Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rebels #1-#5 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I was attracted to "Rebels" because I generally feel like the opportunity to relive history through comic books is woefully underused.  (Why do I have to play "Assassin's Creed" to get my French Revolution fix?)  Plus, "Rebels" isn't even an alternate history (the most commonly used way to explore the past in comic books), like Vertigo's excellent "The Royals:  Masters of War" was.  Instead, Wood uses a fictional character, Seth, as our POV on the early days of the American Revolution.  Now, Wood makes it clear from the outset that he doesn't exactly want students taking their history exams based on the narrative that he creates here.  But, that said, I learned a lot about the Revolution that I didn't know in just these five issues.  In that way, it does exactly what I wanted it to do, making history come alive in a way that comic books seem ideal as a medium to facilitate.

In terms of the story itself, It's important to establish from the outset that Seth is an odd character.  My main problem with him is that both Wood and Mutti conspire to make him appear twice his age.  Wood establishes in the first issue that he's a 17-year-old (I believe that he turns 18 years old in issue #2), despite the fact that Mutti frequently draws him as a full grown man, full beard and all.

However, it's not just an art problem; the fact that Seth is a teenager makes it difficult to believe at times that he can do what he does over the course of these five issues.  I think Wood means to use Seth's remarkable capabilities as a way of showing how mature and tough backwoods boys are compared to their weaker city equivalents.  (Henry Knox is portrayed as a fey and nervous Boston twit in issue #5.)  But, as a backwood boy myself, I'd say that Wood is probably overselling that.  In fact, he's falling into a trap that I was hoping that he'd avoid, where Seth has essentially become the Revolutionary War's equivalent of Forrest Gump:  he's secretly determining the direction of the war with his actions.  He's the one that clears the way for Allen and Arnold to take Fort Ticonderoga with his bravery at Grand Isle.  He's the one that got Ticonderoga's guns to Boston.  Instead of getting a bird's-eye view of the war from an infantryman, we're getting something close to an alternate history.

Now, it's not to say that regular soldiers don't affect the outcome of a war.  After all, Knox didn't carry the guns over the mountains by himself.  But, my point is that it's questionable if Seth can be considered a "regular soldier" at this point.  After all, he's the one that sneaks into the enemy camp to steal their plans and then destroys the barge that scuttles these plans (to build a new fort at Button Mould Bay).  He's pretty much the Batman of 1775.

Complicating matters, it's also not clear what his motivations are.  He's married to Mercy by the end of the first issue, but then immediately abandons her for grand adventure.  Is it really just about the adventure?  He twice declines to spend time with her, immediately traveling with Allen after the events at Grand Isle at the end of issue #3 and declining to visit her when the going gets slow over the mountains in issue #5.  Again, it's hard to believe that he's just doing it for the adventure?  Seth seems excited throughout the series so far about the prospect of the Colonies seceding from Great Britain, but the downside of his well established laconicism is that we don't really know that for sure.  He seems willing to sacrifice a lot, but Wood hasn't really told us why.

Something complicated my ability to get to know Seth is that I often feel like I'm missing clues that Wood is hiding in his script.  For example, in issue #1, Seth gets back the grant papers that Mercy's father had signed over to the sheriff from Albany, but Wood never makes it clear how he accomplished that.  After all, Seth merely convinces the locals that have taken over a courthouse to abandon it after the British soldiers killed a few of them trying to reclaim it.  We learn that the sheriff was later arrested on murder charges, but Wood never actually makes it clear whether he (the sheriff) was actually on the scene (as far as I can tell).  In other words, we never see a conversation that would result in Seth saying to the sheriff, "Hey, since I managed to help you, could you hand over a grant that someone signed over to you?"  Even if we had seen that conversation, I still don't see why the sheriff would've done so.  Similarly, in issue #5, we learn that George Washington had secretly put Seth in charge of the expedition to bring Ticonderoga's guns to Boston, despite the fact that he had specifically banned Ethan Allen from sending him on the mission in issue #4.  Are we supposed to believe that Washington knew that Allen would defy him?  If so, why go with the ruse in the first place?  I don't know if Wood is being too subtle in conveying the hints that he wants me to understand or if I'm just too literal, but, either way, I've wound up scratching my head a few times.

In other words, so far, "Rebels" is a mixed bag.  I'm seriously enjoying the tour through history that Wood is providing and, other than drawing Seth as a 34-year-old, Mutti does an amazing job of conveying the beauty of the Green Mountains, almost like they're a character in and of themselves.  But, we've still got some kinks in the story-telling technique that made it difficult for me to engage as fully as I want to engage.  I'm hoping that Wood can iron out those problems in upcoming issue, because I really want this series to work.

*** (three of five stars)

Earth 2: Society #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I am quite honestly totally lost here.

It seems pretty clear that I need to forget the preview of this series entirely:  Huntress and Red Arrow (at least for now) are firmly on the side of the heroes trying to prevent Terry Sloan from terraforming New Earth 2 in this issue.  But, I'll admit that I keep defaulting to that storyline in my head, forcing me to take a moment each issue to remember that it's not (at this point) the story that Wilson is actually telling.

However, putting aside the preview, I'm still confused.  We still haven't been given any reason why Sloan wants to terraform New Earth 2.  To the extent that he addresses it, Wilson seems to imply that Sloan is doing it in anger over the people of New Earth 2 not appreciating the fact that he's the one that saved them.  However, we're not given any reason for why he just now decided to get all "vengeful god" over that transgression.  It's like he's a kid that woke up one day and decided to disassemble his Lego fortresses.

Moreover, Wilson continues jumping from the past and the present, and it's getting hard to keep them straight.  We're supposed to juggle the revelation that Power Girl now hates Val-Zod in the present with Lois's story of discovering her humanity in the past.  The problem is that the Lois story is a moving one:  after a group of scared refugees reject her, she later uses her network systems to connect people to relatives from whom they were separated during Planetfall.  Given that Alan is now a lobotomized avatar of the Green, Lois is the closest this series has to an emotional core.  But, we're distracted from her story by the chaos surrounding it.

