Saturday, May 31, 2014

Earth 2 #23 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Damn, Taylor is really turning up the heat.

This issue basically takes the "team" a few steps backyard after it managed at least to hold its position over the last few issues.  Although Alan returns in a pretty awesomely dramatic way, saving Hawkgirl and Red Arrow from parademons, the team is forced to flee the Batcave for Themyscria when Superman sends Darkseid's forces its way.  In fact, by the end of the issue, we don't even have a team.  ("Don't split the party!")  We have Batman leading a crazed Dr. Fate, a scared Val, and a possibly dead Red Arrow on one side (with support from Sandman and Sato), and Green Lantern convincing Hawkgirl to stay by his side on the other one.  Both Batman and Green Lantern claim to have plans, but we're not privy to them yet.  Plus, Taylor is creating a vibe of overconfidence when it comes to the two of them, so it seems like their plans aren't likely to work when revealed.  It doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence that they're going to be able to come together to defeat Darkseid.

In the meantime, Clark brings Lois to visit his oddly nonchalant parents in Smallville.  This entire interlude is intentionally bizarre, leaving it still unclear whether we're dealing with the real Clark or, for that matter, the real Kents.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Overall, Taylor continues to really get the pace right on this series.  After Robinson's break-neck, world-building race, Taylor's more cautious pace is welcome, even if he's still hardly giving the heroes time to rest before the next calamity.  We still have a lot of questions on the table -- like how Superman is still alive, for example -- but we seem to be getting there.  In the meantime, I actually feel like we're starting to get to know the characters, something that Robinson was forced to abandon at times to advance the plot.  You could just feel Batman and Green Lantern's instant dislike of one another.  Great stuff.

*** (three of five stars)

Detective Comics #31 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Manallato continues to make a believer of me.  This issue is tightly scripted, well plotted, and beautifully drawn.   What more could you want?

My challenge in reading this issue was keeping this story distinct from the larger one that Snyder and Tynion are telling in "Batman Eternal."  For example, "the Rose" from last issue was revealed to be Carmine Falcone in "Batman Eternal" #2.  (In fact, in my review of that issue, I originally mistakenly identified the events of issue #30 as happening in "Batman Eternal" #1.)  By using Falcone as the main villain of this series as well as "Batman Eternal," Manallato help contribute to the sense that the plot unfolding in "Batman Eternal" spreads throughout Gotham.  I'm fine with that, but, given how complicated "Batman Eternal" already is, I'm not sure it needs the help.

In terms of this series' plot, it's still a little unclear where we're going.  I'm pretty sure that we're supposed to believe that the Roman set up the Squid, with Sumo intentionally misdirecting Batman his way.  First, you've got the mysterious guy observing the fight and remarking to someone on the phone that Sumo "talked," something that he seemed to be expecting.  Then, it seems like the other two mysterious guys place a defeated Sumo into the device in the shipping container to heal him after he took a dive in his battle with Batman; after all, he'd have to be defeated to have the opportunity to rat out the Squid.  (If it's not Sumo in the container, I have no idea who else it would be.)  It seems like Sumo might've been led to believe that, too, despite the two guys seemingly using Icarus to kill him, a loose end, instead.

But, either way, even if Sumo legitimately ratted out the Squid, I still have no idea what the Roman's or the Squid's plans are.  Why kill Elena?  Was it really just to prevent her and Bruce from developing the East End?  It seems unlikely, given that we learned this issue that Elena's daughter is untraceable, making it clear that they were running from something.  (Remember Elena talking about fresh starts last issue?)  Why is the East End so key?  I'm assuming that it has a link to Icarus, but Manallato hasn't made that link yet, as far as I can remember.

It's only two issues, so no need to present everything as a pretty package just yet.  But, the lack of clarity on the Sumo issue hearkens to Hickman-esque plotting, where confusion is confused with intrigue.  A little more clarity on the events that we witness -- so we know what we're actually witnessing -- would be great.

*** (three of five stars)

Batman Eternal #5 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

As I've previously mentioned, one of the challenges of this series is going to be keeping a grip on all the myriad sub-plots.  The weekly format obviously helps, but, with a story as big as this one, it's still a challenge.

As I hoped, Vicky Vale finally enters the scene.  Although Vale doesn't exactly state the obvious problems with the Gordon case, like I figured that she would do, it's clear that she's not sold on the idea of Gordon as a reckless officer.  In fact, Snyder and Tynion slyly confirm that we've got more than meets the eye on the case when they make it clear that even Vicky hasn't managed to find the truth.  Bored with the varying stories that her contacts keep feeding her, she takes up the offer of the "Gazette's" crime editor to start delving into the gang war that his contacts say is brewing in the Narrows.  Separately, Red Robin discovers that the children that Professor Pyg infected were actually exposed to the "virus" before his attack, not during it; moreover, the virus is actually swarms of nanobots, and it's pretty clear that Bruce knows more about them than he tells Tim.  Tim discovers that the infected children all came from the same building, which just so happens to be in the Narrows, which just so happens to be the same building where Harper Row lives, who just so happened to bring Vicky and her protégé there after saving them from some angry gang members.  When Red Robin accidentally activates the nanobots as he stands in the bedroom of one of the infected children and falls through the floor into Harper's apartment, chaos ensues.

Putting aside the coincidences (in part because Snyder and Tynion make it clear that they might not actually be coincidences), this issue flows well.  It's frankly a nice diversion from the frustration over the slow-burning and still unbelievable Gordon story.  We wind up getting an entirely new series of questions.  The most obvious one is why someone infected the children in the first place.  The nanobot swarms that emerged from the kid in Harper's building and an equally infected Cullen don't really seem to do much, other than (conveniently) knock out the gang members who followed Harper to her apartment.  The next obvious question is why the creator of the nanobots would be so obvious to infect kids from the same building.  Snyder and Tynion make it clear that Bruce is involved in several ways, beyond just Bruce's mysterious silence:  the kids all live in a Wayne Foundation building ("the Phillip Kane Memorial Projects"), and, most obviously, we see the creator tell his pet monkey that he "trained" Bruce.  At first, I thought that he might've done it just to get Bruce's attention, but he actually dismisses that idea.  So, again, what's the point of the nanobots?

The problem is that these questions feel the same as the ones related to Gordon:  questions simply to be questions.  It's hard to see Gordon still in prison or the nanobots still a threat by the time that we get to issue #26.  These plots are obviously set pieces meant to move characters into certain positions; the problem is that they're so poorly constructed that you can see all the wiring.  It's clear that Snyder and Tynion are trying to build multiple outer layers of the plot to create the sense, in unravelling them slowly, that this conspiracy is incredibly far ranging.  But, again, they're just feeling like mysteries for mystery's sake.  I know that we've still got 47 issues left in this series, so we clearly have time.  But, we need to start seeing questions connect to other questions or questions that are legitimately questions.  Otherwise, this series is going to be more frustrating than it is intricate.

*** (three of five stars)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy #14 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I was skeptical about Flash getting sent into space as the Avengers' member on the Guardians.  I'm not saying that it doesn't make a certain amount of sense.  After all, Bendis addresses my concern from the Guardians' Free Comic Book Day issue, making it clear that he plans on putting the symbiote front and center in terms of Flash's adventures in space, rather than ignoring the fact that we still don't know a lot about its extra-terrestrial origins.  Moreover, Flash hasn't exactly had the easiest time of it on Earth.  The "Venom" series had a constantly revolving set of (mostly uninspired) supporting characters, so Bendis doesn't face the same problem as DeConnick does in sending Captain Marvel into space and depriving us of her (totally awesome) supporting cast.  But, I just wasn't sure what Flash would add to the a team already full of warriors like Drax, Gamora, and Rocket.  But, Bendis sells it to me by setting up Drax as Flash's mentor.  Flash has always been in some desperate need of mentoring, and Drax actually fits that bill pretty nicely.

