Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: Avengers World #6

 I read somewhere, somewhen, that Avengers World was telling strong, single-issue stories set in the current continuity of the Marvel Universe. This was a thing I wanted in my life! So on my latest trip to the comics shop to load up on dollar bin books (filling in a nice chunk of late-80s Uncanny X-Mens), I picked up Avengers World #6, featuring on its cover someone who was either Hyperion (most notably of Mark Gruenwald's excellent alternate reality limited series Squadron Supreme), or the Sentry, an 00s-era Superman/Shazam kind of figure.

Two things I learned quickly in this issue of Avengers World: One, that's Hyperion on the cover, but he's sporting the Sentry's blue-and-gold color scheme these days, rather than his traditional crimson-and-gold.

And two, this issue is most certainly not a self-contained story.

The issue starts with a "S.H.I.E.L.D. Mission Report" that serves as a one-page recap of the story so far. Though it's implied this issue will feature Thor, Hyperion, and the latest Captain Marvel (being Carol Danvers, of the very cool costume and haircut, and being previously known as Ms. Marvel), Carol only shows up to point out that...

This is her only line of dialogue.

Near the end of the issue, she's on hand to be thrown all the way to Seattle by former Avenger, now A.I.M.-lackey, the Messenger. Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel remains my favorite-in-theory Marvel hero I've not actually enjoyed on the page.

Anyway. The rest of the recap explains (kind of) that some of the Avengers have been captured by A.I.M., and Captain America has sent these three Avengers, our Avengers, to rescue them.

But once the issue gets rolling, we quickly learn that Hyperion is sad. Justifiably so -- his entire universe has been destroyed (for reasons unclear in this issue), and he feels adrift and lost in this world. There's a flashback ("Savage Land. Days Ago.") to Hyperion watching over a group of ... children? Zebra-skinned humanoids?... playing with a stegosaurus, talking with Thor about how he feels hopeless, even when watching over playful ... kids? mutants? aliens? ... because he feels all is hopeless and that this world, too, will be destroyed.

I could not tell you why this is.

Not a joke: It's hard to feel invested in sad sack superheroes.

What I can tell you is that the issue employs a neat, circuital, Doozer Stick-looking visual to denote when a flashback occurs.

"You seem burdened" is my new go-to icebreaker.

This is, unfortunately, one of the only compelling things about this issue. In general the colors are a bland blend of yellows and blues, and the dialogue is bloated and difficult to follow. "What am I to show these children of their future?" Hyperion wonders. "It occurs to me that I fixate on keeping them safe by strength -- because I do not believe in anything else here."

He doesn't believe in anything but strength? Or in anything but keeping them safe? Or in anything but the children? In any event, you could trim "It occurs to me that" altogether, and you certainly straighten out "I fixate on keeping them safe by strength" into something more like a sentence intended for clarity, and we would all have a better shot at understanding what the real issue here is.

This is all spoken, by the way, when Hyperion and Thor have lost of the ... children? ... after they have run off into the jungle of the Savage Land, with a dinosaur, as Hyperion is actively worried about the people and places he cares about being obliterated all over again.

But alas. The meat of the story (or maybe the marrow? It is thick and rich, but buried in the middle) occurs once Hyperion has ... I think, fought his way, alone, into the middle of the A.I.M. headquarters and come face to face with the Scientist Supreme, the man who brought Hyperion from his dead world and into this one. The two of them stare at a bright white, crackling portal, its function and purpose unclear, as the Scientist Supreme exposits that Hyperion has been brought here to join A.I.M.'s cause (also unknown) willingly.

Hyperion refuses, because he is the sun ...

So the portal is ... death? Or this is a joke about Superboy-Prime?

He punches and destroys the white portal (function still unknown), and demands the return of the lost Avengers. He also, apparently, moves to punch the Scientist Supreme immediately, because his punch is caught by the Messengers, once the Avenger known as Smasher. She appears to be dressed like Yellowjacket, an alias of the founding Avenger Hank Pym, also known as Ant-Man, though it is unclear if this is purposeful.

Yellowjacket above, Messenger below, mournful all-round.

Smasher punches Hyperion all the way to the desert, and then tosses Thor to the snow, and Captain Marvel (as previously discussed) to Seattle.

Hyperion narrates that the Sun of our solar system will live for 9.5 billion years, which is the blink of an eye when compared to the "heat-death point of the universe." He wonders if he can "stand against that kind of power," presumably meaning the heat-death-point, and not the sun? He tried to stand against it once before, and failed. He will not fail again!

I do not know what any of this means. To be continued!