I have to say that I just can't believe that we're here.  I loved this series when it started, but, just as we got to know the characters, we got caught in the Michael Bay movie that the Darkseid war was.  Now, a lot of those characters are lost to us; beyond just Alan, Kendra is reduced to exploring the world on her own and Jay is building houses in "Midwest City."  Honestly, I think we need an issue or two where we just stay firmly in the present and focused on one character so that we can have something approaching a connection with a central character.  Wilson starts to get there with Lois in this issue, but I'm doubtful that the focus will remain on her.  I guess we'll see, but I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to give Wilson to show me.

** (two of five stars)

Batman #43 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Since this issue establishes how Bruce got to where we saw him last issue, it's really make-or-break for the story that Snyder is telling.  Like Marley's death, you're not going to believe anything that comes after it if you don't accept this premise.  I'm glad to say that I feel like Snyder really sold it here.

First, Bruce's resurrection is believable, at least as comic-book resurrections go.  In the wake of Bruce's confrontation with the Joker, the dionesium seeped into his broken skull and healed the damage to his brain.  However, in doing so, it created entirely different and new pathways, leaving Bruce with no memory of his previous life.  (Snyder doesn't specify why the dionesium would create these different and new pathways in healing him, but I'm willing to just go with it at this point.)  Alfred is forced to walk Bruce through his life, starting with the death of his parents and leading to the revelation that he was Batman.  However, Bruce stops him before he gets to Batman.  He tells him that he feels no emotional connection to his parents (or their death) so he doesn't feel the need to live the life that he previously lived.  He tells Alfred that he wants to help Gotham in the hands-on way that his mother did, and Alfred puts him in touch with Julie Madison.  The rest is history (if recent history).

In other words, Snyder is telling one of the classic Batman stories:  who would Bruce have been if his parents hadn't been murdered?  Snyder makes it clear that the tension of this arc will come from the fact that Batman's allies don't really want an answer to that question.

The readers gets all this information about Bruce's status quo from Alfred's conversation with Superman, come to Gotham to check on the situation.  Clark is adamant that Bruce find a way to become Batman again, but Alfred is even more adamant that he be allowed to rest in peace (so to speak).  He stresses to Clark that the intuition and training that made Bruce into Batman is gone.  In perhaps the best moment of the issue, he threatens Clark by producing a ring made of kryptonite, showing him that Bruce is as helpless as Clark is in the presence of the ring.  In doing so, Snyder makes it clear that Alfred intends to preserve Bruce's happy ending, encouraging Clark to "let him live."  Moreover, Alfred makes it clear that they don't really have a choice.  Clark expresses disbelief that Bruce hadn't planned for this eventuality, and Alfred reveals that he did:  he uncovers the machine that Bruce would use to create the future versions of himself that we saw in "Detective Comics" #27.  But, Bruce never had time to finish it, presumably never finding a way to transfer his brain patterns onto the clone.  As such, he is really and truly gone.

But, it's not just Clark that's going to be the problem.  Commissioner Gordon visits Bruce to ask for help with Mr. Bloom.  Gordon tells Bruce that he needs him to tweak his suit so that he can investigate Mr. Bloom on his own, since the Powers That Be don't want him involved.  (Snyder stokes the suspicion that said order raised in Gordon with the revelation that Bloom's men may have been able to get into Gordon's network systems.)  Unfortunately for Gordon, Bruce doesn't remember his connection to Batman, even if it's just as the engineer of his tech (a pretense that Gordon maintains in their conversation).  Gordon leaves the seed for Bruce (implying, to me, that he knows exactly what connection Bruce really had to Batman), but it's Duke Thomas that retrieves it to study.

In other words, despite the revelations of this issue, Snyder is still playing his cards close to his chest.  We've got the obligatory explanation of why Bruce is amnesiac, but Snyder is also implying that he's going to stay that way for a while.  Moreover, Snyder actually makes you want Bruce not to return.  We're not dealing with Doc Ock taking over Peter's body.  If anything, the revelation that Bruce was so obsessed with his role as Batman that he was willing to condemn himself to it forever shows why he needs a break.  I find myself agreeing with Alfred:  Gotham, a city that never gives, has given Bruce a new life.  I doubt that he'll get to keep it, but I find myself hoping that he does.

**** (four of five stars)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Darth Vader #8 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I decided the other day that I was enjoying "Star Wars" so much that I should really also be reading "Darth Vader."  So, I bought all the back issues on Comixology, and I had a great time making my way through them this weekend.  Gillen is as amazing here as he was on "Young Avengers."  It's a real treat.

Somehow, this issue is even better than the previous ones.  We see Aphra on her own here, organizing a group of bounty hunters to steal "kerzillions" of credits from a vault on an imperial Star Cruiser.  It's always fun to read an issue dedicated to a great caper, and Gillen and Larroca do a solid job of taking us through it step-by-step.  Throughout the theft, I was wondering how Aphra was going to hide it from Vader, fearing for her that he would find out somehow.  This concern made it all the better when it was revealed that she was doing it for Vader.  Now, he not only has his own army, but his own treasury.  Clever.

One of the best parts of the issue is that the bad guys are actually competent.  Aphra pulls off two schemes virtually flawlessly:  invading the ship in the first place and then double-crossing her bounty-hunter partners to make sure that the lion's share of the score is saved for Vader.  (Sure, Tagge discovered the theft, but we don't know how yet.  Given the overwhelming force that she was facing, I'm still giving Aphra credit for almost pulling off the job without the Empire noticing.)  Moreover, Vader's new minder, Thanoth, proves himself "observant," and you've got to be damn good to make Vader pay you that sort of compliment.  Sure, it probably means that he'll wind up dead.  But, in the meantime, it's great to see Aphra and Thanoth portrayed as skilled at their professions and not the usual bumbling idiots that we usually see villains be in comic books (even the well written ones).

*** (three of five stars)

Spider-Island #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Cap-Wolf.  The Iron Goblin.  Lizard Hulk.  Carol-acula.  It should be cheesy as hell, but somehow Gage really makes it work.