Of course, we don't get to explore that relationship fully.  As we're on the precipice of Drax giving Flash more information about the symbiote, Peter's dad plays his long-delayed hand.  The bounty hunter tracking Gamora finally manages to capture her, just as other forces collect the rest of the Guardians, including Drax.  I liked the revelation that J'Son was behind these kidnappings, "rewarding" his enemies by delivering their most-wanted member of the Guardians to them (e.g., sending Gamora to the Brotherhood of the Badoon).  It reminds us just how devious J'Son is.  But, the best part is Peter's fight with J'Son (Peter being J'Son's own most-wanted enemy).  For a moment, you sort of saw J'Son's point, that Peter might be able to do more good as the Prince of the Spartax than as the head of the Guardians.  But, Peter's point is equally (and, frankly, more) convincing, rejecting the notion that anyone needs to "lead" the people of the galaxy.  It reminds us why these two are fighting.  In so doing, Bendis doesn't rely on the tired trope of family issues to justify the bad blood between them.  In fact, Peter specifically dismisses J'Son's belief that he's mad at him for the death of his mother and his "troubled" childhood.

Moreover, the back-up story reminds us that the galaxy does need protecting from threats like the Badoon (regardless of the philosophical motivations of J'Son or Peter, though believing, if you do, that J'Son is actually trying to "protect" it).  In 3014, Earth has fallen to the Badoon, and the Guardians of the Galaxy of that era are trying to free it.  Abnett (yay!) seems to be setting up a cross-over event between this era's Guardians and the future's, since Vance lets us know that they need to travel into the past to fix something.  Obviously, I'd be all over that.

Overall, Bendis unexpectedly moves this series into its next phase.  I had expected this issue to involve a few hilarious sequences involving Venom trying to adjust to outer space, similar to the way Iron Man joining the team was handled.  We get those moment, but they're not the main focus.  As a result, it's a darker issue than the mostly light-hearted ones that came before it, giving us the more serious version of Peter that we saw in the various "Annihilation" series.  I don't expect (nor want) Bendis to ditch the humor, but he times this evolution well, delivering it at a time when the various gathering threats shown in previous issues manifest themselves.  It reminds us that the Guardians can have fun, but they can also get serious when the situation requires it.  I'm hoping that Bendis drags out the Guardians reunifying for a few issues, giving us the chance to see them fight on their own.  Part of the reason that I'm so excited is that I honestly don't know where we're going to be in six issues.  At war with J'Son?  Or with the Badoon?  Maybe hitting on waitresses at a space bar?  We shall see.

**** (four of five stars)

Uncanny Avengers Annual #1 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Remender really embraces the Mojo concept in this issue, turning the annual into a fun critique of modern comics.  Mojo meets with a bunch of network executives who inform him that "structured character arcs, foundation, stories with 'something to say'" take longer and cost more to produce.  They encourage him instead to create a story "to confound the masses, spinning an endless web of strange mysteries that keep...feeble-minded viewers lost and guessing."  The executives posit that no one will admit that they're confused and will therefore embrace the story.

To my mind, it's basically Remender's lament over the type of stories that Hickman tells, with each month only adding to the confusion of the previous issue, rather than the ones that Remender tells, with each month adding to the intricacy of the overall plot.  Compare and contrast "Avengers World" #5 and "Uncanny Avengers" #21 to see my point.

Mojo follows the executive's advice, creating the "Avengers of the Supernatural" and using them to kidnap the Uncanny Avengers.  "Act Two" of this play involves Mojo throwing both teams of Avengers into high school, the ultimate audience draw.  It's honestly worth the price of admission to see Alex's "elitist outsider," complete with sexy tank-top, fighting with Thor's aggressive jock.  Combined with Remender's spot-on critique of the modern comic-book story, Renaud's solid art, and Adams' gorgeous cover, this hilarious framing device makes this issue a gem of meta proportions.

*** (three of five stars)

Avengers World #5 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

We not only get another issue focused on a single character (Manifold) about whom I could care less, but we also get a nonsensical trip to another universe that magically solves his problem, despite Hickman and Spencer never really telling us what his problem is.  Dunzo.

* (one of five stars)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The New 52: Futures End FCBD Special Edition #0 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Meh.  I've been on the fence about this series since it was announced, and I can't say anything here sold me on it.

Batman and Plastic Man apparently built the computer that evolves into Brother Eye, which has assimilated most of the Earth's humans (and its heroes) by the time of Batman Beyond's future.  Bruce sends Terry into the past to prevent Brother Eye's rise, but they misjudge the time and he winds up arriving five years into our future, when Brother Eye has already begun consolidating his power.  Essentially, it's "Age of Ultron," except the "past" is still our future.

The problem is that the author of this issue (whoever it is) falls into the same traps as Bendis did with the Ultron story, relying too much on the shock value of seeing how the heroes have been victimized (e.g., Black Canary's head becoming part of Frankenstein's torso) and focusing too little on the emotional impact that these changes had on the heroes themselves or on the philosophical implications of the choices that they're forced to make (e.g., Bruce condoning the murder of a mysterious person in the past, seemingly the point of Terry's mission).  Given that we all know the conclusion of this story before it happens, as we did with "Age of Ultron," it's only the emotional and speculative parts of these stories that matter.  The authors would be wise to take a page from Remender's current run on "Uncanny Avengers," rather than trying to shock and awe with violence.  Either way, I won't be here much longer.

** (two of five stars)

Free Comic Book Day 2014 (Guardians of the Galaxy) #1 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I picked up this issue because I felt like I missed a step in reading "Guardians of the Galaxy" #14, given that we see Venom's debut on the team in this issue and not that one.  But, if you're a long-time "Guardians" reader thinking of picking up this issue, I can tell you not to bother.  Iron Man just walks Flash through the various members' histories and personalities (with the obligatory warning not to call Rocket a raccoon).  Unfortunately, we don't get any sense why Tony picked Flash in particular to go into outer space, the reason why I actually picked up the issue.  You'd think at some point that someone would raise the issue that sending the symbiote back into space might be a bad idea, but the only hint that we get of that is Drax appearing to recognize the symbiote.

The best part of this issue is the "Spideyverse" preview, and I have to say that Slott has raised my hopes to "Spider-Island" levels.  Seeing Gaiman's "1602" characters once again is exciting enough, let alone for the implications of Spidey prime interacting with him (if he survives) and other Spideys.

** (two of five stars)

All-New X-Men #26 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Whew, this issue is intense.

I can't believe how beautifully Bendis handled younger Jean's feelings for older Scott (or, to use Scott's line, "regular aged" Scott).  First, he reminds us why it's entirely natural (if creepy) for her to have those feelings, given that she's confronted with the man that she hoped that younger Scott would become.  Second, Bendis shows Scott displaying a level of emotional maturity that we don't often see from him.  Although Cyclops is firm in refusing Jean's advance, Bendis hints that Scott might also feel the same way.  Finally, to make it clear that we don't have to worry too much about such an abomination coming to pass, Bendis introduces Nanny Kitty, who informs Scott that he'll never be spending time alone with Jean again.  It's this interaction that I loved the most.  As you know, I never really bought the fact that Kitty threw in her lot with Scott, and Bendis at least tries to show that she's still somewhat uncomfortable with that decision, in that she's still somewhat uncomfortable with him.  Scott has reason to be afraid of her, and not just because she's become the House Mother.

As usual with this series, this excellent characterization isn't limited just to the main players.  A long-neglected Warren gets in some good moments here as he tries to comfort a departing X-23; I particularly liked him encouraging her to talk about her feelings for Scott by saying, "This is how people get to know people."  Bendis has seemed at a loss when it comes to finding a role for Warren, and I think that he's hit on a good one in using him to play peacemaker between the various factions.  

In terms of the larger plot, Bendis hints that we might get somewhere soon on the space/time implications of the original X-Men's time in the present.  Scott wonders why he doesn't remember spending time with his father in space and how older Hank is going to find a way to return the original X-Men to their time.  Moreover, we see young Hank trying to figure out this question, focusing particularly on divergences like Scott going to space and Jean manifesting new powers.  The arrival of the future X-Men on the last page seems to raise the stakes when it comes to some clarity.

**** (four of five stars)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Secret Origins #1 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I read this issue for the Robin story, and, although it didn't give me what I wanted, I can't say that it wasn't interesting.

Higgins doesn't answer the main question that "Nightwing" #0 raised, namely, whether Dick was Bruce's ward, living at Wayne Manor, etc.  We do see Dick in Wayne Manor a year after his parents' deaths, but he's in a library, not a teenage boy's room.  The mystery remains so.

