4) I'm not exactly sure why Mattie Franklin more or less goes willingly to her death.  I mean, why not try to escape when they open the door?  If I understand correctly, she essentially had all Spidey's powers and then some.  The scene between her and Madame Web was touching, but I'm still not sure why she went so willingly.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

War of Kings #3-#4, War of Kings: Ascension #3, and Nova #26-#27

War of Kings #3:  Holy crap, this issue is awesome.  First, I freaking love Rocket Raccoon.  I haven't bought the "Guardians of the Galaxy" series mainly because, really, I've got a huge backlog of back issues I'm trying to read:  "New Mutants," "Spider-Man 2099," a good three years or so of "Uncanny X-Men" and "X-Men Legacy," just to name a few.  I just can't add another series to the list right now.  But, Rocket Raccon telling Gladiator to feel how soft his fur is when Gladiator realizes he's holding a mop, not a "Xarthian quantum cannon," pretty much made this issue for me.  But, the good news is that the rest of this issue is also great.  The battle between the Guardians and Starjammers and the Imperial Guard is as epic as you'd expect it to be.  DnA give everyone, not just Rocket Raccoon, witty moments, and Pelletier draws easily followed action-scenes.  Kallark's conversion to Lilandra's side, though essentially foreshadowed in his commentary throughout the series, was still stunning.  Pelletier does a great job of drawing the shock on the face of the Shi'Ar warriors and Lilandra herself.  (Also, I didn't realize that Smasher was essentially the Ensign Jones of the Imperial Guard.)  DnA also move along other plots here, showing that the Inhumans are definitely cooking up something, though it's still unclear what.  This series just continues to be great.  I honestly have no idea how it's all going to end.

Nova #26:  This issue serves mostly as a transition story, with Rich engaging in a mission to rescue the untrained Centurions currently deployed across the front lines of the Kree/Shi'Ar War.  He appears to have made the decision to disband the Corps, though he allows recruits Lindy and Tre to stay and help with the rescue operations.  Rich, meanwhile, takes Irani and Morrow (of the original expanded Centurion team) with him to find Robbie, who had left in the previous issue with Qubit to try to help Suki and the rest of Cohort 86 on Nil-Rast.  Although the issue is mostly pretty boring, with long periods of exposition (partiuclarly Lindy and Tre's "conversation" with Worldmind at the beginning), DnA do deliver some moments.  The stack of helmets that Nova finds on Nil-Rast was truly well done in terms of showing the impact of the war and explains why Robbie goes on his crazed search for Strontian.  Robbie is, unfortunately, due for comeuppance, so we'll see how it goes next issue.

War of Kings:  Ascension #3:  OK, first, the Raptors.  DnA are just really killing me with this plot line.  I'm still confused about their goal(s).  I get that the Raptors want Blastaar to take back the Ceded Territories from Ravenous, but why?  If it's to help Vulcan, why would it help Vulcan to have Blastaar in charge of a territory he didn't own in the first place?  Is it because Blastaar, by nature of the wards on the Cosmic Control Rod, would be beholdent to the Raptors, making him more or less beholdent to Vulcan?  (Also, I don't think we discover that the Raptors are in theory working for Vulcan until "War of Kings" #4, so, if you're reading this series in order, I'm imaging you'd be really confused.)  On the Chris front, I'm think I get where DnA are going, and I like it.  Talon wanted Chris to control his anger, because his anger was the thing that would let him exert control over his armor, not hinder him from controling it, as Talon told him.  OK, I kind of get that.  I also think DnA are saying that all the other Raptors are spirts imbuing the armor because a sacrifice inhabits the physical space in the Null Space, but Chris somehow managed to have his own body be his "sacrifice" and switch between the armor and his body at will.  (I think that actually makes the most sense of any Darkhawk origin story I've read.) 


War of Kings #4:  This issue suffers from a problem common to the last few issues of almost every cross-over event I've ever read, where the story begins to sag under the weight of all the various sub-plots that the authors try to import from the tie-in issues.  DnA grapple here with integrating the plot of "War of Kings:  Ascension," trying to make the appearance of Talon and Razor appear seamless.  We finally learn the goal of the Fraternity of the Raptors, promoting the Shi'Ar Empire.  To this end, Talon throws his support behind Vulcan.  Cool.  I'm still not sure how Blastaar invading the Ceded Territories is going to help on this front, but, whatever, at least we now know, in theory, why DnA have introduced the Raptors to the mix.  DnA really screw up the integration of "War of Kings:  Ascension" with the assassination plot, though.  I mean, when I first read this issue, I thought Darkhawk had assassinated Lilandra, which seemed totally bizarre to me.  Now, I understand it was Razor, but I had to go back and read "War of Kings:  Ascension" to learn that.  I feel like DnA really owed it to the reader to explain this plot point, without forcing us to read an additional four-issue mini-series.  In terms of the non-Raptor aspects of the story, DnA do a great job of detailing the chaos of Lilandra's return to Chandilar.  As I mentioned in "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire," Lilandra, to me, seems to be capable of making an unbelievable number of bad decisions.  Here, she seems to make a serious miscalculation in deciding to rush into returning to claim her throne.  You'd think she maybe could've spent a little more time rallying the troops on all those planets that we''ve heard are in revolt over excessive war taxes and demanding production deadlines.  But, DnA really sell the results of that bad decision, namely the chaos the Starjammers encounter in escorting her on Chandilar.  It was almost like watching one of those movies based on Secret Service agents trying to keep the President safe.  YOu could feel the tension as they made their way through Chandilar and you could almost hear Alex thinking, "OMG, bad idea."  Moreover, Lilandra's death definitely shakes up this entire event, given that we don't really have anyone to challenge Vulcan's rule at this point.  His advisers feared she would die a martyr if Vulcan executed her, but it's probably unlikely that she would gather as much support given that she died trying to depose him.  I guess we'll see.  Meanwhile, Black Bolt is almost definitely working on some grand plan.  This whole event doesn't seem like it's going to end well.

Nova #27:  OK, first, I have to note pet peeve #2.  Although the intro page tells us Robbie turned off his suit tracker, we actually don't hear about that until halfway through this issue.  Tsk, tsk.  Moving onto the issue itself, DnA really turn up the heat here.  Rich arrives at Kree-Lar to find it ravaged by Blastaar and his troops (as we learned in "War of Kings" #4, when Talon informs Vulcan that he has reached an accord with Blastaar).  Meanwhile, Robbie learns how hard being a superhero is as he struggles to contain Strontian, who's dying to kill him and Ravenous the minute his power falters.  I'm really not sure where DnA are going (in a good way) with the story.  The scenes of a devastated Kree-Lar (excellently rendered by DiVito) bring back memories of the Annihilation Wave.  But, those memories aren't exactly bad, because they recall how Rich shined when he led the United Front against Annihilius.  Rich has been off the game for a while, and I'm thinking his oncoming brawl with Strontian will be just the thing to remind him of who he is.  I'm more worried about Robbie, who seems now to realize just how much more complicated superhero-ing is than he thought.  I guess we'll see.  We've got two more issues of "War of Kings," though, before we get the answer.