I think the reason is that he takes the time to build the story and sell it.  Flash has to expose the spiderized heroes to a variety of metamorphic agents -- Morbius' blood serum, Curt Connor's reptilian serum, Osborn's Goblin Formula, etc. -- because they're the only way to break the heroes' connection to the Queen.  (Gage established in the first issue that a cure is considered impossible.)  It definitely falls into the category of "a plan so crazy that it might just work."  Once he's got his crew of mutant Avengers, Flash can then lead an assault on the Queen's base to get Stegron.  Even Vision questions why Venom is focused on Stegron.  But, again, Gage has an answer, and Flash delivers it in a way that doesn't feel excessively expository.  The Queen used Stegron's genetic expertise to replace the Jackal, so Flash figures that he's the last hope at finding a way to sever the Queen's hold on the population.

Flash is even rewarded with some unexpected good news:  the Queen has been keeping Spider-Man alive but unconscious.  I loved Flash not knowing what surprised him more:  that Spider-Man was still alive or that he's really Peter Parker.  I mentioned last issue that even the best-case scenario in this story was a grim one:  without a cure, Flash's best hope was just returning free will to a population of spiderized humans.  But, we established last issue that Gage is really telling a story about how heroes like Spider-Man can pull off the impossible.  With him in the game again, could the Queen be totally defeated and a cure found?  Given how "Secret Wars" is going, it's probably unlikely and Gage is just raising Flash's hopes to make it all the more tragic when they're dashed.  But, we'll see.

*** (three of five stars)

Infinity Gauntlet #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Man, this series just keeps getting creepier and creepier.

First, it still feels like "The Road."  In this issue, Gamora and Peter throw in their lot with the Nova family simply because they essentially have nothing else left to do.  The world is so desolate that it doesn't even have enough to steal.

But, we're also at a point where reality itself doesn't have much meaning.  The plot of this issue revolves around the fact that Thanos is using the Time Gem to assemble the Infinity Gauntlet, traveling into the past every time his latest scheme fails.  Said failure appears more often than not to involve the Nova family, so Thanos returns this time to co-opt, rather than combat, them.  He convinces the mother to take him with them as she assembles the gems, as much as it pains him to be kind to small children.  Moreover, Anwen seems to have the same thought as I did about her mother's coincidentally appearing just as she found the Mind Gem.  (Anwen's mother thinks that she's asking if she could resurrect her grandfather with it, but it's pretty clear to the reader what she actually meant.)  As Anwen's mom continues to gather gems, you have to wonder if reality is going to have any meaning as she becomes more and more able to control it.

Finally, we also have the arrival on the scene of Drax.  He's as determined as ever to kill Thanos, and it seems pretty clear that his discovery of the group is going to be the spark that starts the fire that consumes everyone.  (Oddly, Gamora doesn't recognize Thanos, though she does have a bad feeling about it.  Go with your gut on this one, Gamora.)

In other words, yeah, it's pretty grim.

*** (three of five stars)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Guardians of Knowhere #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Honestly, I don't have much to say about this issue, because Bendis tells a pretty straight-forward story here.  Yotat is a former small-time hood that got transformed into the hulking giant that we see here through an accident.  Said accident involved a bomb that looks a lot like the thermal-nuclear detonator from "Return of the Jedi."  (Bendis doesn't really go into details about how the transformation happened, but I'm just going to go with it, since stranger things have literally happened in the Marvel Universe.)  Said bomb was detonated on top of him by the big-time hood whose organization Yotat was trying to join.  Said hood didn't like that Yotat was trying to leave his current employer; he values loyalty, apparently.  Yotat sought out the guy later for revenge, but he came across Rocket and Drax in the process.  Rocket tries to stop Yotat, Drax arrives in the nick of time to save Rocket's tail, the Nova Corps appear on the scene, they take Yotat into custody, and Rocket and Drax abscond.  In the present, Yotat returns for revenge against Drax and, well, he pretty much gets it:  in the last scene, everyone other than Rocket appears dead.  Needless to say, I'm intrigued by how Bendis is going to start the next issue.

*** (three of five stars)

Civil War #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Soule makes it clear here that the actors in this drama have reached a point of no return.  After years of stalemate, they're striking at each other more directly than they previously have.

On the Blue side, Peter convinces Steve that the assassination attempt on him is the proof that they need that Stark has no intention of negotiating.  Steve (more or less) agrees and greenlights Project Bellcurve, a procedure that the Beast developed to strip metahumans of their powers.  The plan appears to be to use this procedure on all the metahumans of the Iron.  However, Peter has to lead a mission into the Iron to get the resources needed to use it on that grand of a scale.  Meanwhile, Tony has come to realize that someone is manipulating events behind the scenes and sends Jennifer into the Blue to track down the assassin to see if s/he is connected to this manipulation.

As with other "Secret Wars" tie-in series, this series is fascinating because we really see familiar characters taken to (and perhaps beyond) their limit.  Peter is spoiling for a fight, rattled by Stark bringing Mary Jane and his daughter to see him at the Divide.  Steve has fetishized freedom, making sure that Sandman (the test subject for Bellcurve) is fully cognizant of his decision to lose his powers.  However, it's unclear how he reconciles this view with the possibility of involuntarily stripping thousands of metahumans in the Iron of their powers.  Does he really believe that he has no other choice?  Although he acquiesces to Peter here, he doesn't seem all that convinced.  Finally, She-Hulk is portrayed as particularly world-weary, almost too exhausted to seek justice for her friend, Miriam Sharpe.  It's a grim place.

Like "Amazing Spider-Man:  Renew Your Vows," I feel like we're not heading for a happy ending here, and I'm anxious to see how it all unfolds.  Before I go, I also need to mention the art.  Yu is really on fire here:  his designs for the cities -- particularly Liberation, the capital of the Blue -- are stunning.  It makes me long for the day when he takes of "Amazing Spider-Man."  One day, maybe!