The most interesting part of the story is that Higgins connects Tony Zucco to the Falcone/Maroni crime family.  I just re-read "Batman:  Year One" and "Batman:  The Long Halloween" as a result of Carmine Falcone's re-appearance in Gotham in "Batman Eternal."  At this stage, Snyder hasn't give us many hints about the New 52! status of the various "Batman:  Year One" stories.  So far, he's only ret-conned Falcone's death (though, to be honest, "Batman:  Dark Victory" always left open the door that he might not be dead).  By mentioning Maroni in context of Falcone, Higgins seems to be reminding us of their connection in the "Batman:  The Long Halloween," raising the possibility that it remains part of the Batman canon.

However, several characters in "Batman Eternal" have mentioned that the Penguin and Batman ran Falcone from town five years earlier; in "Batman:  The Long Halloween," Two-Face shoots Falcone.  So, it's unclear if both events happened (with Falcone maybe returning from the dead and then Penguin and Batman doing their thing), or if Snyder is ret-conning Falcone's death.  It's not exactly Robin-related, but it's interesting in its own right, given the various mysteries that "Batman Eternal" is putting on the table.

** (two of five stars)

Batman Eternal #4 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Based on Stephanie's mom's various warnings that she not go to her father's house in issue #3, it was pretty clear that she knew that her ex-husband was Cluemaster.  Snyder et al. confirm that in this issue, and Stephanie's life just got a lot more complicated (even though she doesn't know that yet).

At this point, the problem with the Stephanie plot is the same one as the Gordon plot:  you've got to engage in some pretty significant suspension of disbelief to stay engaged.  It seems clear that Stephanie didn't, in fact, overhear the criminals' plans for Gotham when she was breaking into her father's house; she has too many details to glean that much information in that brief scene, making it more likely that she heard them when she was "unconscious" on the floor.  But, again, it raises the question why the criminals would've left her there in the first place.  Similarly, Gordon is on the receiving end of the scorn of the judge hearing his case, despite the fact that I can't quite believe that no one -- no one -- seems to care about the various elements of the story -- the trains heading at each other, the power box not affecting the lines, etc. -- that imply a set-up.  (We're not even mentioning the whole question over whether the perp had a gun, since that element is settled in the eyes of law enforcement, if not Batman and Batgirl.)  I think that we're supposed to assume that the corruption reaches beyond just the GCPD, to include the judges.  I can believe that.  But, is Falcone (or whoever engineered the crash) buying off all the media?  Where is Vicki Vale when you need her?

Snyder et. al add Batgirl into the mix in this issue, and her single-minded pursuit of the party responsible for setting up her father leads her to discover that someone spent three hours on the platform without boarding a train but then exited shortly after the crash.  She identifies him as a Brazilian opera-star with connections to organized crime and departs the Batcave in a hurry to go find him.  Bruce is weirdly dismissive of Barbara's crusade here, claiming that he's working on Gordon's case and encouraging her to rest since she hasn't slept since the accident.  However, all we actually see him do in this issue is shake down Falcone.  Doesn't it make sense to let Barbara do her thing, even if she isn't thinking straight?  After all, they throw the Commissioner into the general population in Blackgate in this issue; it's not like time isn't of the essence.  Plus, it's not like Bruce had identified the soap-opera star.  How hard is he really working?

The good news is that I did more or less manage to suspend my disbelief for most of this issue, so I enjoyed it.  Layman scripts this one, and he keeps everything moving at a pretty brisk pace.  Moreover, I'm hoping that we'll get somewhere in both the Gordon and Stephanie stories so that these nagging inconsistencies won't be so annoying soon.  A scene showing Cluemaster deciding to let Stephanie overhear the story on purpose or one depicting Gordon's judge taking a bribe from Falcone would go a long way to making me happy.

*** (three of five stars)

Batgirl Annual #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I liked this issue, though I'll admit that I'm not entirely sure that it made sense.

A guy named Mr. Rain pays desperately ill people to incubate organs in their own bodies, without telling them that they'll be killed when the organ is ready so that it can be sold to a weathy recipient.  I believe that they think that they get to keep the organ.)  Weird, but OK.  But, I'm not really sure why this process results in them becoming mindless slaves or why he uses them for terrorist acts.  Also, the revelation that he's a neo-hippie worried about his carbon footprint just felt bizarre.  It felt like Simone wanted us to be surprised when our assumption that it was a Carmine Falcone-esque figure was proven false, but I was too busy just trying to figure out his plan to think too much about the type of man that he was.

The main focus of the issue, though, is Batgirl and Poison Ivy's relationship.  Barbara reasonably doesn't trust Ivy after she apparently tried to kill the Birds of Prey, and she keeps talking about arresting her (depsite the fact that I'm pretty sure Jim Gordon hasn't issued Babs a badge).  However, she seems weirdly tone-deaf throughout this issue, constantly berating Ivy for not caring about people as Ivy is trying to explain herself (particularly how her moods fluctuate with the seasons).  For someone lecturing about empathy, Barbara doesn't really seem to have much of it.

But, for all those negatives, the story flowed well over the course of the issue.  It's probably more for "Bird of Prey" fans than "Batgirl" fans, but it's a decent read nonetheless.

*** (three of five stars)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Uncanny Avengers #19 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

One of the marvels of the story that Remender is telling is that he really manages not to rush it.  Rather than Kang's Chronos Corps simply attacking Eimin and magically finding a way to bring back the Earth, Remender forces them to do it the hard way.  They have to locate all the surviving members of the Unity Squad and send back their minds, a la "Days of Future Present," to the current present in order to correct the mistakes that they made.  Clearly, it'll be several issues before Remender wraps up this story, allowing the reader to just take a breath and enjoy the ride to the end.

Of course, we have a few hurdles in front of us.  First, Eimin is holding Sunfire and Wolverine hostage.  (Moreover, she has them perpetually ablaze for their crimes against mutants.  Remender makes you wonder if they'll be in any condition to help the Chronos Corps, with Eimin letting us know that they stopped screaming years ago, hinting at the horror that they've experienced.)  Second, Magneto released Wasp to use her as bait so that Cyclops and Storm could lead a team to Alex's HQ and discover why he destroyed the tachyon dam.  Finally, Alex refuses to leave Planet X without his daughter, so he's not exactly on board with the plan to send back only the Unity Squad's consciouses.

Remender "resolves" these problems brilliantly, since they really only cause more problems.  Thor takes the Chronos Corps on a frontal assault on Eimin to free Sunfire and Wolverine.  Although I'm really excited about the grudge match between Eimin and Thor, the Corps no longer have the advantage of surprise.  Magneto seems poised to kill Havoc, but Remender hints that both Cyclops and Storm harbor some suspicions about Eimin and Planet X, raising the possibility that they'll believe Alex if he gets a chance to tell them the truth.  (Lest we think that they don't have reason to be suspicious, Eimin informs Banshee and Daken that she wants them to kill the X-Men and blame their deaths on Kang to rally Planet X against him.)  Finally, I loved Kang grabbing Alex's daughter and disappearing into the time stream.  Remender actually does leave open the possibility that Katie will survive into the present, promising a substantial change in Alex and Janet's status quo.  (I'd imagine a present Alex could consult with his brother on the parenting skills needed to raise a child from an alternate future.)

I really can't believe how nuanced of a story Remender is telling.  He somehow makes you still question the outcome, as if it's possible that the heroes will fail and not be able to resurrect the Earth.  It also has Alex step into the role that his brother has so long played.  You have to wonder if Alex won't understand Scott more after this experience.  I can't think of Alex ever having more personal stakes connected to his leadership than he does here, and Remender really does an amazing job conveying those emotions to the reader.  Again, I just really have no idea where Alex is going to be, mentally, at the end of this story, another sign that Remender is doing a phenomenal job of keeping us guessing even when we know the broad outlines of what the final resolution will be.

**** (four of five stars)

Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #12 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

This issue is better than the last one; Shinick does a great job of really showing how Otto's grief propelled him not only through this story but also in his war on Spider-Man.  I'm not really sure that I buy that, to be honest; the idea that Otto only wanted to defeat Spider-Man to prove to Norman that science mattered more than soul seems a bit of a ret-conning stretch.  It takes too far the idea that, at the end of the day, Otto was only a misunderstood soul.  But, Shinick is really just playing from Slott's clues in "Superior Spider-Man," and I'll at least concede the idea that defeating Norman was part of Otto's drive to defeat Spider-Man.