Final Thoughts:  I enjoyed the first few issues of "War of Kings," but I'm starting to be confused about the story DnA are telling her.  At first, we seemed to be telling a Vulcan story, but now we might be telling an Inhumans one, in addition to a Starjammers one.  They're not mutually exclusive, obviously, but I feel like splitting the focus between the three groups has started to make the overall plot hard to follow.  "Annihilation" moved around a lot, but I felt like it was somehow clearer where the plot was going than it is here.  I mean, it's OK for us not to know how the book is going to end, becasue a good story should have some mystery.  But, I'm not even sure what sub-plots we've got oustanding at this point.  "Annihilation" had some pretty clear sub-plots, so you always knew what the status of all the characters were, whereas "War of Kings" just seems to have people fade into, and out of, view.  Meanwhile, I am enjoying the "Nova" tie-in issues, despite the fact that they don't have a lot to do with the main title.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War of Kings #1-#2, War of Kings: Ascension #1-#2, and Nova #24-#25

War of Kings #1:  Holy crap, DnA really just hurl us into the story here.  I loved Crystal's narration of the Starjammer hurling through the Shi'Ar's space barrier.  It really sets the tone of the events that follow:  Vulcan sends in the Imperial Guard to disrupt the wedding of Crystal and Ronan the Accuser, resulting in the kidnapping of Lilandra, the loss of Ch'od's hand, and the deaths of two members of the Imperial Guard, Nightside and Smasher (again).  I mean, what more could you want from a first issue?  So far, DnA take a somewhat different approach to Vulcan than Yost, falling down a little heavier on the "mad king" side than on the "tortured soul" side.  (His decision to drop Nega-Bombs essentially willy-nilly was particularly chilling.)  Yost generally made Vulcan a more nuanced character, certainly portraying him as insane but also never forgetting the tragedy that drove him there.  But, it's early days, so we'll see how his character develops as the series progresses.  DnA use the characterizations of other characters as foreshadowing here.  Crystal's arrogance in her conversation with Polaris will clearly not go unrewarded, if you will, and Gladitor's constant reference to serving at the pleasure of the Emperor seems to be him clearly reminding himself of that fact as he struggles to implement Vulcan's orders.  We'll see where DnA go with both those thoughts.

Nova #24:  OK, this issue is everything I hoped it would be.  I loved the use of Suki, a rookie Centurion, as our perspective on the battle at the Gulf of Sarenta.  (I also love that the battle at the Gulf was mentioned in "War of Kings" #1, just move evidence of the attention DnA pay to continuity.)  Using Suki -- and the fear she feels engaging in battle for the first time -- makes Robbie realize that his brother may have been right, that sending a bunch of inexperienced, untrained Centurions into battle might not have been the best idea.  Unfortunately, Robbie also thinks that he still wants to be on the front lines, and not at the strategic command, though we'll see if that opinion changes as a result of Suki's death.  By having Strontian kill the Centurion hostages, DnA remind us that Vulcan is playing for keeps.  I'm intrigued to see where Rich's confrontation with Ego-Worldmind goes, because I'm really waiting for the "Worldmind Gone Mad" plot to end.

War of Kings:  Ascension #1:  OK, after finishing the "War of Kings" series, I decided to read "War of Kigns:  Ascension," because I wound up being really confused about the whole Fraternity of Raports business.  Unfortunately I'm not entirely sure if I'm any clearer on the concept, though.  I spent most of this issue just wanting Chris to stop whining.  Seriously.  I did enjoy the moment where Chris, in his human form, talks about how much he just wanted to be like Rich, a honest-to-goodness hero, and realizes that it's easier said than done.  DnA excell at those moments of characterization.  But, the constant whining made it hard to sympathize with him, because he seemed to spend more time complaing about not being able to achieve his potential (and become said honest-to-goodness hero) than doing anything to try to realize it.  I do like the idea that the anger-management issues he's always had were a result of his poor union with the Darkhawk suit, because it seems to set up a scenario whereby he'll get past those issues and they won't constantly be used as his Achilles' heel everytime a writer has written himself into a corner.  At this stage, I'm not quite sure what to do with the reveal that the Fraternity of Raptors are some sort of cosmic bad buys.  Also, I'm not sure how exactly Chris reached full compatability with the suit.  He made it seem like Talon had taken control over his suit to activate his full armor mode (and make him kill their attackers), so it seems unlikely he had achieved full compatability if Talon had to do it for him.  I'm also not clear on where they're going with this other personality, Razor, taking over Chris' suit.  If I remember correctly, when Darkhawk first started, he switched places with his suit.  I'm pretty sure DnA are using that approach, where only a wearer's consciousness is imbued in the suit.  It leaves open the question, though:  where is Chris now?

War of Kings #2:  Well, the Empire strikes back.  I was thinking when Havok is exhorting Ch'od and Korvus to get the Starjammer to go faster that he sounded like Han Solo, a sense proven even more apt when he pilots the Starjammer underneath the Shi'Ar warship to board it.  The Inhumans definitely land some punches here, and it'll be interesting to see how Vulcan responds.  The Inhumans seem to be planning more than just destroying the Shi'Ar's second battle group, though.

Nova #25:  OK, I cannot possibly imagine a better issue.  When this whole "Worldmind Gone Mad" ordeal started, I had no idea how DnA were going to resolve it in a way that didn't result in Worldmind being a compromised character.  Here, they give us a brilliant answer.  First, they detail how Worldmind didn't just go insane but that Ego took advantage of its insanity to take control of it.  It makes so much sense, because it explains Worldmind's need to divest itself of Richard, since Ego probably realized that Richard was the one person who could get Worldmind to shake off Ego's control.  Second, at first, I simply loved the fact that Worldmind used Ko-Rel and Rohmann Dey as its avatars.  (Also, I need to say that I laughed out loud when I saw the He-Man figures in Rich's room.  Well done, Kevin Sharpe.  Well done.)  I thought Ko-Rel was a great character when she was introduced in "Annihilation:  Conquest," so I was glad to see her return, even if it wasn't exactly her.  But, the fact that she took over the personality of Worldmind was unexpected and awesome.  I'm sad that we won't have Worldmind and Nova's banter, but, if anyone could replace it, it would be Ko-Rel.  I've mentioned before how I haven't been a huge fan of this "Worldmind Gone Mad" plot, but DnA bring it to a close in such a way that I find myself appreciating it, even if I still find it annoying.  Looking at the rest of the issue, the one-liners in this issue are great:  Nova telling Worldmind that it is "critical you pay attention at this time" and telling Ego that it's "time to start thinking about others," not to mention his banter with Ko-Rel ("Is there a vegetarian option?"), were all excellent moments.  DnA brought back some of the fun that I've felt has been lacking since this whole "Worldmind Gone Mad" arc began.  I'm excited to see where they go from here, particularly given the surprise arrival of Garthan Saal at the end!

War of Kings:  Ascension #2:  OK, so, DnA set up a pretty significant ret-conning of Darkhawk, claiming that the original story we "knew" was something Chris created to try to make sense of the information he was being fed by the Datasource.  My guess is that, if I thought too hard about that or read previous issues of "Darkhawk," I'd wind up finding any number of inconsistencies with that story.  (For example, I'm pretty sure people saw Darkhawk and Evilhawk together, so I'm not sure how Evilhawk was just an "evil" manifestation of Darkhawk that emerged whenever Chris lost control.)  But, I'm actually willing to put my obsession with continuity aside, because, to be honest, Darkhawk could use a ret-con, particularly if he's going to be re-introduced as a major charcter.  In terms of the Fraternity, I'm still not sure what its game is.  I've read the series, so I know that their role is helping the Shi'Ar Imperium achieve its glory.  But, why did they decide to use Blastaar?  (I'll return to that thought in the review of "War of Kings" #3.)  Why was it necessary to bribe him with the Cosmic Control Rod?  Couldn't they have just used it?

Final Thoughts:  OK, I'm intrigued.  I'm enjoying the "Nova" issues more than the "War of Kings" issues at this time, but mostly because I feel like DnA are righting the ship, if you will, on that title, whereas they're still just building the story in "War of Kings."  I'm still skeptical of "War of Kings:  Ascension," but I concede that Darkhawk could use a shot to the arm, creativity-wise, so I'm willing to give DnA some space to work.  But, so far, so good.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On "The Gaunlet"

As those of you who've been reading the last few entries know, "The Gauntlet" bugged me.  After reading "Grim Hunt," I'm clearer now on why exactly "The Gauntlet" bugged me, and I figured that it probably merited a full post so that I could leave behind my baggage and focus on "Grim Hunt" itself in its own review.  So, here we go.