**** (four of five stars)

Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

If the last two issues weren't sufficiently tense for you, this one should satisfy your needs.  i just really didn't know where we were going here, because Slott made it clear that the old rules no longer apply.

The issue begins with Peter trying to get some inhibitor chips from the Tinkerer, but the Tinkerer instead alerts the Sinister Six that Spidey is there.  Doc Ock is the first on the scene, and Slott makes it clear that Peter's no longer playing games when he mutilates Ock.  (Ock himself is unprepared for this development, taunting Peter over the fact that the worst that he expects him to do is wrap him in some webbing.)  For a minute, I actually thought that Peter killed Ock, and, from the rest of the Six's commentary, it seems possible that Ock isn't long for this world.  Although Peter manages to swipe the chips before the rest of the Six appear on the scene, Kraven, recognizing his desperation, puts two and two together and realizes that Peter has a child that attends the school where the Power kids appeared.  Regent has all the kids and parents in the school go through scanners to try to ID Spider-Man, but Peter's revamped inhibitor bracelets work like a charm.  However, when one of Annie's classmates trips the scanner, Peter is forced into action, revealing not only himself but also, inadvertently, MJ and Annie in the process.

Seriously, I didn't think that Slott was capable of this sort of dark story.  First, it becomes clear in this issue (and the cover of next issue) that Annie is going to be forced into using her powers, as horrifying as it is for MJ to see her eight-year-old go into battle.  Second, we learn that Regent views Peter's powers as necessary to complete some sort of "Great Task," meaning that he's unlikely to dismiss Peter as a nuisance.  In other words, we seem to be on a collision course to a really bad ending for everyone involved.  As I've said about other authors of the "Secret Wars" tie-in series, Slott is really using this opportunity to tell a different type of Spider-Man story, and it continues to be a gripping read.  I honestly have no idea where it's going to end.

**** (four of five stars)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Age of Apocalypse #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I really liked the first issue of this series, but, man, the quality dropped off quickly here.

Nicieza sets the two sides -- Cyclops' Elite Mutant Front (EMF) and Magneto's X-Men -- against each other in this issue.  However, we don't really know enough about the characters and their allegiances to follow the battle.  Is Wolverine on Cyclops' side? Is Burner maybe Sunspot?  Why do Cannonball and Rogue hate each other?  It's pretty much mutants randomly attacking other mutants, because we're not given any clear way to distinguish them.  Plus, Nicieza doesn't do a great job of laying out their motives.  It wasn't until the end of the issue that I realized that the X-Men were trying to get their hands on Doug, meaning that I spent the majority of the issue thoroughly confused.  We also still don't know what their individual motives are.  Is Wolverine with Magneto just because he hates Cyclops?  Unclear.

Separately, I found it hard not to roll my eyes at Apocalypse being all evil here.  He's essentially reduced to a Bond villain in his brief appearance at the end of this issue, where he's ranting like a deranged frat-boy in daring the X-Men to bring it.  I feel like the problem with this approach -- one that pretty much everyone takes with Apocalypse -- is that it essentially dismisses him as a crazed lunatic.  The reason why "Age of Apocalypse" was so chilling in the day was because it showed the damage that a meticulously applied policy of genetic supremacy could cause.  It was bringing Apocalypse's world view to its inevitable conclusion, and it was horrifying.  Here, he's somehow just a generic tyrant.

Finally, we get some hints in the scenes with Sabretooth that something else is going on here with the humans, but I'm not clever enough to follow the crumbs that Nicieza leaves us to get to the path's conclusion.

Hopefully this issue was a necessary bumpy patch as Nicieza tries to quickly get us to the interesting part.  Fingers crossed.

** (two of five stars)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Midnighter #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Although this issue has the requisite fight-of-the-week, it's really about Midnighter's personal life, and I couldn't be happier about that.

The fight part of the story involves Midnighter retrieving a girl that some bad guys plugged into a machine stolen from the God Garden.  Said machine drains the life force of kids and transfers it to adults.  It's a regular Fountain of Youth.  Seeing kids manipulated like he was as a child doesn't sit well with Midnighter, so he frees the kid and gets the name of the guy that sold said bad guys the machine in the first place.  The issue ends with Midnighter kidnapping Grayson to help him track down the guy in Moscow (or, as he calls it, "date night").

Although that part is totally solid as stories go, the "life" part is much more interesting.  Midnighter is casually dating the banker, Matt.  Jason, the guy from the first issue, is comfortably moving into the friend zone.  We learn that this situation is pretty much exactly why he ended his relationship with Apollo:  he had never been with another guy before Apollo, and he felt the need to live his life outside the confines of their relationship.  In other words, he wanted to be out and about, something that I'd wager most gays felt at some point in their lives.  It's also a sentiment that fits with the possibility of him discovering his past if he ever tracks down the file stolen from the God Garden:  he's in the process of becoming a real person, no longer defined by other people.

My only problem (and it's small) with the series at this point is that I still have trouble buying the ease with which the men in Midnighter's life embrace the violence inherent to it.  Orlando actually addresses that here, with Matt letting Midnighter know that his mother was a doctor, so he's comfortable with the sight of blood.  (Orlando even goes a step further, with Matt hilariously telling Midnighter that he's also comfortable hearing about the underside of society because he's a banker.)  But, at the end of the day, Midnighter isn't Spider-Man.  He enjoys the violence, as ACO brilliantly shows in this issue with a splash page of him smiling gleefully as he beats up some clones.  It's this part that seems to me would be difficult for a normal guy to accept.  I mean, wouldn't you worry that you're dating a sociopath?  But, Orlando makes it clear that they know that walking in the door, so I probably need to get over it.

Speaking of ACO, his return is a welcome relief.  I found Morgan's scratchy lines to be overly distracting last issue.  ACO's pencils in the first issue weren't all that well defined, but he's much more traditional here, and it works better.  One of my worries after Morgan is that this series isn't going to get the artist that it deserves, something that can spell trouble for any series.  Fingers crossed that we settle down a bit in the art department, because I'm becoming really invested in this series.