Avengers World #6 is written by Nick Spencer with art by Marco Checchetto, color art by Andres Mossa, and letters by VC's Joe Caramagna. Cover artists are Neal Adams & Paul Mounts. Jake Thomas is the assistant editor, Will Moss is the editor, Tom Brevoort is the executive editor, with editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, chief creative officer Joe Quesada, publisher Dan Buckley, and executive producer Alan Fine. Published by Marvel Comics and dated July 2014. It is on comics stands now.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Saga, chapter nineteen

The cover of the new issue of Saga says "Chapter Nineteen," but in the hands of any other publisher, this would be the first issue of volume two. This would be a reboot or a new season or a bold new direction. This is a new status quo, with parents Alana and Marko hiding out instead of on the run. Consider, also, the first respective pages of chapters one and nineteen:

But Saga is published by Image, and as such it remains under the control of creators and auteurs Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Vaughan and Staples continue to present Saga with the confidence and authority of master storytellers, telling a story that already exists -- they've only just decided to share it with a wider audience. Saga doesn't feel like it's being created for the reader, so much as found by the reader. Which makes its creation all the more impressive.

But, okay. There are two pages everyone who talks about Saga has been talking about since the release of chapter nineteen: the first page and the last page. The first page is reproduced up above. It's beautiful and weird and compelling. The last page is provocative and shocking and inevitable. I won't reproduce it here, or discuss the reasons that make it these things, except to say: if you read Saga, you will love the last page and fear the last page. You will be confused and excited, the way Battlestar Galactica's "One Year Later" jump confused and excited you. That's all to say that Saga continues to not only be an impressive comic book narrative, it also continues to push upward the ceiling of what periodical comic books can accomplish in the 21st century.

Specific reasons why Saga chapter nineteen are successful: we're reminded of the overall plot with as little expository text as we need, and with as much beauteous artwork as we deserve.

It also trusts readers -- even new ones -- that they'll get the gist without needing a "previously on..." style recap.

It spends time checking in our major characters, but also takes time to show us relationships, not just plot devices.

It's funny.

What did Saga chapter nineteen not do very successfully?

Er... that's a tough one. The cover, while rooted in the story, looks a little too much like other comics on the stands, comics which Saga is not. 

It places the whole, entire responsibility of its story, and its success, and its brand, on Saga itself. It doesn't tie in to a larger story -- it is the larger story. It doesn't advertise its importance in the New York Times -- it just is important. Vaughan and Staples are embracing and proving their mastery not only of how to tell a compelling story in the medium of sequential narrative, but also how to publish an engaging monthly comic book that feels like part of a 75+ year tradition, while also feeling nostalgia-free. Saga is a comic book. Saga has a letters page. Saga is a genre story. Saga has characters that feel like people, people who have relationships, relationships that resound.

Saga #19 is written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by Fiona Staples and letters + design by Fonografiks. Coordinated by Eric Stephenson. Published by Image Comics and dated May 2014.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: Shutter #1

The first thing I like about Shutter: it starts on the inside front-cover. It's a great visual, and it uses the comics form in a natural and fun way. Astronauts! Moon-running!

The second thing I like: the credits, running mid-page across the first several pages, all Wes Anderson-like, giving us tour of the wallways of the Kristopher family. They're explorers and have been for generations, but like The Royal Tenenbaums shows us a once-great family at a low point, the this family of explorers has (for now) dead-ended with Kate Kristopher, a 27-year-old former writer and explorer who sleeps on her couch in the clothes she wore the day before. Unlike Tenenbaums, there's not a lot of charm or just-under-the-surface potential visible to keep me engaged in whether or not this family rebounds.

My biggest engagement problem is Kate Kristopher herself, the hero of Shutter and another entry in a long line of main characters who are too cool for school who can't be bothered to engaged in their world, or their story. "Did you get my voicemail?" her roommate asks: "Kinda, nope."

"Are you her? Kate Kristopher? Oh my gods, oh my gods, oh my gods," exclaims a young fan on the train: "Um. Hello. Thank you?"

"Life got pretty boring," Kate says, explaining both her malaise and the reason why she stopped writing about her adventures. Obviously that's not the truth -- a few pages later we learn that Kate's father died ten years previous, and we're led to believe this is why she stopped her adventuring ways.

Ghost ninjas attack Kate as she visits her father's grave -- a nice almost-splash page -- but again, we're reminded right away that Kate is so over this: "You think I'm helpless? I've seen some shit. I've led a life."

In the issue's backmatter, writer Joe Keatinge credits Corto Maltese, Tintin, and T.E. Lawrence as inspirations. That's a great pedigree, and Shutter begins in New York City in a world reminiscent of all of the science-heroes and explorers of pulp comics and magazines past. It reminds me of Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10,  and the art by Leila del Duca and Owen Gieni feels lived in, artful, and fun.