Before "The Gauntlet," the Web Heads (and the Spidey Brain Trust before them) had endeavored to return "Amazing Spider-Man" to days of yore, with a single and footloose Peter Parker and a funny and witty Spider-Man.  When "Amazing Spider-Man" did get dark since "Brand New Day" began, it was usually related to the Osborns.  But, because the Osborns are so historically tied to Spidey, these issues still more or less kept with the general tone of "Brand New Day," since they were evoking the same era of the late 100s and early 200s of "Amazing Spider-Man," when Spidey faced some darker battles but still kept his happy-go-lucky attitude.

"The Gaunlet," however, represented a significant departure from this overall approach.  It was more evocative of the the late 200s and early 300s, when "Amazing Spider-Man" started to get darker and more serious.  (In fact, it's the sequel to "Kraven's Last Hunt," which ran in "Amazing Spider-Man" #293 and #294, as well as "Spectacular Spider-Man" and "Web of Spider-Man.")  We (thankfully) didn't veer into the late 300s and early 400s territory here, but we did start seeing Peter face a series of personal setbacks that went beyond "the Parker luck."

"The Gauntlet," for me, was uneven, mostly because the editors failed to apply its concept as rigorously as they should have.  The end result is that the last 22 issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" have been dizzying, not just in the sense of the assault on Peter Parker, but in the sense that, as a reader, it's been difficult to keep track of all the various plot threads and which ones actually mattered.  In the end, having read "Grim Hunt," it's clear that the most significant events were:

a) the hiring of the Chameleon, Diablo, Electro, and Mysterio, due to their roles in the resurrection ceremonies during "Grim Hunt" (though Chameleon and Diablo were technically hired before "The Gauntlet" started),

b) the tragedies of the Rhino and the Lizard, which were probably the events that most shook up Peter psychologically, and

c) the destruction of "The DB!" and the firing of Peter, which were the events that most complicated Peter's personal life, distracting him from his role as Spider-Man.

Other events -- like the kidnapping of Madame Web and Mattie Franklin -- were obviously important, but could've been inserted into any issue.

The rest of the arcs (Sandman, Mr. Negative, and Morbius as well as the Scorpion and Juggernaut arcs that happened after "The Gauntlet" but before "Grim Hunt") wound up being merely distractions.  Instead of getting a steady display of Peter's deteriorating psyche -- which we would have had if they had focused on the core elements I outlined above -- we wind up going up and down.  For example, Peter seems more or less fine during the Scorpion and Juggernaut arcs.  If we would've went right from the Rhino to the Lizard, I think we would've wound up entering "Grim Hunt" with a lot better sense of Peter being just this side of broken.

In the end, "Grim Hunt" rights the ship, if you will, and makes you forgot about the more irrelevant aspects of the last 22 issues.  But, I think we still see here, with "The Gauntlet," the Web Heads losing a little control over the story they're trying to tell.  I think they correct that in "Grim Hunt," but I thought it was important to note, since I think we wind up finding ourselves in an entirely new status quo after it.

Now, onto the story!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nova #23: "End of Story"

*** (three of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "'Course, this would be worth real money if it was the rare "ponytail" variant."  -- Rich, contemplating his action figure

Summary
Rich is in Robbie's room at Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., contemplating his brother's collection of Nova-related memorabilia and, possibly for the first time, realizing the extent to which his brother wanted to be him.  Quasar appears and tries to get Rich to talk about the fact that he's dying, but disappears before they can finish the conversation.  Meanwhile, on Nu-Xandar, Worldmind assigns the new Centurions to various tasks in their imminent involvement in the ongoing Kree/Shi'Ar War and opens a stargate to take the planet and the Corps to the front lines.  Robbie complains to Worldmind that he was placed on strategy and not combat.  At Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., Rich is nearly arrested when H.A.M.M.E.R. takes over the facility.  He's saved by Dr. Necker (who pretends he's her boyfriend), who promises to help Rich find a cure to his condition, despite losing access to the Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S.' high-tech labs.  To this end, she takes him to a secret installation run by, in her words, "the people I...sometimes work for."  It turns out she has been a mole for A.I.M. at Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. and Rich refuses her help as a result.  He leaves the installation, but Dr. Necker follows him, giving him Quasar's Quantum Flask, something she had planned on giving to A.I.M.  He and Dr. Necker share a kiss (in the rain...) and then he hurls the flask from him, saying he fears A.I.M. would get its hands on it after he died.  Unexpectedly, the flask explodes and Quasar emerges, declaring that he's recovered the Quantum Bands.  He gives them to Nova, who becomes the new Quasar.

The Review
The title of this issue -- "End of Story" -- is no accident.  DnA clear the decks here of several ongoing plots -- and kick a few up a notch while doing it -- in preparation for the "War of Kings" event.  I haven't really been the biggest fan of the post-"Secret Invasion" Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. interlude and I'm glad to see it's over.  But, DnA at least give it a good ending, using its closure by H.A.M.M.E.R. as a way to bring a surprising resolution to Rich's "relationship" with Dr. Necker and solve his whole "molecular-disintegration" problem.  I'm still vaguely annoyed by the "Worldmind Gone Mad "sub-plot and I feel like DnA are dragging out the obvious threat to Robbie that Nova has been predicting since Robbie became a Centurion in issue #19.  But, I feel like we're getting closer to addressing both issues now, so I'm excited to see where DnA take us.

The Good
1) I thought Rich's scene in Robbie's room was the best one in this issue.  It shows Rich coming to grips with his brother's adulation (and jealousy) of him, something that he's clearly tried to avoid acknowledging for years.

2) As always, I enjoy the extent to which DnA incorporate other events in the Marvel Universe into "Nova."  Here, we see the repercussions of the "Secret Invasion" arc, with Norman Osborn's H.A.M.M.E.R. displacing Tony Stark's SHIELD.  It's a small moment, but DnA use it to resolve the annoying Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. arc, and I applaud them for it.

3) As usual, DnA really excel in giving us some nuanced character moments throughout the issue.  The revelation that Dr. Necker was working for AIM was a great touch.  I totally didn't see it coming.  It makes her a more two-dimensional character than she's been portrayed as being, a nice way to end her story (even if it's not exactly an upbeat ending).  Moreover, DnA use Rich's response to the revelation as a way to show how much Rich has matured, as he lectures Dr. Necker on how her good intentions don't matter when you're dealing with an organization like A.I.M.  He doesn't dismiss her simply as a bad guy (as I think the old Nova would have done), understanding that she's misguided in her belief in A.I.M.'s doctrine of science over religion though genuinely wants to help him with his condition.  Similarly, their conversation in the car -- where Rich says that it's arrogance, not courage, that makes a good superhero -- also shows how far he's coming in understanding himself and his powers.

The Bad
1) As I mention above, I feel like DnA have been really heavy handed in setting up the obvious tragedy we're going to see involving the new Nova Centurions.  I feel like the question is more when, not if, characters like Lindy and Tre die, let alone Robbie.  At the very least, I'm just hoping we end War of Kings with Worldmind back in control of his faculties and Nova leading the restored Nova Corps.  Fingers crossed.

2) The Quasar deus ex machina was a little much.  Given that Rich was, in theory, dying, DnA had to do something to preserve him, obviously, but this way just felt like a cheap trick, something they usually go to great lengths to avoid.  At any rate, it should be interesting to see how Nova...um...Quasar handles his new powers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

War of Kings: Darkhawk #1-#2

As I mentioned when Darkhawk first appeared in "Nova," I loved Darkhawk as a teenager.  He had that perfect blend of adolescent angst and undefined stress that made you really feel like he was a teenage superhero, not just a superhero who also happened to be a teenager.  But, his series, as a result, was always a little...whiny.  I never felt like anyone did a great job capturing a voice for him that let him be a scared teenager but also a nascent superhero.  I was excited, therefore, to see how Cebulski was going to present an older Chris.