*** (three of five stars)

Detective Comics #43 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

The plot definitely thickens in this issue, in part because Buccellato adds a number of new layers.

We learn that the three "brothers" that comprise La Morte are a team of operatives that only take on big jobs.  They're in Gotham to fulfill contracts for two clients.  The first is to steal the power core from the Batsuit and deliver it to Joker's Daughter.  The second is to assassinate someone at the circus event (presumably) for the Falcone family.  Harvey and Montoya have a hunch that someone may be pulling the strings despite the fact that the two contracts seem unrelated.

As usual, when we get more answers, we also get more questions.  It's not clear to me how Joker's Daughter learned about the power core in the Batsuit.  It seems like she'd have to have someone pretty deep in the system to get that information.  It could be Yip, but it seems more like she's working for the Falcones, since Monotoya's investigation of her call history reveals that she sent someone the seating chart for the circus event.  So, we still need to learn how Joker's Daughter discovered the secret, if you will, of the Batsuit's power.  We also learn that La Morte goaded Gordon into leaving the suit at the end of the issue specifically to steal the core.  The bad news for them is that Gordon managed to take down two of them, leaving only one operational.  He negotiates with Joker's Daughter to help, and it seems like she debuts the Jokerbot that we see at the end of this issue (presumably using the stolen core) to distract Gordon.  I'm not entirely sure why she's acting now, though, since I feel like the circus event is still a few days in the future.  I guess we'll see.

We also still don't know Yip's motivations.  Harvey approaches her here, but she merely tells him that she's already dead, something he'll understand when he sees who the target of the assassination is.  Although Buccellato tries to make it seem like Harvey is trying to convince Jim to help him kill Yip, it seems pretty clear that he wants to fake her death so she can escape.  Again, it reminds to be seen how it's going to go.

Buccellato is on his own this issue, in the writing department, and it may be why we get such a direct line from Point A to Point B.  Regardless, the team continues to do a better job in advancing these mysteries issue by issue, and I'm intrigued to see where we go from here.

*** (three of five stars)

Star Wars #7 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

To be honest, this issue seems more significant than it is particularly interesting.  As we saw at the end of last issue, Luke has gotten his hands on Ben's journals from his time on Tatooine, opening up his lost history for the first time.  This issue provides a glimpse into that history, though I can't say that I found it all that thrilling.

Obi-Wan spends most of the time detailed in this entry struggling with his desire to help the locals as they suffer from the Great Drought.  This challenge is made all the more difficult due to Jabba's men stealing the meager moisture that they're able to farm.  Ben realizes that he must withdraw more completely lest he's discovered, but regains his hope in the future when Luke tries to steal back the moisture that Jabba's men stole.

It's a fine story, but I didn't really find myself connecting with Ben.  It's admittedly difficult, of course, since he spends most of the issue talking to himself (or, in theory, Qui-Gon).  I actually felt like this issue would've been better suited for an annual story.  First, it would fit the one-off nature of an annual.  But, second, it would've given Aaron a few more pages to explore Ben falling into the depression that we only see briefly here.  After all, we barely began touching on his feelings when he finds hope in Luke's courage.

At any rate, I'm intrigued by the journals, but hopefully it'll be a while before we spend an issue on them again.  It's still early in this series, and I feel like this sort of one-shot interrupted the great momentum that Aaron was building.  Let's get back to Sana Solo, shall we?

** (two of five stars)

Thors #2 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Not surprisingly, the plot thickens in this issue.

In the wake of Beta Ray Bill's death, the Thors round up the "usual suspects" that might have had something to do with his death.  Meanwhile, Lief stays on the trail of "Jane Foster," shaking down a clerk at a clinic where she worked.  (I'm not sure how he knew to go to that clinic, but I'm just assuming, in a dictatorship like Battleworld, that the Thors have access to a database that keeps track of everyone.)  The clerk tells Lief that Jane disappeared months ago and someone had already picked up her stuff.  Enter Thor the Unworthy (a.k.a. Odinson).  He tells Lief that he was the one to gather her possessions and cryptically warns Lief to forget her name unless he wants to end up like him, stripped of his hammer.  Lief is then called to the scene of another murder, this time of a Donald Blake.  Dun-dun-DUN!  Unlike last time, Lief's able to catch a suspect fleeing the scene:  a bedraggled Loki.

Again, if Aaron wants to get into the police-procedural business, I really think that he has a future.  He really captures Lief's frustration at knowing so little about the case, particularly since the stakes continue to get higher.  I'm also not sure where we're going, particularly with the Donald Blake revelation, but it's part of the fun.  Along the way, the "Secret Wars" setting is starting to feel more and more comfortable, since it's so integral to the story.  "Thors" is really the only tie-in series that spans the domains, so it really helps flesh out some of the details of how the domains interact and how Battleworld works.  Again, I find myself almost wishing that Battleworld would stay, given the seemingly endless number of stories that Aaron could tell in "Thors."  Needless to say, it's great stuff, definitely one of the best tie-in series right now.

*** (three of five stars)

Batgirl Annual #3 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

All you really need to know about this issue is that Babs recognizes Dick in his Spyral disguise after getting a glimpse of his ass.  (In the end she decides that it wasn't him, since she thinks that he's dead, but she really should've trusted her instincts on that one.)

But, if you need more convincing, I'd say that it's also exactly the type of story that you want to see in an annual.  It's a very well plotted and scripted thriller where Babs tracks down a spy organization trying to get its hand on a doomsday device.  In the process, Babs runs into a number of members of the Bat-family, encountering not only Dick but also Spoiler, Batwoman, and the Gotham Academy kids.  Plus, Fletcher and Stewart pepper it with enough humor to keep it light.  (I loved Helena referring to Babs as the "Queen of Hipsterville.)  The artists -- a separate one for each chapter, making the transitions less jarring than they usually are in multiple-artist issues -- also inject the issue with a sense of fun.  (I'd love to see Bengal work on the main title.)