The main problem with this arc is that I'm still not sure what the point of Norman and Otto's alliance was.  OK, to defeat Spider-Man, sure.  But, Otto seems to imply here that Norman actually only really cared about defeating Otto.  Was Norman just using the alliance as a pretense to knock Otto off his pedestal, lest he kill Spider-Man first?  I'd totally believe that from Norman, but I'm not actually sure if that's the point that Shinick is trying to make.

For all its promise, I'll say that this series ends with a whimper rather than a bang.  After the rushed Superior Six and Daredevil/Punisher arcs, we've got another two-issue arc that leaves a lot on the table.  In fact, Shinick is forced to include an odd two-page epilogue where Peter talks to the reader and basically says, "Well, I guess we're done with Otto!"  Hopefully Marvel will take some time before relaunching another Spidey team-up series, giving themselves an opportunity to figure out the types of stories that they should be telling in it.

*** (three of five stars)

All-New Invaders #4 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Man, this issue is tight.  Although it was pretty clear that Bucky wasn't dead, Robinson managed to keep us guessing, leaving open the question why Bucky would fake his own death.  (I loved Steve's bad acting, with his Hestonesque, "Damn you!"  I actually felt that Robinson wrote this part cheesily on purpose.)  First, Steve's plan is as brilliant as you'd expect Captain America's plan to be:  he knew that Hala is virtually impenetrable, so he sets up a plan where Bucky gets himself "killed" and the remaining Invaders fight Ikaris to distract the Kree to give Bucky enough time to rendez-vous with the Vision.  It sounds complicated, but it actually flows organically.  Although it was a jarring moment, Bucky attacking the Kree because he refused to be a slave again made perfect sense, making the fact that it was all part of the act all the better.  Plus, Robinson knows not to keep us in the dark too long, using the Human Torch's narration to clue us into the plan a few pages before Bucky's revealed to be alive.  Finally, Robinson didn't make it easy:  Jim is clearly worried as he and Cap fight Ikaris, noting that they're not familiar with his moves, as Cap would be of Thor's.  It might be a plan, but the risk is still there.  But, Robinson brings it full circle, making it clear that they're all willing to take that risk because they're brothers and trust each other with their lives.  Awesomeness.

**** (four of five stars)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Justice League United #0 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I'm tagging this issue as "Justice League of America," despite the fact that it's a new series, because it's essentially a coda to the previous book.  Martian Manhunter and Stargirl form the core of the new team, meaning that practically half the issues of "Justice League of America" have essentially been a buddy comedy featuring the two of them (without the comedy).  I'm hard pressed to remember who else was even on the team.

To be honest, it's a pretty decent issue.  Animal Man and Stargirl are at some sort of public appearance when they're approached by an anthropologist with a story of alien artifacts and a missing fiancée.  It ends with the Justice League in space uncovering some sort of alien genetic-engineering operation, something that seems to bode poorly for the galaxy.  If you miss "Legion of Super-Heroes," you should probably pick up this series.

I'm writing this review, though, mostly to note how ridiculous it is that I'm even reading this book at all.  This issue is the second -- after "Batgirl" #30 -- that suffers from the delay of "Forever Evil" #7.  The collapse of the JLA is implied, but we don't actually know what happened.  Were they the fall guys for the Crime Syndicate's victory over the Justice League?  Did everyone else die?  We have no idea and won't for several more weeks.  DC really needs to pull it together.  Given how decent this issue is, I might've considered stick with it, but, man, I'm just done with the Justice League(s) at this point.

*** (three of five stars)

Batman Eternal #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

OK, this issue is pretty amazing.  It's the first time that you really get the scope of the story that Snyder and his partners are going to tell in this series, and it's exciting, to say the least.

This issue's biggest news is that Stephanie Brown enters the New 52! in real time here.  I know little about Stephanie, so I had no idea what she was going to discover when she returns to her father's house unexpectedly because she left her "Q-Pad" there.  Needless to say, it's a bit of a shock when she not only discovers that her father is the super-villain Cluemaster, but also that he's holding a pretty dodgy looking meeting with other super-villains in his kitchen.  I'll say that the only part of this issue that I didn't fully understand was that the super-villains decided to kill Stephanie because she overheard their plans.  I certainly get why they would want to kill her if she had overheard (after all, #supervillains), but I don't get why they thought that she had.  After all, their mysterious leader knocked her unconscious almost immediately, making it unlikely that she heard much.  However, she herself tells her mom in a voice-mail message that she knows their plans.  It only seems possible that she does because the idiots left her "unconscious" on the floor while they schemed and she was clearly faking it.  In that case, you'd have to wonder why the super-villains didn't just move her into the hallway.  (Then, it would've more or less been Cluemaster's problem, since the only thing that she would've learned was his identity.)  It would've been nice for Snyder, Tynion, and Fabok to make it a little clearer that Stephanie heard something, rather than just telling us that she did.  (Also, to complicate matters, we're told that she saw the mysterious leader's face, despite the fact that he knocked her unconscious from behind.)  That said, I'm willing to take it more or less on faith.  After all, Snyder and Tynion use this scene to remind us why Batman had to go find Stephanie in "Batman" #28, since she's the only one that knows the mysterious leader's plans. I'll just have to buy that some stuff happened off-camera, if you will.

On the mysterious leader, it seems likely that he's not Falcone, or Snyder and Tynion would've revealed him.  At this stage, it's unclear if the leader is the one manipulating events (which he may be, given his comment about "building the Gotham that will allow myself and my associates to rise up and take power"), or if he simply knows who is manipulating events and plans on using that knowledge to emerge a winner.  But, just this quandary conveys the message that Snyder and Tynion want conveyed, that multiple people are playing a long game and it's unclear how much everyone knows about everyone else's agendas and plans.

Also, I'd wrap up the Stephanie section of this review by noting that Stephanie's father seems unmoved as he goes to kill her.  I'm not sure if he really meant such disinterest or not.  They seem to have a loving relationship before that moment, so I'm wondering if he was faking it to save face in front of the other villains.  I guess that we'll have to wait to see how their relationship develops.

Moving onto the GCPD, Maj. Forbes tells Mayor Hady and Falcone that he has absolutely no problem ignoring the coming gang war, recalling the days when cops were kings of Gotham.  In a move that should've surprised no one, Hady appoints Forbes interim Commissioner, and Forbes re-directs police resources from Falcone's coordinated hits on the Penguin's criminal empire to a war on Batman.  (Bullock and Sawyer are shocked, though I don't understand how they could be that naive to think that a good cop like Sawyer was going to get the nod.)  Meanwhile, the new kid, Jason, talks to Jim, expressing hope that Batman is going to have him free soon.  It's likely no accident that Fabok portrays Jason as a younger version of Jim, making it all the more seamless that he embraces Batman in much the same way that Jim does.

Finally, I'm not 100 percent sure why Batman went after the Penguin to get to Falcone, given that the Penguin seemed to play a role in ousting Falcone from Gotham five years earlier.  It seems to unnecessarily tip off the Penguin, giving him time to prepare for the gang war that Batman has to know is coming.  But, the scene in the Batcave shows Bruce desperate, so maybe it makes sense.  Alfred found no traces of a toxin in Gordon's blood, calling into question Bruce's hypothesis that he was under some sort of mind control.  Moreover, we still don't have an answer to why the guy that Gordon shot -- one of Falcone's men -- was working for Pyg.  I have to say that this plot is still the most tedious, since I'm just waiting for some sign that the general public is aware of the fact that two trains speeding at one another was a bad thing, even without Jim shooting out the electricity box.  But, Snyder and Tynion are starting to use it to show effectively how clever (or, at least, in control) whoever it is that set up Gordon is, so I guess that I can tolerate it for a few more issues.  (That said, Stephanie invoking Gordon's image at the start of the issue when referring to the possibility that a villain is going to attack her on her walk to her father's house felt a little OTT to me.  At best, Jim is responsible for causing an enormous accident, so everyone treating him like some sort of crazed serial-killer just doesn't make any sense, particular given the aforementioned evidence that it wasn't him.  But, I digress.)

At this stage, I almost feel like I need to start keeping a list of questions to be answered, given how quickly Snyder and Tynion are raising them.  They're really using this weekly format well, contributing a real sense of drama as the story picks up steam week after week.  It gives you the feeling of being part of something, like reading a serialized novel in an 18th-century newspaper.  If they can keep up that feeling without seemingly creating unreasonable obstacle to resolving issues just to drag out the story, we're going to have a good time.