War of Kings:  Darkhawk #1:  Cebulski focuses on Chris' anger-management issues in this first issue, something I remember being a theme of his original series.  I was a little surprised to see him living with his mom, since I'm assuming that being the security chief at Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. pays well enough for him to afford his own apartment.  But, I get that he's doing it to spend time with his family.  That said, one of the overused tropes of the original series is that everyone seemed to know who he was, so his family was constantly in danger -- like, on an Aunt May or Mary Jane level.  Cebulski unfortunately also revives that trope, with Talon destroying his house and injuring his mom.  I'm hoping we seen an improvement next issue, because I'm disappointed that Cebulski picked up so much of the bad from the original series and so little of the good.

War of Kings:  Darkhawk #2:  Huh.  OK, I'll do the good first.  I feel like Cebulski (and DnA) do two things that really help make a break with some of the significant baggage that this character has and sets the stage for better stories. First, I liked the idea of having Chris be part of a "Nova Corps"-esque entity called the "Fraternity of Raptors," because Chris probably needs a better group of enemies (and an overarching sense of purpose).  I always felt like the enemies he fought in his original series were oddly matched to the type of cosmic-level power he displayed.  (I mean, Spider-Man can handle the Hobgoblin.  Why does someone who can, like, destory stars need to do so?)  As such, giving him a cosmic-level enemy will probably make for a better fit.  Second, by identifying a cause for his anger-management issues, Cebulski gives us the possibility of resolving them and moving past that terribly overused plot point.  Moreover, I also enjoyed the revelation that Chris has all sorts of different armors at his disposal because, to quote him, he could be really badass.

Unfortuantely, although I like the "Fraternity of Raptors" in theory, I think I'm going to like them less in practice.  I mean, their mission is to "serve as architects of the universal fate."  Um, what now?  It's not exactly, as Chris himself notes, a specific job description.  In reality, it's pretty clearly intended just to involve Darkhawk in the "War of Kings."   (Moreover, I think it's a retcon, since I'm pretty sure the original series had a different origin for the amulet.  Also, didn't Chris already fight a Talon in that series?  I'm going to have to look through my back issues when I'm at my parents' house for Christmas.)  I mean, who exactly opposes them?  Someone does, since he or she (or they) sent the "hunter drone" after Talon.  I'm all for a good ancient rivalry between good and evil, but Cebulski doesn't really sell it as something all that interesting.  I mean, again, all we get is "architects of the universal fate?"  Moreover, the art in this issue is terrible.  I could barely follow the action during the fight with the drone.  Honestly, I couldn't really even describe what it looks like.

According to the last panel, the story is continued in "War of Kings:  Ascension."  I don't have that series in my stack, and I can't say I'm all that intrigued by what Celuski has done here to make the effort to buy it.  At this point, I think I'll just read "War of Kings" and, if I feel like I missed something, try to see if Marvel has a digital version.  I get the sense, though, that Darkhawk isn't going to be essential to the "War of Kings" plot.  As such, even though I'm what I'd consider a huge Darkhawk fan, I can't say I really recommend this series.  Sad, but true. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #630-#633: "Shed"

***** (five of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "You're not a 'just having fun' guy, Parker.  You barely like 'having fun' in general -- much less with a girl."  -- Harry Osborn, talking some sense into our man, Pete

Summary
Spidey and the Black Cat stop some armored-car hijackers and engage in witty banter.  (The Cat also reminds Spidey they're not exclusive.)  Dr. Curt Connors (a.k.a. the Lizard) is working at getting custody of his son, but not impressing his court-designated supervisor.  Harry encourages Peter to ask Carlie on a date, noting that he's not a "just having fun" kind of guy and anyone with whom he's "just having fun" is probably just to distract him from Carlie.  Dr. Connors is working at Phelcorp Industries for an asshole named King, who's pushing him for results.  King asks out Marissa, the lab tech on whom Connors has a crush.  Madame Web, at the mercy of the Kravinoffs, predicts that Dr. Connors will not harm his son thanks to the timely intervention of Spider-Man; the Kravinoffs are hell-bent on making sure that doesn't happen.  Pete brings lunch to Carlie's office and tells her that he considers it a date.  Dr. Connors is shaken by the revelation that Marissa slept with King, and he reverts to the Lizard when King gets aggressive with him and denies him his antidote (thinking it's actually the serum).  The Lizard kills six people (except Marissa) and escapes into the night.  Meanwhile, Ana Kraven tries to kidnap Kaine, but fails.  Peter is stood up by Carlie, who calls telling him it's because she's on a bad crime scene.  Spidey arrives on the scene and realizes that the Lizard is going to go after Billy.  The Lizard is in fact, severely injuring Billy's foster mother, but cannot locate Billy.  Spidey and the Lizard fight, but the Lizard is distracted when he finds Billy's scent.  Spidey calls the EMTs to help Billy's foster mother and realizes that Billy is gone.  Billy is with Ana Kraven, who kidnapped him and leaves him to the Lizard.  The Lizard kills him, striking a blow to "Connors' nest," in his attempt to assert his dominance over Dr. Connors.  Spidey finds Billy's corpse and fights a newly-evolved Lizard, who can now activate the reptilian part of a human's brain.  Peter accordingly flees, finding Carlie.  Shaking off the effects, he takes the cure on which Dr. Connors was working while at Phelcorp and a photo of Billy and goes to find the Lizard.  Meanwhile, the Lizard has reduced a large swatch of Manhattan into mindless brutes acting on primal urges.  Peter injects the Lizard with the cure and shows him Billy's picture.  Though he does not revert to Dr. Connors (saying he's fully gone), the Lizard realizes that, now having full access to the human-brain portion of their shared body, he feels human emotions, which is new to him.  (He feels guilty over killing Billy, but doesn't know what that means.)  Spidey is being mauled by a mob of brutish New Yorkers, but the Lizard saves him to ask him about being human.  He then disappears.  A broken Peter appears at Aunt May's doorstep looking for consolation, to know that "we don't all want to hurt each other" and Aunt May shakes off Mr. Negative's corrupting touch long enough to comfort him.  In the end, it is revealed that humans are seeking solace with the Lizard and his liberating ways.

The Review
I just don't know where to start here.  This arc is just phenomenal.  I'm going to use that term a lot, because, really, adjectives and adverbs fail me at this point.  Along with "Amazing Spider-Man" #625, they are the best issues of a comic I've ever read.  I actually took notes as I went because it was all just too good, too much to process.

The Amazing
1) The Lizard eats Curt Connors' son.  Eats.  Him.  This conclusion of just the second issue of the arc is totally and completely unexpected.  It's phenomenally well done.  I mean, it's disturbing to talk about a child being eaten in these terms, but it's that sense of disgust that made it so well done.  The art is spectacular, filled with so many grace notes and little details.  As the Lizard attacks Billy, we see the tattered remains of the text boxes that showed us what Curt Connors was thinking; the shredding of these boxes show that Connors is gone.  I actually found myself not wanting to go to the third issue, not wanting to progress to see how awful it becomes.  Talk about getting a reader emotionally involved.

2) We get Spidey distilled to his core elements here.  His internal monologue about how he works on his "material" when he's with the Black Cat, telling us how he was going to set up his joke (only to have the Cat ruin it), and interacting with the moaning street villain as if his moans mirrored Spidey's feeling about Felicia:  all comedic gold.  The art is also superb.  Felicia has rarely looked so good and, although Bachalo may flirt with his characters being too cartoony, the Spidey we see in these pages is expressive and animated.  He leaps off the page.  Finally, notice how the armored-car driver didn't run down the blind lady.  It's Spider-Man, folks, not Batman.  Everyone isn't a homicidal maniac (well, except the Lizard).  In retrospect, it actually makes what the Lizard does so shocking and horrible, because it's so unusual and unexpected for this book.  Again, in the end, it was the quintessential Spider-Man.  Bravo, gentlemen.  Bravo.