But, really, it's all about the ass, because it's that sort of tongue-in-cheek (yet still reverent) approach to these characters that makes Fletcher and Stewart's run so great.  (I just got the "cheek" pun after re-reading this post, and I'm keeping it in there in honor of the tone of this issue.)

*** (three of five stars)

Batgirl #43 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Fletcher and Stewart engage in a slight, though welcome, dodge in this issue.

At the end of last issue, it looked like Batman was going to arrest Babs.  At the start of this one, though, he disables his suit -- allowing him a brief window of time where base wasn't surveilling him -- and lets Babs go.  He reminds her that the Powers That Be want him to take in costumed vigilantes and suggests that she lies low for a while.  Of course, she doesn't, instead rallying to help him take down Livewire (the villain that escaped prison at the end of last issue).  After their successful team-up, Jim observes that he's going to have to arrest her at some point, but Babs simply notes that they made a great team.

The dodge that I mentioned is the fact that Gordon seems perfectly comfortable with Batgirl, putting her in the context of the other members of the Bat-family.  He even goes so far as to applaud her and the rest of the family, observing that Gotham would've fallen to pieces without them.  I don't deny Jim's support of Batman, obviously, but Fletcher and Stewart are somewhat...de-complicating his relationship with Batgirl.  After all, during Simone's run, he was obsessed with arresting her for apparently killing James, Jr..  In issue #26, we learned that she didn't actually kill him, and she and her father were able to enter into an uneasy truce.  It's the "uneasy" part that Fletcher and Stewart ignore here.

As such, it's a dodge, but, as I said, it's a welcome one.  Although the tension between Batgirl and Jim was interesting for a few issues, I didn't really want to see it persist forever.  I'm just going to assume that Jim has a different perspective on the sorts of choices that superheroes have to make now that he is one, and he's letting Batgirl off the hook.  I'm all for that sort of growth in characters, even if I have to invent it in my head.

*** (three of five stars)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Uncanny X-Men #35 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

I'll admit that it's sort of weird to read this issue, given that everyone else is knee-deep in "Secret Wars" and Bendis is essentially pretending that it's not happening.  But, it's worth it, because he really does get the chance to wrap up the story that he's been telling for ages.

In a nutshell, Cyclops' former students decide to give it a go on their own.  It goes pretty well for a while.  After rescuing a mutant that we've seen before at some point (I can't quite remember when), the team's feeling pretty good about itself.  Goldballs even becomes an Internet celebrity.  But, when his parents reveal that his powers are mutant abilities, everyone turns against them.  The team defeats Klaw, crowing over taking on an Avengers villain, but a group of anti-mutant assholes attack them, almost killing Goldballs in the process.  They flee to the Xavier School, just in time for Bendis to have everyone under the same roof again (for the first time in a long time) for "Uncanny X-Men" #600.

In all honesty, it's a fitting ending that Bendis doesn't rush.  The kids really make it out there for a while.  I'll admit that I think that it's a stretch for Bendis to want us to believe that no one realized that Fabio was a mutant.  How many normal humans summon gold balls from thin air?  But, it's believable enough that the kids underestimated how hated and feared that they were.  If it wasn't Goldballs, someone else would've eventually invited the anger that they face here.  As such, I'm giving Bendis a pass.  The kids realize that they don't have the experience necessary to navigate the complicated world of superheroing, and they go to the place that they know will accept them.  It's a believable story

In other words, school's now in session for everyone other than Scott, Magneto, Emma, and Alex.  Bendis really brings us full circle from "X-Men:  Schism," unifying the team in a way that they haven't been in four years.  This long arc has really been one of the most consistently well told that I've ever read, evoking the brilliance of the Australian Outback period for me.  We've watched the rise, fall, rise, and fall of Scott Summers, and it's been a character-driven process all along the way.  I can't wait to see how Bendis wraps up the story in "Uncanny X-Men" #600.  My guess is that the word "epic" is going to be involved in my review somewhere.

(Also, despite what the cover tells you, Emma and Scott don't appear anywhere in this issue, in yet another example of pet peeve #2.  But, I'll let it pass.)

*** (three of five stars)

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

So far, it's been mostly unclear how the present story that Lemire is telling -- of Kate and Hawkeye rescuing the three kids that were subjects of a Hydra experiment -- and the past story -- of Barney and Clint coming to find themselves with the Swordsman at the circus -- intersect.  Lemire makes the connection clearer in this issue, and it's beautifully sad.

In the past, the Swordsman teaches Clint how to shoot a bow and identifies him as a natural.  He also identifies Barney as a natural for another type of act at the circus:  pick-pocketing its customers.  The revelation that it's this act that serves as the real point of the circus doesn't particularly phase Barney.  Sadly, Lemire makes it clear that Barney understands that he doesn't exactly get to have a moral code at this point:  he realizes that he and Clint have nowhere else to go.  If Ms. Carson (the bearded lady that runs the circus) wants him to become a thief, he'll become a thief.  On the other hand, Clint is outraged when he discovers the truth and gets to practicing with his bow as much as possible, realizing that it's his way to be useful to the circus without resorting to theft.  Barney tries to prevent Clint from joining the gang as long as he can, but he also recognizes that he's only going to be able to hold off that day for so long:  Carson tells both of them that she doesn't need another sharpshooter.

In the present, we see how this experience informs Clint's behavior toward the kids.  Hydra and, I think, S.H.I.E.L.D. find the kids with the Hawkeyes, and it looks increasingly like Clint and Kate won't be able to save them.  The kids are forced to use their powers to save Kate, and Clint is suitably devastated over the fact that adults forced them to use their powers to do something terrible.  Now, we understand why he's so devastated.  The kids have become Barney:  they need to survive more than they need to be upstanding.

Beyond just delivering such a nuanced plot, Lemire's portrayal of the Swordsman shows his ability to portray a complicated character that isn't easily placed on the good/bad spectrum.  Jacques is shown as affectionate to the boys, but he's also not looking to be their father.  He recruits Barney into his gang, taking him on a job at the end of the issue, and lets the boys drink with his (probably underage) girlfriend.  However, he's also definitely warm to both of the boys (particularly Clint), and you understand why kids so starved for that sort of affection would return it to him.  It fits with the apparently moral of this arc, that seeing the world through a prism of "good' and "bad" are luxuries that only some people get to enjoy.