**** (four of five stars)

Wolverine and the X-Men #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

One of my main complaints about Latour on "Winter Soldier" is that he may have been writing in English but everything sounded like a bad translation from another language.  I hate to say that I feel like history is repeating itself.  From Evan's bizarre report about what makes one special to Edan Younge's incoherent ramblings about Quentin's possible future, I spent most of this issue confused.

First, we've got the convoluted plot.  On the face of it, the plot is actually pretty simple:  Younge and John are both members of the Askani clan and they've come to the past either to kill Evan before he becomes Apocalypse or to train Quentin so that he's ready to stop Apocalypse.  The problem is that the details are more problematic.  For example, Younge makes no sense.  One one hand, he tells Quentin that he has been "neutered by the comforts of those whose time passed them by decades ago."  On the other hand, he laments that they only teach him violence.  Is he comfortable or is he violent?  Which one is the problem?  Also, I still have no idea what connection the company that they've founded has to do with anything, particularly the Phoenix.  All we know is that they seemingly hacked everyone's iPhones in an attempt to attract the X-Men.  Why not just attack Evan?

But, the real problem is the scripting.  For example, Evan's report on individuality is clearly supposed to have some deeper meaning, but, despite my degree in French literature, I can't for the life of me understand what it is.  Wolverine's sub-conscious uses his healing factor to...create his hairstyle?  I think that he's saying that their subconsciouses all guide their powers, making them, according to Storm, far more similar than they believed.  But, isn't that a pretty benign observation?  OK, their sub-consciouses guide their powers.  Does that mean anything interesting?  Doesn't our subconscious guide everything that we do?  It's not exactly actionable information.  Moreover, I have no idea what it has to do with Storm's ability to shake off Faithful John's mind control, which is when the story gets told.

In other words, I'm worried about where we're going on a Latour-penned book again.

** (two of five stars)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On Superior Spider-Man

It's been a long and turbulent journey, but, in the end, I'm not really sure how I feel about the "Superior Spider-Man."  After thinking about it, I realized that I'm not sure how I feel because I'm not sure that Slott knows how he wants me to feel.

I'm going to go into an obsessive amount of detail here, but, to bottom-line it, I think the main problem with "Superior Spider-Man" is that Slott was never really clear on what motivated Otto.  We never really get a definitive sense if Otto is the guy who tried to kill 99.92 percent of the Earth's population or the guy who got angry when the Vulture made him strike a child.  Slott tries to stake out a position that they're the same person, but we're never really sure if that bridge is because of Peter's inherited memories or Slott's wishful thinking.

The Original Sin
Spider-Man attracts his fair share of die-hard fans, and, as someone who's read, according to Comic Collector, 27+ years of "Amazing Spider-Man" comics, I clearly fall into that camp.  It's hard for me to think of a more divisive plot twist during that time than this one, except the "Clone Saga."  For me, the switch felt like a cheap stunt, given the rushed feeling of the last few issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" that set the stage for it.  Maybe if Slott had taken more than three issues to tell that story, I would've bought the transfer of Otto's consciousness into Peter's body.  It would've felt more organic.  Or, Slott could've done a better job of conveying Peter's shock over losing control of his body; as it was, these issues focused almost exclusively on Peter's mad scramble to undo the procedure.  This rush to introduce Spider-Otto became "Superior Spider-Man's" original sin, resulting in some readers, like me, never really accepting the premise.  Like "A Christmas Carol," nothing wonderful could come from the story that Slott was going to relate if you didn't accept that Peter Parker was dead like a doornail.  Most of us -- correctly -- did not.  (In fact, Peter himself didn't even "die" until issue #9 of the new series.)

This sense of unease wasn't made any better by the carpet-bombing that Stephen Wacker (and, to a lesser extent, Dan Slott) did to anyone who didn't immediately accept this change as OMG YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING GENIUSES!  I mean, it's a clever, if disingenuous, move to paint anyone opposing a BOLD NEW DIRECTION as simply a mindless defender of the status quo.  But, claiming yourselves as the sole stewards of Spider-Man is always a dangerous road for creators to go.  It's doubly true of editors, given their long history of screwing up everything, as the "Life of Reilly" blog that I have in my links section details through the behind-the-scenes story of the "Clone Saga."  Reluctant though I was, after the questionable premise and aggressive attacks, I eventually decided that Wacker and Slott were clearly lying to us and that Peter would return.  Although it might mean that nothing would be wonderful, I was at least prepared to grit my teeth and bear it.  In my most optimistic moments, I hoped for another "Big Time!"

The Four Laments
Re-reading my reviews, my complaints about this series fell into four categories:

1) Throughout the series, it was difficult to tell where Peter ended and where Otto started.  At the start, Ghost Peter made this confusion worse.  Otto didn't erase his presence until issue #9; as such, for almost a third of this series, Otto was directly competing with Peter for our attention.  In issue #3, Otto is furious at the Vulture for forcing him to strike a child, despite the fact that he was trying to eliminate most of the Earth's population a few issues earlier in the "Ends of the Earth" arc.  One could point to Peter's influence for inspiring this change of heart, but it's clear that it's Otto himself -- and his experience as an abused child -- that feels this anger.  In issue #8, Slott is even more direct, bringing Otto face-to-face with a girl injured during his aforementioned attempt to burn the Earth.  He feels remorse, but, again, it's unclear why he didn't feel such remorse when he originally tried to pull off that plan.  Are we supposed to pin this kindness on Peter?  It makes more sense than the Vulture example, but it's still unclear.  The issue is somewhat mooted after Otto erases Peter's memories, but, on some level, it made the problem even worse:  if Otto is no longer haunted (literally) by Peter, why stay a good guy?  If I had to tease out an argument, I'd say that Slott is saying that Otto cares more about being superior (as either a hero or a villain) than he does about the actions themselves (heroic or villainous).  To Otto, burning down the Earth and making New York safe are one in the same.  But, Slott never clearly makes that argument, making you question Otto's motivations for the entire series.

2) Slott relied way too frequently on overly convenient devices to resolve problems.  Alistair Smythe's "Slayer-Bots" miraculously create cybernetic implants on the spot to get Boomerang, the Scorpion, and the Vulture into the game in issue #11.  In issue #21, Stunner conveniently awakens from her coma, allowing Otto use of her virtual-reality technology to convince Dr. Lamaze (as Otto) that Peter didn't steal his research.  More unbelievably, the entire Goblin Nation arc is based on the premise that Otto missed the Goblin King building his army as a result of the Goblin Protocols blinding his lenses to the Goblin Army's presence.  In other words, we're supposed to believe that Peter lived in New York City and never noticed, outside his costume, that the Green Goblin and his men were wrecking havoc on the city for a few weeks.  Moreover, it's not just technical innovations that created these convenient moments.  Max decides to fire Sajani -- but not Grady -- in issue #19 as a result of the destruction of Horizon Labs, despite both of them engaging in activities that he had banned.  Slott clearly has Max fire Sajani so that Peter could hire her and she could use her expertise to perfect the cure for the Goblin Serum.  Had Max fired both Grady and Sajani, I'd be singing Slott's praises.  But, by firing only Sajani without explaining why Grady got to stay, Slott once again sacrifices characterization (of Max as a caring and understanding boss) for expediency.

3) Slott spent most of the time juggling an excessive number of sub-plots.  Four of my favorite issues were #17-#18, #25, and #30, where Otto's battles with Miguel, the Avengers, and the Goblin King, respectively, were almost the sole focus of the issues.  Similarly, in issue #7, I note with glee that Slott focuses on Spidey's fight with Cardiac and not the three sub-plots that he had on the back burner at that point.  Unfortunately, most of the time, it was almost impossible to identify the primary story that Slott was telling.  In issue #16, I lament that we're not given a chance to see how Phil responds to his life falling to pieces around him as Otto launches a full-out assault on the Hobgoblin, because Slott is too busy focusing on other sub-plots.  The best example of this phenomenon comes from my review of issue #23:  "It's not enough that Peter has to deal with Aunt May and her reaction to Anna Maria in this issue or that the Venom symbiote took over Spider-Man.  We also have him deciding to 'cure' Flash of the Venom symbiote, Yuri deciding that Peter kidnapped Carlie after a visit to MJ, JJJ, Jr. commissioning Alchemax to build more Spider-Slayers, and the Green Goblin deciding that Carlie must know Spider-Man's identity if she knows that Otto is controlling his mind."  'Nuff said.