The Really Good
1) Never before has an apostrophe been so menacing.  "This is the Lizard's territory, King."  "What?"  "The...lizards.  Y-you're agitating them."  Awesome.  Genius.

2) It wasn't until I got to the splash page at the end of the first issue that I realized I hadn't taken a breath for the last few pages.  Wow.  The art here is really what gives these pages such impact.

3) Speaking of splash page, the page after Peter confronts the new, talking Lizard is awesome.  It's all white except for the Lizard and a blackened-out Spidey, and you're just waiting for the fight to start so Spidey can kick the Lizard's ass.  You don't feel bad about it, either, because Wells' has written this arc so perfectly -- has imbued the Lizard with his own personality through the use of his own thought bubbles and idiosyncratic language -- that you know Curt Connors is dead.  Now, you want Spidey to wail on the guy who killed him.

The Good
1) Yay, Harry's back!  And he's having guy talk with Peter!  Yay!  More Harry!

2) OK, I actually feel the Carlie thing here.  I mean, she's no Norah, but I get it a little more.  But, I get that one of the main complaints about MJ was that, on the face of it, she was most notable for her looks, whereas Carlie is a science geek, a CSI (who would give Peter all sorts of insight into ongoing crimes, like she does here) and an over-achiever with an euqally over-developed sense of responsibility.  In other words, she's the perfect girl for Peter.  I think that argument seriously sells MJ short, but I at least see the allure of Carlie now.

3) The random lizards that appear throughout the book are just such an amazing touch, particularly because they suddenly become part of the plot at the end of the second issue.

4) "The Gauntlet" actually takes a pretty central role in this arc, despite it not bearing its title.  We finally see what the Kravinoffs have been doing with Madame Web, using her predictions to alter the future, or, at least, ensure a future they want.  They are the ones who makes the Lizard attack Billy Connors.  Suddenly, "The Gauntlet" has become real (more on that below) and I really, really, really want Spidey to kick their asses.  Also, we see Peter broken on Aunt May's couch.  Although a lot of "The Gauntlet" didn't really rise, emotionally, above the level of a normal Spidey encounter, the events with the Rhino and the Lizard -- combined with Peter's firing, subsequent unemployment, and confusing love life -- now create the sense that he is indeed at the lowest of his low.  He's alone.  He doesn't have anyone to tell about his travails as Spider-Man, since Mary Jane isn't returning his calls.  Even his friends can't really help him with his employment crisis, since they've all got a lot of stuff happening in their lives, too.  I didn't feel it anywhere else in "The Gauntlet," but the last few arcs have really driven it home that Peter isn't doing well.

5) The Lizard's new ability is a good example of what "The Gauntlet" should've been.  It's interesting to see the Lizard "access" his human brain for the first time, just as it's interesting to see his new powers to activate the reptilian brain of people around him.  The Lizard was always a one-trick pony, a "villain" whose existence seemed more to remind us of the humanity of Curt Connors than of the villainy of the Lizard.  Those days are done now.

The Bad
1) Aly (whoever that is) tells Ana that the hunt can't stop until the Gauntlet is finished.  "The Gauntlet" isn't finished?  I mean, it makes sense that it's not, because, as we established already, the Scorpion issue (issue #626) and this arc have more to do with the Kravinoffs than almost all the other "Gauntlet" issues.  But, we don't see "The Gauntlet" stamp on these issues.  This whole premise has been badly handled, but, you know, I'm just going to have to let it go, because it's not the writers' faults and it looks like it's over.  Had we seen the level of involvement on the part of the Kravinoffs that we have in the Rhino, Scorpion, and Lizard arcs, then I might have bought more into the whole idea that they were specifically constructing the event that would break Spider-Man.  Instead, as I've also said before, I'm just glad it's over.

2) The Cat works for the Mayor's Office?  Is that our official confirmation, or did that happen (yet again) off-line?

3) Peter apologizes to Carlie for leaving her hanging for lunch (as he did in the last arc).  But, he didn't actually.  In the last arc, he forgot about his rain check for lunch with Carlie, but then remembered and wound up having lunch with Carlie.  So, is he pretending he forgot about having lunch with her (probably not a good idea) or is it bad editing (probably Wacker focusing more on the letter pages than, you know, his actual job)?  I think I know which one it is.

4) Can we cut the Anti-May business soon?  Please?

5) The only thing that tempted me with giving this arc a four was that Bachalo couldn't handle the entire arc.  Emma Rios does a fine job helping, but occasionally it disrupts the flow of the story -- like the final few pages of the arc, when Peter goes to Aunt May's.  It feels like an add-on, when, in fact, it's an important moment, because we get to see Peter's vulnerability, which I'm sure will be part of "Grim Hunt."  I love Bachalo; I just wish he could be more reliable some times.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #627-#629: "Something Can Stop the Juggernaut!"

*** (three of five stars)

Favorite Quote:  "[Dead.]  Ummm...always overcoming obstacles."  -- Peter's response to the question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?," asked while he's on a phone interview AND fighting the Absorbing Man

Summary
Peter's Spider-Sense almost kills him when a huge explosion occurs over Manhattan.  It, unfortunately, happens during a date with Carlie Cooper, who confuses it with a "cluster headache" and tells him to go get some rest.  Instead, Spidey investigates the incident, following the trail of a meteor into Central Park.  There, he discovers a comatose Juggernaut.  Juggy is removed by the police; Peter tries to call in some help, but Dr. Strange and Professor X are unavailable, and no other superhero is returning his calls.  En route home, Peter stops a mugging and saves a drunk guy who's car was inexplicably placed on top of the Washington Square Arch by a "some blue-an'-white flyin' guy."  Peter later meets Carlie for lunch, telling her that he recovered from his headache enough to go and get photos of the Juggernaut; she tells him that Juggy is being kept at the Inwood Armory.  Spidey breaks into the Armory to ask Juggernaut who hurt him, only to discover the answer:  Captain Universe, who is also breaking into the Armory, though with the intent to finish off Juggy.  Universe hurls Juggernaut's body (with Spidey on top of it) from the Armory, and Spidey does his best to keep Universe distracted from killing the Juggernaut.  Mid-battle, Universe is called by the Enigma Force to repair fractures in the Earth's core, but he's distracted when Juggernaut appears.  We learn that Captain Universe is some guy who lost his job after his firm had to downsize due to the damage done by a fight between Juggy and Spidey.  In despair, the guy decided to commit suicide, changed his mind, but slipped; instead of dying, he's transformed into Captain Universe mid-fall.  Juggy calls the guy a wuss for being so devastated over such small setbacks, and Universe scans Juggy's mind, discovering that, after Spidey ended the aforementioned battle by placing him under tons of concrete, it took the Juggernaut a month to dig his way to the surface.  Universe continues to battle Juggy until, disappointed in its choice, the Enigma Force empowers Juggernaut as Captain Universe, so he can fix the fractures, which were caused by his digging his way to the surface after his battle with Spidey.  Everyone learns a lesson about power and responsibility and Peter ends the issue on a date with Carlie.

The Review
This arc isn't perfect, but it's a helluva lot more fun than "The Gauntlet," so it's a welcome distraction.  You can kind of tell its filler before we return to whatever the big event related to "The Gauntlet" is going to wind up being, but, again, I'll take what I can get if it means a return to our happy-go-lucky, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.  The story has a good pace, moving along nicely most of the time.  At times, however, particularly in the third issue, it gets pretty heavily weighed down by all the exposition and flashbacks revealing who Captain Universe is and why he hates the Juggernaut.  But, all in all, it restores a fun vibe to Spidey, so I'm giving Stern a three.