**** (four of five stars)

Star-Lord & Kitty Pryde #1 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

First, I didn't remember Peter getting separated from the rest of the raft group.  I had to do a quick re-read of "Secret Wars" #4, reminding myself that Dr. Strange scattered the survivors of Earth-616 -- both the heroes and villains -- to the Four Winds.  But, does it matter?  Peter Quill as a crooner in an upscale Manhattan club singing "Little Mermaid" songs because Battleworld doesn't have Disney movies?  I'm all in.

Not surprisingly, Humphries gets Peter's voice exactly right.  You can hear his pain as he pines for Kitty, and it's really the first time that we've seen one of the survivors of Earth-616 confront the reality that everyone that they knew and loved is gone.  (Verity had a similar reaction in "Loki:  Agent of Asgard" #16 but right now she's...Beyond.)  Of course, enter the "Age of Apocalypse" version of Kitty Pryde.  Humphries has cleverly made Kitty into an agent for Valeria Richards' Foundation:  she hunts down potentially heretical objects (a.k.a. objects from a place and time outside Battleworld).  In other words, Humphries twists her faith in science:  her faith in natural laws of physics now means that she has faith that no object can counteract the natural law of Doom.  Similarly, enter Peter Quill:  his blood lands on her scanner after she decks him for kissing her, and she realizes that Quill himself could be a potentially heretical "object."  Shenanigans are sure to ensue.

Amping up the sense that we're in a Disney movie full of hijinx, Firmansyah and Kholinne use clean lines and bright colors to convey this world.  It's a change from the way that we've previously seen Battleworld, and, in a way, underscores the isolation that Peter feels by making him live in this technicolor yet fake reality.  Sure, Humphries maybe plays up the Disney vibe a little too much (in particular in Drax as a highly coiffed club owner), but, overall, I appreciate the sort of creative risk that everyone involved takes here.  It's the sort of story that the "Secret Wars" premise invites them to tell.

*** (three of five stars)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Loki: Agent of Asgard #16 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

It's just so...perfect.  In the end (literally, in the very end), the thing that keeps Loki from becoming King Loki is that he stops caring what everyone thinks of him.  He lets go of the rage that drove King Loki, the anger that he would never be accepted, wanted, or loved.  As the God of Stories, he seems capable of things that he wasn't able to do before, like this release has freed up his focus.  Freed, he chooses neither side as the end nears, allowing Asgardia and Hel to do battle on their own.  He simply captures their story, and, as such, moves into the Beyond.  He does take Verity (or, at least, her ghost, after he killed her last issue) with him, because, as he said, he needs a friend.  But, other than Verity, he's on his own.  He gets to tell his own story.  (I'm still not 100% sure how destroying the Marvel-616 universe would help give King Loki, Hel, and Tyr a chance to survive, but we'll just overlook that.)  He's achieved the rebirth that he longed to have, no longer burdened by his past or future self.  Onwards and upwards.

*** (three of five stars)

E is for Extinction #2 (HERE BE SPOILER!)

I have officially lost the plot with this one.  Magneto was using Jean (cocooned in the Phoenix Egg) to manipulate the new X-Men and limit the powers of the old X-Men.  (I think?)  But, Quentin in this reality has a moral code and helped attract the attention of the old X-Men when he discovered Magneto was keeping Jean prisoner.  (Maybe?)  And, Magneto was going to use Esme and Quentin to hatch the egg prematurely to get...power?  (Or was it going to give birth to Jean?)  Unfortunately for him, Quentin bonded with the egg, but it didn't matter, because Xorn is the one that eventually merged with it.  (Who is Xorn, exactly?  He's clearly no longer Magneto.)  Also, Hank found a human version of himself dead on his doorstep of a "viral strain" that led him to the School.  When Magneto is crushed under the egg, Beast declares that its powers have gone dormant.  But, then a bunch of Beasts arrive declaring that Magneto was right that the egg still has power?  Maybe?  Possibly?

** (two of five stars)

Amazing Spider-Man #156-#160 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Wein delivers another set of off-beat issues here, and I'm beginning to wonder if it's a good idea to have the editor also serve as the writer.

Issue #156 is fine, the sort of mad-cap caper that I expect from this era.  The Mirage just so happens to rob the wedding hall where Betty Brant and Ned Leeds are getting married.  (It's hosting several weddings at once, so it's a plum target.)  As a result, Peter has to engage in his typical disappearing act to save the day.  Eventually, the excuse that he provides here -- that he ran into another room to call the police -- becomes so overused (and unbelievable) that writers were forced to acknowledge the implausibility of everyone still buying it.  But, at this point, I guess that it's more or less believable that they're all still going with it.  (Notably, Mary Jane is getting suspicious, since Wein continues to portray her as acutely aware of Peter's absences).  The best part of the issue is probably the first few pages where Wein sets up the story.  As Peter alights on the roof of his apartment building in his Spidey costume, his drunken landlady attacks him with a broom (and worries that she killed him when she knocks him off the roof).  To make matters worse, he realizes that his milk is spoiled as he drinks it.  He also never manages to get food at the buffet table before the ceremony starts.  It's the sort of college-boy antics that had again gotten stale by the time that I started reading "Amazing Spider-Man" in the mid-80s, but they feel fresh here, since they legitimately represent Peter on his own for the first time.  Also, the most important panel is easily overlooked:  on page 18, Harry tries to save Liz from Mirage stealing her purse.  She'll later approach him in issue #157 to thank him, beginning their relationship.  The only real downside to this issue is that I did raise an eyebrow at the idea that Peter and Mary Jane serving as the best man and maid of honor at the wedding.  Ned has no other male friends than the first love of his soon-to-be wife?  Betty has no other female friends than the current girlfriend of her first love?  Really?