A simple but swell touch: A swell touch: a minotaur getting off of the train ahead of Kate, after having seen him riding the train next to Kate on the previous page. Gieni's colors look almost watercolored at times, and the flashbacks to Kate's youth are dot-colored like old comics.

Keatinge's language also has moments of fun cadence: "The annual report is everything's everything as it always is." But occasionally the panel and page transitions are confusing -- scarves on scarves with a little gutter in between is jarring.

Kate's ghost-ninja fight takes her out of the cemetery and to ... somewhere else? It's just as likely to be "outside the cemetery gates" as it is to be "suddenly a parallel dimension." The problem with a world so wide open is that there's no solid ground beneath my feet by which I can say, "Obviously, they have tumbled out onto the sidewalk, where Kate encounters some kind of tick-tock-man riding on a griffon-powered junk castle." I could just as likely as "Obviously, the touch of the ghost-ninjas has phased Kate into another where & when entirely," and the fact that the issue ends rather suddenly with another splash page makes it impossible to decide which is which.

We're also left with a revelation that Kate has siblings -- but it's unclear if those siblings are remaining off-page, or of the ghost-ninjas are possibly them? Or if the ghost-ninjas are just the tick-tock-man's gophers, and the siblings are a threat to be realized next issue? I suspect the latter, but going by what's on the page it's hard tot ell.

In any event, we have 20 pages of art and story, but the pacing of those pages made me think we were only a third of the way through the issue. I'd definitely read the next issue of Shutter, because I feel like that's the best way to get the exhale to this issue's inhale.

I'm not, based on these 20 pages, convinced that I'll come back for issue 3. But as ever, I live in hope.

Shutter's letters page(s), remindful of SAGA's column, are titled "Processing." The instructions are in line with Kate's meh, whatevs attitude: "Send all electronic correspondences to and whatever physical you want to send to either of us..." It's definitely a matter of taste, and as a Midwesterner I'm also guilty of pretending not to care what folks think even (especially!) when I care quite a lot, but faux humility and an I'm not even supposed to be here today attitude are hard humps to get over when it comes to narrative.

When Keatinge and del Duca write directly to the reader in their letters column, they're clearly excited to be telling Kate Kristopher's story in Shutter. And I can appreciate a reluctant hero, refusal-of-the-call-to-adventure moment at a story's start, but I hope the next issues show us something different.

BACKUP FEATURES: "Mungore" (is possibly the title, but it is definitely), written and drawn by Ryan Alexander-Tanner and colored by Catherine Peach. It's a cute Brandon Graham/Mike Allred/James Kochalka mashup about giant monsters and giant robots and mayors and scientists.

A dynamically purple pin-up by Anthony Gregori and Mike Spicer shows Kate Kristopher and her father finding deep sea treasure and deep sea creatures, with lots of teeth all 'round.

A one-pager called "Tiger Lawyer in Sidebar," with story by Ryan Ferrier and art by Felipe Torrent wraps up the issue. It's poorly paced and telegraphs its "sidebar" joke three panels before actually delivering it. The script feels paced for an animated short rather than a one-page comic, but it does have the delightful line, "Help me, y' cat bastard."

Shutter is written by Joe Keatinge, with art by Leila del Duca, colors by Owen Gieni, and letters by Ed Brisson. Design by Tim Leong & Monica Garcia. Cover art (of my copy) by Brandon Graham. Created by Leila del Duca & Joe Keatinge. Published by Image Comics and dated April 2014.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Dollar Bin Reviews: Magik #4

Magik #4: “Darkchild”

My first comic book crush was Illyana Rasputin, code-named Magik, little sister to Colossus of the X-Men and member of the New Mutants training team.

Illyana was Russian, blonde with harsh bangs, and could teleport herself and her friends across vast distances with “stepping discs” that used an otherdimensional Limbo as a shortcut. But like Wolverine, it wasn’t her mutant power that made her interesting -- it was something else.

In Uncanny X-Men #160, Illyana is a six-year-old girl. She’s with the X-Men on an old island base of Magneto’s, watching them take part in a training session -- and secretly being watched in turn by a demon named Belasco. Belasco lures Illyana to a secluded, shadowy corner of the island. He pulls her through a portal into Limbo -- and the X-Men give chase.

Long story short, the X-Men face down magical beasts, battle alternate versions of themselves, and finally rescue Illyana, pulling her back to our dimension as Belasco is trying to pull her into his. For the X-Men, Illyana is only in Limbo for a few moments.

Illyana spends seven years there, coming back out of the portal as a thirteen-year-old.

Wolverine: hat on, shirt off.

The four-part limited series Storm & Ilyana: Magik, published more than a year after this issue of X-Men, tells Illyana’s story over that seven year period.