The Good
1) It's not perfectly executed here, but I always appreciate when writers show the repercussions of superhero/super-villain battles.  This new iterations of Captain Universe was born to solve the damage done during a battle between the Juggernaut and Spider-Man and the reason why his civilian identity hates the Juggernaut was born of that same battle.  It's a nice touch, particularly since the original battle appears in the first comic I ever owned!

2) I always appreciate when a writer presents Juggernaut as the complicated character he is, and Stern really excels at that here.  Despite being too exposition-y, I still thought it was fascinating to hear Juggernaut describe how it took him a month to claw his way to the surface after his battle with Spider-Man left him buried in the bedrock.  Again, we don't normally see the repercussions of huge battles, particularly from the point of view of the super-villains, so hearing Juggy describe it as a challenging trial really helps give him depth.

3) I liked how Spidey, in the first issue, kept rescuing people as he was on his way home from seeing the comatose Juggernaut.  He stopped a mugging and he rescued the guy on top of Washington Square Arch.  One of my favorite issues of all time is "Amazing Spider-Man" #314, where Peter and MJ have been evicted from the Bedford Towers at Christmas time.  Peter's feeling super-low, but he still stops a purse snatching in the park.  The woman tells him that all her money for Christmas presents was in that purse and thanks him by giving him some macaroons.  I don't know why, but that scene always stuck with me as the quintessential Spider-Man:  JJJ, Jr. might've thought he was a menace, but we all know -- and the people he saves know -- who he really is.  Peter might be distracted by his lack of a job, a crazy roommate, a stalled love life, and a mysterious entity that can take down the Juggernaut...but he still has time to help a lady not get her purse stolen.

4) The back-up story in issue #628 is pretty hilarious.  I mean, Peter on a phone interview while fighting the Absorbing Man?  Good stuff.  Also, based on the preview in #629, I am excited about the upcoming Lizard arc!

The Bad
1) The meditations of power and responsibility get a little heavy-handed here, even for a Spidey comic.

2) The Captain Universe schtick has always bothered me.  Why doesn't the Enigma Force have Captain Universe stop every earthquake?  Why was the one caused by a battle between Juggernaut and Spider-Man special?

3) Carlie Cooper, particularly in the first issue, looks about 45 years old.  Also, in terms of her character, I'm just not feeling the chemistry.  Despite how perfect Carlie would be for Peter -- a fellow science geek extraordinaire and someone who totally buys his "Um, I had to go...do stuff..." excuses -- it all still feels forced, unlike Norah and the Black Cat, which feels more organic and believable.  I also don't think it's the writers, either, because I haven't really seen anyone handle Carlie in a way that makes me think, "She's perfect for Peter!"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

New Comics! (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Detective Comics  #4:  I know I sound like a broken record, but, as usual, I end a Tony Daniel story more confused than I was when I started, and not in a good way.  First, I don't really see why Daniel started this issue with the scene of Batman interrogating an informant 72 minutes before the main events of the issue.  Given that I couldn't even remember where we left matters last issue, trying to place this scene within the story's continuum resulted in me starting off this issue confused and frustrated.  (What happened 75 minutes ago?  20 minutes ago?  5 minutes ago?)  The "main event," as the title says, is OK:  Dollmaker has Batman "perform" for buyers interested in buying his body to prove that it's really him.  But, I was pretty sure that Dollmaker was originally just trying to get revenge on Commissioner Gordon for killing his father.  So, why did he change his focus to  Batman?  I think we're supposed to believe Gordon was just the bait, but last issue made it pretty clear that Dollmaker wanted revenge on Gordon.  But, as they're escaping the hospital, Dollmaker orders his crew just to kill Gordon.  Isn't that kind of odd?  I mean, his motivation in theory was to get revenge on him, but he just orders a hasty murder that he himself doesn't "get" to commit?  It implies the motivation was selling Batman in the first place, but Daniel doesn't say that.  Are we supposed to assume that he kidnapped Gordon because Batman would be led to believe that he did so just for revenge and thus fall into the trap?  But, that assumes that Dollmaker knew Batman would ascertain his identity, which brings me to my main complaint from last issue, which is that Batman did so with no explanation of how.  As you can see, to my mind, it all just winds up muddled.  Moreover, Daniel also doesn't wrap up other dangling plot points.  We never really discover who Olivia is or how she got involved with Dollmarker in the first place and we end the issue with the Joker's "mask" still hanging in police HQ with no info whatsoever on what he's doing.  After feeling the same way about pretty much every one of Daniel's arcs on "Batman," I've come to conclusion that I need to cut my losses and cancel this title. Six Bat-family books should be enough to keep me entertained. 

Dungeons and Dragons #13:  This issue is, without a doubt, the most fun I've ever had reading a comic book.  I started trying to keep note of the witty banter, to prove just how funny it is.  But, part of what makes Rogers so brilliant is that the banter isn't just funny in and of itself, but it's hilarious if you've been reading this series for a while and understand the relationships between the characters.  Rogers also seems to be tightening up his storytelling.  In previous arcs, I was occasionally confused by some of the smaller points of the plot.  But, this arc has been remarkably tight, with every scene flowing from the previous one.  Along with "X-Factor" and possibly "Batman," this series is the best written comic I read every month, and you should be reading it.  (I'm now going to go read it again.)

X-Factor #228:  Peter David is just so freaking good.  This issue was amazing.  For the first time, it dawned on me that Madrox may actually wind up dead -- or something approaching dead that would keep him from being in the title for a few years so that Alex can conveniently return from space in time to take over the agency.  The revelation to the rest of the team that Layla resurrected Guido was just so well done.  I feel like David really excels at the pacing of these stories.  Some authors (or editors) would've turned this secret into the "Clone Saga" and we would've spent the next two years screaming to the book in our hands, "OMG, he doesn't have a soul!  Are you people stupid?"  Instead, David has built the tension over the last several issues, only to have it explode here as Layla considers resurrecting Jamie.  I like that David provided a specific reason for why the rest of the team had to learn the secret.  But, we can't exactly count out Jamie yet, since we end this issue again with the scene of him (or some version of him) staring at the dead bodies of some version of himself and Layla.  It's pretty clear David has something up his sleeve.  Moreover, as if all these twists and turns weren't enough, David allowed Hangman to have his moment, to be the hero, inspired to be so by his son.  I have absolutely no idea how David writes a cast this big and gives everyone his or her moment, given that so many authors with huge rosters (I'm not even going to pretend I'm not looking at you, Bendis) wind up ignoring half the team.  Instead, even the secondary villain gets a moment.  Awesome.  I even got past my annoyance over how chatty and hip Bloodbath was, because I eventually realized it's part of the way he tortures his victims.  All in all, this whole Hollywood arc has been awesome and I can't wait for its conclusion.

New Comics!: The "Regenesis" Edition #4 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Uncanny X-Men #2:  Meh.  I liked the idea of Sinister no longer being a man, but a "system," but, OMG, the system can talk.  Seriously, we don't see much happen in this issue because Sinister spends most of it explaining how awesome he is.  Point, Team Wolverine.

X-Men #22:  OK, in my drive to get my current pull-list under 30, I'm pretty sure that this title is going once Gischler wraps up this arc.  It's an OK title, but I can't say it adds anything that I'm not getting from other titles, particularly since I already saw Colossus and Storm in "Uncanny X-Men" #2.  For $3.99 a month, I don't need to see that much of Colossus and Storm.  At any rate, it's a pretty decent story to end my run.  This whole arc is essentially all about proving correct Scott's comments at the disarmament conference from "X-Men:  Schism" #1, that having a bunch of Sentinels lying around the place probably isn't the hottest idea.  The Governor of Puttanescaland goes a long way toward proving him correct by dispatching her Sentinel army against neighboring Symkaria.  Most of this issue is dedicated to Colossus, Storm, and War Machine fighting a Sentinel; I can't say it's the most gripping of battles since, as Colossus says, the X-Men have fought a lot of Sentinels.  But, fighting 30 Sentinels should be something different, so I'll definitely pick up next month's issue.