But, it's the three-part Dr. Octopus story in issues #157-#159 that stakes out new territory in oddness.  We learn that the mysterious homeless man that we've seen a few times over the previous issues is actually Dr. Octopus.  He appears on May's doorstep for help, and he's still there when Peter arrives.  Honestly, I had no idea that May and Ock had a relationship so soon in the series.  I expected it to be much later in the 100s.  But, a relationship they had, and Otto tells us what happened after he left May at the altar.  Apparently, it was Hammerhead that caused him to flee the ceremony to a "uranium-rich Canadian island" that May had apparently inherited.  (No, really.  I assume that this tidbit was better explained during the original story.)  Hammerhead followed him there and, in the scuffle, caused a nuclear explosion that only Otto survived.  However, he claims that it also turned Hammerhead into a ghost, and he's been haunting Otto (again, really) ever since.  We learn that Otto isn't crazy when Hammerhead appears in May's living room.  Otto flees with May, starting a three-issue battle with Spider-Man over which one of them is going to save her.

(Seriously.  For reasons that don't really make sense to me, Peter doesn't trust Otto with May.  He acts as if Otto is going to kill her, something that he clearly has no intention of doing.  Maybe Peter is just young and overly emotional?)

Eventually, Hammerhead manipulates Otto into returning him to his body.  (Apparently, Hammerhead wasn't "killed" so much as he was "out of phase" or some such nonsense.  Seriously, Wein puts no real effort into explaining it.  He also puts no effort into explaining how Hammerhead -- not the sharpest tool in the shed -- knew better than Otto that the device that he created to kill Hammerhead once and for all would actually resurrect him.  But, I digress.)  However, Hammerhead's resurrection doesn't last long.  Corporeal again, he swipes Aunt May and escapes, forcing Peter and Otto to join forces to find them.  They do, and Otto eventually downs Hammerhead's helicopter as he (again) tries to escape, allegedly killing him (again).

Honestly, it's just strange.  As the next issue confirms, this arc starts a pattern of Wein using science as a deus ex machina, putting little effort into explaining major drivers of plots.  Moreover, Aunt May seems to be perpetually near-death.  She was in the hospital for issues #144-#146, and she's unconscious for the better part of issues #157-#159.  She's essentially the original woman in a refrigerator.  It makes you really appreciate how great it is that "Brand New Day" made her less frail.  (Look, I said something nice about "Brand New Day!")

All that said, it all somehow gets even weirder in issue #160.  Spidey encounters the henchmen from issues #153-#154 again, this time robbing furs.  While he fights them, the Spider-Mobile reappears and attacks him.  (The disappearance of the Spider-Mobile from where he previously crashed it into the Hudson River has been a sub-plot for the last few issues.)  It's unclear to me if the henchmen were working for the Tinkerer, the guy that we later learn sent the Spider-Mobile after Spidey in the first place, or if the Tinkerer just happens to attack at the same time as Spidey's fighting the henchmen.  (At this point, I don't expect us to ever learn anything about these guys.)  Peter barely manages to escape the Spider-Mobile in his first encounter with it, because some sort of gas robs him of both his Spider-Powers and the use of his Web-Shooters.  In a second encounter, the Spider-Mobile eventually webs up Spidey and delivers him to the Tinkerer.  The Tinkerer (besides revealing that his alien bit from issue #2 was a ruse) exposits that the gas clogged Peter's pores, denying him his Spider-Powers.  (I have no idea how it also clogged his Web-Shooters, because Wein doesn't even attempt to explain it. Again, it's "SCIENCE!")  The Tinkerer is apparently supposed to deliver Spidey to his mysterious employer, but Spidey manages to escape.  He later delivers the Spider-Mobile to the PR company that conned him into creating it in the first place, after they had previously threatened to sue him if he didn't return it.

Honestly, it just makes no sense.  Wein is using it as part of this larger story that he's apparently telling involving the henchmen, but it just seems bizarre that he chose the Spider-Mobile as this issue's action-forcing event.  Moreover, seven issues after the henchmen's first appearance, I still have no idea who employs them or what his/her goal is.  At this point, assuming that it's the same employer, s/he wanted the missing piece to the WHO, the industrial freeze-ray, some furs (I think), and Spider-Man.  It's an eclectic mix, to say the least.

Despite the just downright bizarreness of these issues, Wein does include some decent small moments.  Glory brings over a cake to Peter's apartment in issue #158, and she meets Mary Jane, who amazingly doesn't have a conniption fit over a woman being in Peter's apartment.  (We're also treated to Peter in his tighty-whities as he puts on his costume under his street clothes in his bedroom.  Speaking of a naked Peter, I should also note a glitch in issue #157 where his Spidey pants are flesh-colored, making it look like he's flashing his ass at us.  It makes you realize how important colorists are, since the spandex crowd are essentially naked all the time.)  Moreover, JJJ, Jr. is going through secretaries like Kleenex now that Betty has moved to Paris with Ned; he fires his third one in issue #160.  (Betty made that announcement at the end of the wedding issue that they were moving to Paris, though, honestly, I don't recall it being mentioned since I started reading this era, with issue #144.)  All these moments definitely leave you feeling like you've got a good insight into Peter's life.  In fact, I'm starting to think that it's why it's so easy to feel connected to characters of this era and not of the modern one.  The authors took the time to let us into the characters' lives, and I just feel like we don't get that anymore.  I can't remember the last time (outside maybe "Batgirl") that I saw people gathered in a character's apartment or home.  I mean, where does Sam Wilson even live?

Finally, I will say that Wein does a marvelous job keeping plots on a slow burn (even if, when they come to a boil, they make little sense).  For example, the Spider-Mobile sub-plot appeared in several issues before it came to a resolution in this issue, similar to Otto's initial appearances as a haunted homeless man.  In issue #160, we've got JJJ, Jr. receiving a mysterious package of photos that'll apparently ruin Spider-Man.  This effort to preview coming conflicts again leaves you feeling like you're involved in Peter's life, since we're not just seeing conflicts randomly burst onto the stage.

Now, if we could only just have the plots make a little more sense, I'd be a happy camper.