4) Slott appropriated main characteristics of other comic-book characters, turning Spider-Man into an amalgam character (and, therefore, diluting the focus of the story on Otto's experience as Spider-Man).  At some point, it stopped feeling like "Spider-Man" and more like "Iron Man:"  Spider-Island, the Arach-naughts, the Spiderlings, etc.  In terms of Peter's estrangement from his supporting-cast members, it actually became "Batman," with Slott having to create an emotional distance between them (as I mention in my review of issue #15) to explain why they didn't realize that they were no longer dealing with Peter.  As I said in issue #29, we're supposed to believe that Mary Jane can't figure out that Peter isn't Peter, but Miguel could?  Moreover, you could actually say that Otto's more aggressive version of Spider-Man was really Batman-esque.  This series provides any number of examples of Otto's brutality, though "Superior Spider-Man" Annual #1 and "Superior Foes of Spider-Man" #11 probably do the best job of showing us the fear that he's inspired in the villains that he faces, similar to Batman.

Trying to find a theme to these four complaints, I would say that Slott was trying to cram 60 issues of stories into 30 issues and didn't have a clear vision of the story that he was telling.  Would Otto be redeemed?  Would Otto be superior?  Would Otto return to villainy?  Slott didn't seem to have an answer from the start, taking us on a winding road with no clear map.  I've read that he and Wacker never intended Otto-Spidey to last as long as he did, making you wonder which plots Slott just threw at us to stall for time.  But, it makes it clear why the series felt so poorly plotted from the start.  If Slott and Wacker had really trusted the concept and given themselves the time to develop all these plots and thoughts, I would've enjoyed this series more.  Instead, at the end, it feels like a pastiche of situations leaving us with no clear sense of who Otto was.

The Successful Foreshadowing
Retroactively, we do see some hints of where Otto will find himself in issue #31.  In "Superior Spider-Man" #6AU, Otto blames his inability to stop Ultron from taking over the Earth on his need to "act" like Peter, finding yet another excuse for why he was struggling to be "superior" to Peter.  In the end, Otto ditched the excuses and simply realized that he wasn't superior.  Moreover, he feels Peter's impulse to feel bad for Max Modell, but dismisses it; later, he'll tell Peter to dismiss this sentiment -- of feeling bad about his superiority -- so that he could, in fact, be superior.  Moreover, in issue #10, it was clear to the reader that an over-confident Otto would be so convinced of his ability to be superior to Peter and defeat the Goblin that he would underestimate "Norman" and get his ass handed him in the early rounds of their battle.  Similarly, in issue #14, he essentially reveals his identity to Alistair Smythe before he kills him, showing how overconfident he was, never imaging that he wouldn't be able to deliver the coup de grâce.

Slott also foreshadowed where other characters would be.  In issue #12, it's clear that JJJ, Jr.'s fast and loose relationship with the law was going to have consequences down the line.  Similarly, it was clear by issue #24 that the main challenge for Peter after his return was that he was going to have to choose between redeeming Peter's reputation or Spider-Man's, but it was going to be hard to do both without revealing his secret identity.

On some level, these moments almost imply that Slott did have a map and I'm just being excessively critical.  The problem is that you also have counter-examples that could explain a triumphant Otto crowing over his superiority in this issue.  After all, he did successfully take down Shadowland.  Maybe he could've successfully been a hybrid Batman/Iron Man; after all he does manage to launch Parker Industries and finish his Ph.D. thesis.  Maybe he was a superior Peter Parker; he is dating a brilliant, nice girl who clearly loves him.  I think Slott would argue that he was keeping us guessing.  But, I know when we're dealing with someone keeping us guessing on purpose (see anything Rick Remender has ever written) and someone keeping us guessing because they don't know the answer.  All this contradictory foreshadowing leads me to believe that Slott falls into the latter category.

The Final Assessment
Was it worth it?  Sure.

I'm not entirely sure how history is going to remember it.  We all seem to be getting nostalgic about the "Clone Saga," and I think even the most die-hard critics of this story would agree that it was better than that mess.  Do I think that it's going to be on the same level as Peter failing to save Gwen Stacy or the struggling to identify the Hobgoblin?  Probably not.  In the end, Slott tried to do too much.  He missed the chance to give us an amazing think-piece on heroism, exploring why someone like Otto Octavius would be inspired to change his stripes and become a hero, even after Peter's memories were expunged from his consciousness.  Instead, he decided to make Otto's main justification for his heroism the fulfillment of his ego, leaving us a narrow story, despite the 31 issues dedicated to it.  I would've preferred to see Otto move past his need to be superior and decide if he really wanted to be a hero.  It might've been fun to see Spidey become a bad guy, after Otto decides that he no longer wants to be a hero.  Moreover, he only concedes that Peter is superior for the tritest reason ever:  love.  It still strikes me as more of a move of desperation than one of truth.

I leave this series with a sense that we had so many other places that we could have gone had Slott really kept this core question in focus:  what motivates Otto?  In the end, my only answer is ego, and it feels unsatisfying.  The preceding paragraph is my rejoinder to Wacker's argument that anyone criticizing this series was opposed to new ideas.  I actually wanted Slott to go further than he did.  But, I will certainly applaud him for being bold.  Every time I was ready to drop this series, Slott managed to pull an amazing story from his hat and I hung in there, as other books fell off my pull list.  If he had managed to sell it to me, I'd be excited about the upcoming issues dealing with the aftermath of Otto's "possession" of Peter.  As it is, I'm just glad that he's home.  Onwards and upwards.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Winter Soldier: The Bitter March #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

This issue is one long, elaborate dance, which Remender choreographs beautifully, with everyone playing his or her role to perfection.

We have Shen finding a way to take down "Shocky Dan," the HYDRA goon from last issue, and using his electrical gauntlets to even the odds between him and the Winter Soldier.  But, Bucky is Bucky, and he manages to wound Shen, driving him to inject himself with Nick's Infinity Formula to save his life (and allow him to save Mila).  But, Bucky is literally shocked to his senses for a moment, sparing Shen's life after memories of Steve talking about mercy for a defeated enemy float to the top of his consciousness.  "The Drain" exploits this flicker of a forgotten self, using Bucky's weakened defenses to get past the Soviet's conditioning and trying to get him to kill himself as they fall from the train (as a result of Mila pushing them out the door).  Everyone with his or her own weakness and own strength, working with, and against, each other.  It's just so well done.  In the end, Shen and Mila are on the train when it explodes, and I wonder how much longer Mila is going to be with us. (Remender jettisoned her husband earlier, by having the Drain himself recognize him as dead weight.)

This story will clearly end with Shen at least fueled by the Infinity Formula, if not already on the path to becoming the Iron Nail, all of it flowing organically from the action.  Great stuff.

***** (five of five stars)

Uncanny X-Men #20 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Well, all right-y, then.  When Bendis promises a war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the X-Men, he really means it.

First, Bendis and Bachalo do a great job of making Scott's conversation with Maria Hill almost cinematic in its feel.  Maria suddenly finding herself on the psychic plane in a confrontation with Scott and the Stepford Cuckoos felt like something from a horror movie; after all, the Cuckoos add a creepy factor to everything that they do.  I thought that it was a wise move (on both Bendis and Hill's part) having Hill agree to allow the Cuckoos read her mind, confirming that she doesn't know who's launching the Sentinels against the X-Men (though we do see the real culprit working silently in his lab while spying on the conversation).  Scott pretends not to totally believe Maria, but he clearly does, coming to the conclusion that the perpetrator is using Cerebro to draw out the X-Men by transmitting fake mutant blips and then dispatching the Sentinels to learn more about the X-Men's mutant powers.  (Clever, really.)

Given the small number of people who can manipulate Cerebro, Scott starts with Hank, who denies that he's doing it.  I'll say that I also find it a stretch, since I'm not sure why Hank would need to learn about their powers, but we'll see.  Scott appears to lose control of his powers as he confronts Hank, and S.H.I.E.L.D. instantly swoops to attack.  It again makes you wonder if someone really is working inside S.H.I.E.L.D. against the X-Men, but Bendis is clearly not revealing his hand too soon.  (Maria allowed for the fact that she might not be ordering S.H.I.E.L.D. to attack, by someone inside the organization may still be doing so.  Paging "Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.")