X-Men Legacy #259:  I think this issue is one of my favorite Carey issues.  He really does a great job bringing us on Rogue's emotional journey here.  It's a little behind the times, given that we know Rogue chose Wolverine from "X-Men:  Regenesis" #1.  But, he fleshes out her thoughts on the subject, and it's interesting to see what she's thinking.  (Notably, Carey also gives us a more...forgiving Scott here.  Scott makes it seem like two sides will work together, something he hasn't really quite articulated previously in any of the other titles.  It makes me wonder if Carey goes off script a bit or if Marvel is already softening the schism between the two sides.)  I also enjoyed how Carey uses Rogue's soul searching as the action-forcing event that, well, delivers us some action, revealing that someone has scattered its consciousness across the eight X-Men returning from outer space.  It's clever, because you think the issue is going to be a talkathon but ends up being pretty suspenseful.  Carey actually makes me almost believe it's Jean, clearly something we're going to see happen a lot before next summer's cross-over event, which seems to promise her return.  But, instead, we learn it's Ariel.  I had no idea who she was, so I had to do some Wikipedia research to get her background.  I'm not really sure what's left for the team to do next issue, since it seems like they just have to pull her through the doorway, but I guess we shall see.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Jackpot #1-#3

** (two of five stars)

Favorite Quote"Alright 'Thumper' --"  "No, you didn't.  You did NOT just call me 'Thumper.'"  -- Spidey and the White Rabbit engage in banter 

Summary
After the Spidey guilt-trip in Annual #35, Sara Ehret has taken up the Jackpot mantle once more.  She follows a group of smugglers to the docks, where she unexpectedly encounters Boomerang.  She manages to escape with a test tube she found in the smuggled goods.  She uses her access as a lab assistant at Phelcorps Labs to have her boss run a few tests on the item in the tube, discovering nothing more than the fact that it's a sweat gland.  In a flashback, we see that Ehret got her powers in a lab accident several years earlier.  In the present day, Boomerang reveals to his employer, the new Rose, that Ehret had left her fingerprints on the grappling hook she used to impale Boomerang when she was escaping.  Later, Jackpot is taking on the White Rabbit as she investigates the sweat gland, when she's joined by Spider-Man, who's investigating something else.  White Rabbit knows nothing about the gland, but informs Jackpot that the drug she was trafficking was called "Ebony."  Spidey suggests Ehret meet with Reed Richards, who reveals that the gland is from a super-villain called "The Corruptor," whose power is to secrete mind-controlling drugs from his sweat glands.  (Ewww.)  Ehret realizes that this drug has been synthesized into Ebony.  Later, Boomerang, under orders from the Rose, tracks down Ehret, killing her husband.  Ehret flees with her daughter and, after depositing her with the Fantastic Four, goes on a spree, trying to track down Boomerang's employer.  She's joined by Spider-Man and together they defeat Boomerang, who Jackpot reluctantly decides not to kill.  The Rose is revealed to be Ehret's boss, who lost his funding as a result of Ehret's accident and became the Rose to seek out more "aggressive" forms of funding.  Ehret leaves New York with her daughter, moving to California and assuming the name "Alana Jobson," the woman who bought her powers.

The Review
I actually enjoyed this mini-series more than I thought I would.  The whole Jackpot concept has been weirdly handled by the Spidey Brain Trust and Web Heads since its inception.  In the beginning, it was a MacGuffin of sorts intended to keep us thinking about Mary Jane despite her sudden absence as a result of "One More Day."  Then, after appearing in a few issues, Jackpot got shunted to Annual #35, where we finally learn that Mary Jane isn't Jackpot; instead, Jackpot winds up being a normal human who bought the name and license from a superhero who didn't want to be one.  In a way, it gives Sara Ehret the feel of being the third Jackpot despite the fact she's actually the original one.  But, Guggenheim uses the weird (and convoluted) origin story to give us a mediation on a reluctant superhero, someone who, despite having powers, isn't keen to sacrifice her family and her career to strap on some tights and play Spider-Man.  In the end, her reluctance to do so proved wise, given that, you know, her husband ends up dead.

The Good
1) The new costume is pretty sweet.

2) Guggenheim really portrays the reluctant hero well here, from having Jackpot only pick on small-time hoods to having her avoid banter because she's too busy concentrating on the fighting.

3) Although it occasionally bordered on too forced, the scene with Jackpot, Spider-Man, and White Rabbit was pretty awesomely hilarious.

The Bad
1) On the recap page, the author refers to the question of Jackpot's identity as "[consuming] Spider-Man's life for the better part of a year."  Um, not really.  Four issues in "Amazing Spider-Man," a crossover mini-series ("Secret Invasion:  The Amazing Spider-Man"), and an annual does not "consume" make.

2) Boomerang's characterization is a little odd here.  In the "clip" they show of him in the first issue's recap page, it's from "Amazing Spider-Man" #584 where he was having a political discussion with the Shocker, telling him he needed to exhibit some civic pride and vote, given the sacrifices the men and women of the U.S. military were making.  However, here, he's a would-be rapist and a murder.  To be honest, the rapist and murder are actually probably more in line with his character, but it's a little jarring, particular given that the editors remind us of his previous conversation by choosing the picture they did.

3) It's kind of weird they'd give a one-off character in a mini-series the moniker of "The Rose."  I mean, Richard Fisk was a serious bad-ass.  It seems kind of a waste to use it on a guy looking for funding for his gene research.  Plus, I don't think I really buy what Guggenheim is selling here when it comes to the scientist's motivations.  I mean, yes, I buy that the doctor lost his funding and he had to find new "aggressive" methods to fund his research.  But, he becomes a masked super-villain?  Why did he choose "The Rose?"  Did he look in some sort of super-villain name database and saw that it was available?  Also, even if he didn't become a super-villain, he went straight from no funding to creating designer super-villain drugs?  Isn't there a level between "defrocked scientist" and "super-villain collaborator?"  He was still working in the lab, so it wasn't like he was living on the streets.

4) We never really get a reflection on the part of Spidey about his responsibility in the death of Sara's husband.  I mean, his argument, I think, is that it was a necessary evil given that Sara had a responsibility to use her powers.  But, would he have felt similar if it were Mary Jane who had been killed?  I mean, he made a deal with the Devil (even if he doesn't remember it) just to undo a similar situation involving Aunt May.  I feel like Guggenheim really let him off the hook here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

X-Men: Kingbreaker #1-#4

I've decided on the simpler issue-by-issue format for this review since this series leads into "War of Kings" and I'm pretty sure I'm going to use this format for that event.  It looks like that event has a lot of different series running through it, and I found it awkward during "Annihilation:  Conquest" using the larger overall arc format that I used for that event.  For example, I wound up recapping the "Nova" tie-in issues as three separate arcs, with two appearing after I reviewed "Annihilation:  Conquest," despite the fact that they actually happened concurrent to the event.  Anyway, enough shop talk.  The point is that I'm going to recap "War of Kings" issue-by-issue because it allows me to do it sequentially.  Onto the reviews!  "War of Kings" starts here!

X-Men:  Kingbreaker #1:  OK, we don't really see much actually happen in this issue.  Korvus, Lilandra, and Rachel steal back the Starjammer, and the Shi'Ar capture yet another world in their expansionary war.  The main focus of the issue, though, is the fact that Vulcan is stark-raving mad.  Rather than spend his time leading the troops on the front or rallying the populace at home, Vulcan is supervising the torture of Alex, Ch'od, Lorna, and Raza.  Havok correctly notes to Vulcan that he's won, because, despite Vulcan being Emperor, he still keeps coming to Alex waiting for Alex to bow to him, something Alex swears he won't do.  The issue ends with the reveal that Havok isn't as powerless as he's let his captors think he is.  Methinks a jailbreak is in the works.