Also, I should note that Bendis gets in some good moments of characterization here.  I loved Maria's embarrassment over the Cuckoos discovering that she's attracted to Scott, and Bachalo makes him sufficiently strapping in this issue that you wonder who wouldn't be.  Moreover, Emma and Scott have some honest-to-goodness banter here, something that I'd love to see happen more often.

*** (three of five stars)

Amazing X-Men #6 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

It makes sense that Aaron went straight from Nightcrawler's return to addressing his family issues, since, after all, Nightcrawler's family issues aren't exactly insignificant.  I mean, even his surrogate family (in the form of the X-Men) has issues.  Moreover, Aaron uncharacteristically has his characters' display real, honest-to-goodness emotions along the way.  Between Nightcrawler's joyous reunion with the X-Men, including Scott's team, and his realization that the X-Men are the family that he got to choose, it's a suitably moving issue.

But, Aaron certainly hints at darker days to come.  Mystique notes that Nightcrawler is darker than he was, and Aaron definitely leaves you with the impression that it's because of his lack of a soul.  Moreover, Nightcrawler blames Scott for Xavier's death.  Although he may have put aside his anger for the evening, it's clear that the two sides aren't reuniting any time soon.  (That said, I'm actually surprised by that and by Logan responding so negatively to the other team's arrival.  Although I wasn't exactly expecting him to welcome them with open arms, it's almost like Aaron hadn't read "Wolverine and the X-Men" #41, where Scott and Logan make some progress in burying the hatchet.  The weird part is that he wrote that issue (#awkward), so I'm not really sure what Aaron wants me to think about any future reconciliation between the two teams.)  Finally, Mystique offers Azazel a "job," which clearly can't mean good things for anyone.

So, all in all, Aaron leaves some questions on the table, but successfully welcomes Nightcrawler to the land of the living, even if the truth is going to prove to be a little less welcoming.

*** (three of five stars)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Superior Spider-Man #31 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Slott wraps up so many different storylines in this final issue that it's hard to know where to start in terms of writing a review with a summary and various good and bad items.  That format requires a certain coherence that I'm not sure we have here.  In other words, it's messy.  Instead of spending hours trying to force a narrative structure onto the story, I thought I would just group the main developments together and go from there.  In no particular order:

I'm not sure how I feel about the Goblin being Norman (and, to a certain extent, Liz).  On one hand, Slott sets up the awesome idea that a Norman now cured of the Goblin Serum's madness is a Norman who will be an even greater future thorn in Peter's side.  Of course, on the other hand, this idea makes no sense.  Norman only became the Goblin because of the Goblin Serum's madness.  Without the madness, would Norman really be the Goblin?  Slott seems to accept that premise way too quickly for me.  I would love to read a story where Norman Osborn struggles with this decision, deciding if he really is a villain.  It's sort of a reverse nature/nurture question.  Slott precludes that debate from happening, which seems odd for him, given that the whole point of this series was Otto going through a similar journey.  He essentially discards the chance to do what he did for Otto for Norman (though, likely, with Norman deciding to embrace the Goblin).

Beyond this existential question, the details (such as we know them) of Norman's return are difficult to accept.  Notably, Norman Osborn full-on melted in "Avengers" #24.  Slott doesn't provide any explanation for how he is un-melted, though he seems to hint that Norman may have the ability to control his shape now, allowing him to morph into Banks.  (When Peter unmasks the Goblin, he's revealed to be Liz's chief of staff, Banks.  Norman informs him that he took on Banks' face since everyone recognizes his own face now.)  However, it's a drastic enough shift from the last time that we saw Norman, all melted, that we are really owed an explanation for how he emerged from his coma and confirmation (if I'm right) that he can in fact control his shape.

While we're on this theme, we're definitely owed an explanation for why Liz Allan would turn against Spider-Man, since we have even less information from which we can draw a conclusion.  Slott wants us to believe that she did it to secure a future for Normie, but I'm not entirely sure why she would need Norman's help to do that.  Did she accept that working with Norman to lay the foundations for the creation of Alchemax required accepting his plans as the Goblin?  I could see a world where the entire Goblin Nation was intended to create the need for the Spider-Slayers, given that we see Tyler Stone selling them for a handsome profit, improving the viability of Alchemax as a fledgling corporation, I'd have to imagine.  It seems plausible, but Slott needs to make that argument.  He'd also do well to explain why Allan Chemicals and Norman's share of Oscorp weren't enough of a legacy.  Slott seems to be hinting that Liz is motivated by something darker than just securing Normie's future.

In other words, when it comes to Norman's purported return and Liz's heel turn -- the two major developments of this issue -- I'm left attempting to connect the dots on my own,  despite how central both twists are to the plot of not only this arc, but, the last 14 or so issues (at least).  It's hard to call that a satisfying ending to this arc.

However, Peter's future is just as murky as this issue's resolution.

First Slott's answer to the problem of believing that Spider-Man has returned seems to be...Spider-Man returning.  Miguel, Black Widow, the Goblin:  the minute that Spidey makes it with the quips, they accept that it's him.  As lazy as it is, I'm actually OK with it, in the sense that I'd like us to move past this phase of the story as quickly as possible.  I can't really think of anything interesting in terms of Spider-Man trying to convince people that he's Spider-Man again.  In fact, it's virtually impossible for him to be able to do so on a large scale, since people didn't really know him in the first place.  Sure, with the Avengers, he can tell them the truth, they can find the tests that they ran when Otto controlled his mind, and, presto chango, problem solved.  Other people, like Sajani here, might make comments about him killing his opponents for a few issues, but it seems clear that Slott is going to have people believe that he's at least behaving the way that he used to behave sooner rather than later.  Any attempt to prove to the public that he wasn't in his right mind would be ridiculous, so, honestly, this approach of just having him behave as he normally would is probably the only realistic way to put this period of his history behind us.

In fact, Slott makes it clear that Peter's greatest problem is going to be, as expected, in his personal life.  However, Slott (thankfully) doesn't seem intent on milking this drama for too long.  It seems that, again, he'll also just be able to behave normally and all sins will be forgiven.  Sure, we're going to have a crushing scene with Anna Maria, but, once he makes a few dinners with Aunt May and Jay, I'm guessing that Slott is going to try to just forget this part of his history.  It would be weird if, two years from now, Jay were still complaining about that several months period when Peter was rude.  Given that he was finishing up his Ph.D. and starting his own company, it's pretty clear that Peter has an excuse, and it would get old if we kept having this fight over and over again.  In some ways, Slott already has Peter face the worst-case scenario:  Carlie and MJ believe him that Dr. Octopus took over his body, but they realize that they can no longer take the drama that comes from associating with him.  It's hard to argue with them.

The problem is that Slott premises both these best-case scenarios on everyone forgetting, eventually, that Peter was connected to Spider-Man.  In the end, more than any other development in Slott's run, it's this connection that has the most impact on this series.  When Spider-Man's aggressive streak is long forgotten, Peter's connection to Spider-Man will remain.  Peter tells Aunt May that he's going to call a press conference distancing himself from Spider-Man, but it seems unlikely that such a move is going to work, given that, obviously, he'll always be connected in some way to him.  It also seems to be poorly coordinated with Spidey returning to normal, if you will.  Peter is going to disassociate with him for his bad behavior just as his behavior improves.  Is Spidey going to call a press conference and say that Peter's disapproval was what he needed to get his head on straight?  It seems like a bad idea since, again, it would only strengthen their connection in the public eye.

After spending most of this series assuming that the point of it was to ruin Peter's life when he returned, I read this issue wondering if Slott had just decided that he was as tired of that story as we are.  He could have gone all sorts of places with it.  He could've forced Peter to tell Aunt May that he was Spider-Man and possessed by Dr. Octopus to explain away his behavior, or he could have Spider-Man treated as a Batman-esque vigilante for a while.  Instead, the goal seems to be to rush to the previous status quo as soon as possible, which leaves me feeling duped.  If we're right back where we were at the end of "Amazing Spider-Man" #696, what was the point?

I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy this issue, but, when framed in the context of the larger story of Dr. Octopus taking over Peter's body, I'm not sure it did what it needed to do.

A Note on Miguel:  To be honest, Miguel plays enough of a role here to merit me using a longer review.  But, with him getting his own series (hurrah!), I'm going to have to figure out a way to handle reviews where he features prominently.  In the meantime, I'll just say that Spidey arrives in time to help him defeat the Spider-Slayers and then Miguel accompanies him on his search for the Goblin King.

*** (three of five stars)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Justice League #29 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I can't say that I didn't like this issue, though I felt like I've read it umpteen times previously.

Cyborg faces Grid, his own Bizarro, himself through the glass, darkly.  By accepting his dual computer/human nature, Cyborg finds the key to cutting off Grid from the outside world and thereby severing the Crime Syndicate's control over Earth's technology.  It's an important moment, obviously, since it's only by severing this link that Cyborg will be able to move unhindered to free the Justice League from the Firestorm Matrix, clearly the key moment of "Forever Evil" #7.  (Of course, given how many "key moments" that issue is going to need to have to wrap up this story, one wonders.)

The problem is that it's just not all that exciting.  I mean, did anyone believe that Cyborg really wasn't going to defeat Grid?  The conclusion just seemed to be clear before I opened up the issue.  Plus, getting him to the win by accepting himself for who he is now just felt really after-school special.  I'm not saying that those moments aren't moving, but this one is too heavy-handed to be.

On the plus side, the Metal Men provided great comic relief, but it seemed weird that they just kept squaring off against nameless groups with rosters of B-team super-villains that I didn't recognize at all and Johns put in no effort in defining.  Again, it's not a terrible issue, but it's definitely skippable.

** (two of five stars)

Batman Eternal #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Snyder and Tynion answer some questions here, but, weirdly, they're not the questions that I thought were going to be answered.

The big reveal is that Carmine Falcone is the Rose (as I dubbed him in "Detective Comics" #30 [*] in homage to the Spider-Man villain).  Snyder, Tynion, and Fabok do a great job setting up this moment, having Falcone play with the roses on the Mayor's balcony during their conversation, making it clear that it's the guy from "Detective Comics" #30 with the rose on his t-shirt.  Given that he likely set Elena on fire in that issue, we've got a pretty clear idea here that he's a bad guy, particularly given how scared Mayor Hady is of him.  The question that Snyder and Tynion don't answer is why he's returned now, but I'm sure that we'll get there eventually.

(I'll note that one of the challenges of the New 52! is that I'm not 100-percent sure what we know about Falcone.  Last I knew, Catwoman thought that he was her biological father; the cat-like scars that he bears on his face in this issue -- and her horrified reaction to learning that it's him -- seem to imply that the events of "Batman:  Year One" happened, since she scarred him then.  But, Snyder and Tynion are going to have to confirm that, particularly given the somewhat competing story that Snyder is telling in "Zero Year."  Our only hint about his past is that Bruce says that he and Gordon ran Falcone from town.  However, in "Batman:  The Long Halloween," Two-Face killed him.  Again, those discrepancies will have to be addressed at some point.)

The question that doesn't get answered is how Falcone manipulated Gordon.  Snyder and Tynion clearly pin the blame on him, since Falcone makes clear the disdain that he has for Gordon and his desire for a more pliable Commissioner.  Batman seems to think that the toxin that Pyg sprayed on the children in the first issue could have altered Gordon's perceptions, though he thinks that such a scheme is beyond the Pyg.  (Maybe Falcone hired him to do it?)  But, no one seems focused on the fact that two trains were heading at one another at high speeds or that the electrical box that Gordon shot shouldn't have shorted out the rain controls.  I still just find this part difficult to believe.  Snyder does briefly introduce some sort of mysterious mind-controlling figure, which might explain a lot, but we'll see where it goes.

So, I'm a little happier with this series with the Carmine reveal (despite my New 52! questions), though I'd like this Gordon nonsense wrapped up soon.

*** (three of five stars)

[*]:  I added this footnote because I updated this part.  I originally said that I dubbed Falcone "the Rose" in the last issue, but he didn't appear in that issue; he actually appeared in "Detective Comics" #30, the same issue where Elena was burned.

Batman #30 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I found myself rubbing together my hands at the end of this issue in anticipation of Bruce and Jim's uprising against the Riddler.  If that doesn't deserve five stars, I don't know what does.

Snyder is on fire here.  First, he was one step ahead of me for the entire issue.  When I wondered how Thomas -- the kid who saved Bruce -- had an IV, he reveals that his mother swiped it in case his grandmother's stopped working.  (Also, don't think that I didn't notice the Robin insignia on the glass lying in the room where Thomas was keeping Bruce.)  When I wondered why more people weren't trying to pose the riddle that the Riddler couldn't answer to save Gotham, Snyder showed that the Riddler kills people who fail to stump him.  When I questioned how the Riddler would have the resources to put his plot into action, Snyder explains that he used his access to the Red Hood Gang's files to build an army and that he pillaged Powers Industries for equipment.  (That said, I don't quite remember how he would have access to the Red Hood Gang's files.  Philip Wayne worked with them and the Riddler worked with him, but I don't remember a more direct connection.  But, it's been a long arc, so I'll just take Snyder's word for it.)

Moreover, Snyder makes it clear that the Riddler is in total control.  He uses his control over Gotham's computer network to establish a police state that would make Big Brother jealous.  For example, when the strike team that Jim Gordon smuggles into the city arrives too early, the Riddler's omnipresent eye catches them.  (I will note that he doesn't, as he had threatened to do, release the deadly gas that he has suspended over Gotham in his weather balloons, but he's probably just having too much fun to cut it short too quickly.  I'll give Snyder that one.)  Plus, Snyder reminds us how un-stumpable the Riddler is.  When the person that the Riddler replaced at Power Industries poses a riddle that he created, the Riddler answers it before he finishes, using information gleaned from the man's biography to predict the answer.  By making it clear how on his game the Riddler is, Snyder makes you believe that he'd actually be capable of the destruction that we see here.

This tightness -- of both the story itself and the Riddler's plan -- creates the feeling of hopelessness that pervades the issue.  The Riddler has unleashed his id on Gotham and no one has been able to fight it.  It's why Alfred is so relieved to hear from Bruce and Jim is so glad to see Batman -- they know that he's the only one who can face the Riddler.  With the cacophony of superheroes that exist, it's often easy to forget that they're individuals.  Since most comic-book dilemmas require some sort of brute force to resolve, it's pretty easy to believe that Hercules and the Hulk are interchangeable.  The Riddler generally requires a more cerebral engagement, and Snyder plays that trope to its fullest here:  only Batman can defeat him.  It seems just as likely that Bruce will stand on the platform of doom and stump the Riddler as it is that Batman will break into his secret HQ and beat him into a pulp.  Those multiple avenues to the conclusion are what make this story so exciting.

***** (five of five stars)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Superior Foes of Spider-Man #11 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I wasn't sure where we were going with this issue, but I have to say that it really worked.  Grizzly and the Looter give us a criminal's-eye view of the more violent version of Spider-Man, something that I expected us to see more during this series.  So far, we've only seen Spidey's allies (theoretically) voice their concern over his more violent behavior; we haven't really seen the impact of it on the criminals except for "Superior Spider-Man" Annual #1.  It's a welcome addition to Otto's story.  Moreover, I'd be happy if we actually got to see more of Spideys' villains than just the Sinister Six.  I know that I just complained that last issue's focus on the Beetle, Overdrive, and Speed Demon interrupted the Boomerang story, but I can't deny that it would be fun to see characters like Grizzly and the Looter appear on occasion, particularly interacting with the team members (as Hydro-Man did with Shocker in issue #9).  In other words, it was good stuff all around.

*** (three of five stars)

Secret Avengers #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I'm not sure what I loved more:  Black Widow making Hawkeye feel self-conscious about his package ("It's so tiny down there."  "It's so tiny up here, too."  "No you didn't.") or M.O.D.O.K. saving Maria Hill by sending in a lab rat outfitted with a hypodermic needle full of some sort of neutralizing formula to stop her opponent.  The best part of the issue, though, is that the story makes sense.  Sure, we don't know why the Fury was messing with the satellites or if it was in any way connected with the intruder who held Maria hostage.  In fact, I'm still not 100 percent sure why the intruder was holding her hostage in the first place.  But, Kot knows that this series isn't the type where he has to resolve all the issues on the table; he just has to resolve them to the extent that the team can prevent the current crisis in a way that makes sense (and fits with their characters), re-group, and move onto the next crisis.  If he can keep that clarity from issue to issue, we're in good shape.

*** (three of five stars)