X-Men:  Kingbreaker #2:  OK, a lot goes down here.  Lilandra tricks Gladiator, getting close enough to him (by pretending to seek his support) so that Rachel can read his mind for the location of Alex and the gang.  Gabriel recruits the four most dangerous criminals held by the Shi'Ar to go after Korvus, Lilandra, and Rachel.  Although the trio manage to escape the foursome, the foursome do manage to ascertain their destination, the world where Alex and the gang are being held.  Meanwhile, Alex breaks free of his imprisonment and frees Ch'od, Lorna, and Raza, telling them that they're going to make their stand against Vulcan there.  Vulcan, meanwhile, murders emissaries sent by the Galactic Council to clarify the Shi'Ar's intentions, thereby, well, clarifying his intentions.  Yost is turning up the temperature, moving the story along at a good clip.  My only complaint is that Yost doesn't really provide a reason for why Alex chose that moment to escape.  (It seems overly convenient that he did it just in time for Lilandra, Rachel, and Korvus to arrive to help them.)  Otherwise, so far, I'm a pretty happy camper.  Plus, lest I forget, let me take a moment and praise Weaver's artwork.  He not only gives us the sexiest Gladiator I've ever seen, but he also manages to excel at both small moments -- like Gladiator and Lilandra's conversation -- and epic ones -- like the battle between the trio and the foursome.  He seems a really inspired choice for this series, that has so much emotion running through it, yet is also set against a galactic backdrop.

(I will note that I'm a little vague on two larger continuity points, though it's not Yost's fault.  First, the Galactic Council refers several times to the Shi'Ar sitting out the Annihilation Wave.  But, I thought that it was unable to assist in the Annihilation Wave because it was in the middle of fending off Vulcan's attack.  Maybe the Council just doesn't realize that?  It would make sense, but, since Yost doesn't make that explicitly clear, I'm not entire sure.  Second, the Council refers to the destruction of the Kree Empire.  I'm assuming it's referring to the events of "Annihilation" and "Annihilation:  Conquest," which didn't exactly destroy the Kree Empire, just severely impaired it.  I'm also vaguely aware that this event is happening at the same time as "Secret Invasion," so I'm not sure if I'm just missing some part of a different story.)

X-Men:  Kingbreaker #3:  Okey-dokey, we've got a lot of ground to cover here.  OK, first things first.  Yost apparently read my mind, because he explicitly has Vulcan mention the events of "Annihilation" and "Annihilation:  Conquest" as the cause of the weakening of the Kree Empire.  He also mentions something that led me to a little Internet research, that Black Bolt took over the Empire from Ronan as part of "Secret Invasion."  So, I'm a lot less vague on where this story falls in terms of continuity than I was last issue.  (Thanks, Chris.)  Moving onto the events of the issue itself, Yost really hits the gas here.  First, I appreciated him having Polaris chide Alex for letting them fall so far as considering letting the escaped prisoners kill the Shi'Ar guards.  Alex and Rachel were both fairly bloodthirsty throughout "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire" and "X-Men:  Emperor Vulcan."  In fact, I had noticed reference to Rachel killing Shi'Ar warriors in issue #1.  I'm glad someone is reminding Alex that the line between avengers and murderers gets really blurry when you spend too much time embracing lethal methods.  Second, I just have to compliment Yost on a really tightly scripted series so far.  Everything really flows logically from one event to the next.  Lilandra, Rachel, and Vulcan make their way to the world where Alex and the gang are located, but they reveal their hand to the criminals Vulcan has dispatched to kill them, putting Vulcan on their tail.  Moreover, I like that Yost makes Korvus savvy enough to know that the criminals would know where they're going.  Also, I liked how Gladiator was in the dark about the foursome.  It shows just how manipulative -- and commanding -- Vulcan is.  When he appears at the end with the Imperial Guard, you really felt his presence, the sense that this lunatic controls an incredible amount of power.  I can't wait to see what happens in the end.

X-Men:  Kingbreaker #4:  Yost pulls out all the stops in this finale.  First, I loved that Yost has Vulcan pay the consequences for his short-sighted decision to release the criminals.  Gladiator would have surely defeated a de-powered Havok, but he's distracted when he sees his traitorous cousin, Xenith.  Then, in perhaps the most brilliant moment in the series, the arrival of the Hodinn allows Havok to re-power, putting him on a level equal to Vulcan.  Yost uses both these moments to turn the tables on Vulcan and show how immature and impulsive he is, given that they're both a direct result of his decision to free the criminals.  Second, we finally (finally!) see some semblance of emotional connection between Alex and Gabriel.  As I think I've previously mentioned, Gabriel is essentially the Marvel Universe's Jason Todd.  However, the authors of the various Bat-books have done a great job showing the Bat-family's heartbreak over the way they've failed Jason.  When it comes to Gabriel, the Summers brothers have seem remarkably incurious about the horrors Gabriel faced as a slave.  Here, with Gabriel failing under Alex's barrage, he recalls the horrors he faced, and Alex for possibly the first time shows some sense of understanding, noting that they would've helped him if he had not killed Corsair.  (Of course, I'm pretty sure Alex had decided to kill Gabriel when he realized how insane he was, not when he killed Corsair.  Moreover, this position seems remarkably un-X-Men-y, given that Xavier has thrown open his doors to Magneto and Sabretooth in the past, not to mention Wolverine.  But, I digress.)  Finally, I like how Yost, again, doesn't give us a neat ending.  Whereas it was Alex who suffered a loss (Corsair) at the end of "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire," it's Garbiel here who has to suffer one (Deathbird).  But, on a larger scale, both sides wind up engaging in chaotic retreats as the prison collapses around them.  Just like in "X-Men:  Emperor Vulcan," the Starjammers are forced to leave behind someone (a symbiote-possessed Raza), a decision Lilandra has to make to save their lives by teleporting them to the Starjammer before the prison fully collapses (much to the anger of Alex, who wanted to stay to fight Vulcan to the death).  Vulcan is left to contemplate the loss of Deathbird and manage the expansion of the Empire, creating essentially two Imperial Guards, one to fight the war, and the other to go after the Starjammers.  Yost keeps on giving us essentially a series of "Empire Strikes Back" episodes, with no "Return of the Jedi" to bring us closure.  It's why I enjoyed this series and "X-Men:  Emperor Vulcan" so much.  Everyone ends the series a little worse for the wear, with no clear victory to make their sacrifices seem worthwhile and only the promise of more struggles ahead of them.

Final Thoughts:  I can't think of a better way to set up "War of Kings" than the last few pages of the final issue, with the Starjammers seeking help from the Kree Empire, now ruled by Black Bolt.  By giving us the Galactic Council sub-plot, Yost has made it clear that the other galactic powers understand the threat posed by a Vulcan-ruled Shi'Ar Empire, explaining why the Kree Emperor would listen to a former Shi'Ar Empress.  Honestly, I'm hard pressed to find any real fault with this series.  Yost still manages to make Vulcan a sympathetic character, despite the horrors he inflicts on others.  It would've been easy for him to Doom-ify him, but he never goes there.  Moreover, he never exonerates Vulcan for his behaviors, laying the responsibility firmly at his feet, even if he makes us understand why he's behaving this way.  Yost also makes Alex and Rachel seem less blood-thirsty in this issue.  If their previous...exuberance, if you will, was based on the rage they were feeling in the moment, you can feel how weary they are of that rage, how much the difficult decisions (good and bad) they've made are weighing on them.  The fact that Yost ends this series with everyone having a long way to go is great.  If you're a "fan" of Havok or Vulcan, I think it's a must-read series.