By this fourth, final issue, Storm’s part of the saga is mostly done. Also? It’s not really Storm. Okay, it’s Storm, but not the regular Storm who was in the X-Men book at the time. This is an alternate reality Storm, also a sorceress, and she was aided by Cat, an alternate reality Kitty Pryde, who dressed kind of like 1950s Batwoman. Cat was dead, and this alternate Storm follows her in the first few pages of #4. Which is just classic storytelling, really -- this Storm is the Obi Wan Kenobi of Magik, there to impart a lesson, then to die. Meet the mentor, and then try to carry on.

Off-panel blood magic, dudes.

Throughout the issue, Illyana struggles with her magical powers -- and whether she’s here to be a hero of a villain. This is better magic than Harry Potter --  a young magician constantly faced with temptation, a perpetual Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker, with great power within her grasp, but only if she’s willing to embrace a demonic tradition.

This the the Marvel Universe, so there’s a fine line between “demonic” and “Satanic.” There are a lot of near-devils in the Marvel Universe -- Mephisto, Belasco, Marduk Kurios (who is the father of the Son of Satan, for what it’s worth) -- but this demon looks pretty classically Satanic. Red skin, horns, cape, fond of pentagrams, the whole thing.

This guy looks trustworthy, right?

Belasco instructs Illyana in the ways of magic, and tempts and punishes her with visions of her friends in the X-Men -- only twisted, corpse-like versions of them. He wants her to embrace her powers -- and the cost of using them. It’s a temptation Illyana is constantly aware of, and constantly wants to give in to. This great power could consume her, and she wants it to. It’s an itch that feels good to scratch, but under that it hurts intensely, but all she wants to do is scratch it forever.

"I cast my pentagram, conjure my acorn. I have such high hopes."

And again like Luke Skywalker (Jedi was released the year before this series), Illyana’s power increases as she embraces her own dark side. She turns against her teacher, absorbing his power, and taking on more and more of his demonic appearance. Belasco becomes just a comic book handsome-dude in a funky outfit, and Illyana becomes the Darkchild of the story’s title.


But with absolute power in her grasp, Illyana realizes that she’s become the demon she was fighting against. She drops her sword and refuses to strike the killing blow.

Belasco calls her a coward and disappears in a puff of smoke.

Classic Belasco ninja vanish.

Sal Buscema is the penciler of this issue, and his work looks remarkably like his older brother John’s, who drew a lengthy and sword-and-sorcerous run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. It’s a great visual style of this series, which is a less-travel branch of the X-Men family tree. It’s classic Chris Claremont in that way. Claremont wrote X-Men and many of its spinoffs for years, and he built a consistent and clear continuity that could account for superhero adventures, demon sorcerers, ninjas, space opera, and domestic drama. Of course it was built on the foundation of the Marvel Universe that Lee, Kirby, Ditko and others established in the 1960s, but Claremont tightened the laces and made his corner of that universe a place where he could tell stories in any genre he pleased.

After defeating Belasco and rejecting ultimate demonic power, Illyana still can’t go back to how she was before she started down this path.

This is a pretty badass compact.

“There are three bloodstones already in the medallion, parts of myself consecrated to evil -- a bond I can never break.” Illyana moves forward, but she's changed by what has occurred here.

Page 22 brings us back to Uncanny X-Men #160, when Kitty Pryde pulls Illyana back to Earth, now seven years older.

At issue’s end, another year has passed. Illyana walks through a snowy forest and wonders what it means to be who she is: “But what is my age? I was born seven years ago, yet I’ve lived over twice that -- and in my soul, I feel as old as time.”

The sudden shift from seven-year-old to fourteen-year-old is an exaggeration of the transition from an adolescent to a teenager. A little girl one second, and the next, a surly teen with mood swings and a changing body. It’s also a superheroic version of terrible trauma, the kind of thing we’ve read about in the true-life stories of Elizabeth Smart or the victims of Ariel Castro. Women who are forcibly taken out of childhood or young adulthood, who are traumatized by rape and physical and mental abuse for months or years, and who then escape from their abusers. Sometimes they can return to their homes or their families, but they can’t go back to the time before their trauma. They can be loved and empathized with, but their ordeal can never be entirely understood by the loved ones who care for them.

Obviously, the fictional ordeal faced by this fictional character isn’t comparable to those very real tragedies. But that’s what fiction is for -- to try to comprehend the incomprehensible. To make smaller the very big, or to make larger the seemingly inconsequential, as a means of understanding it, thinking and talking about, looking inward and outward at issues that are larger than us.

Magik ends with a lot of potential for Illyana as a character. It’s too bad that she went on to become not much more than a supporting character in New Mutants, a book about an X-Men training team. New Mutants, written for much of its run by Louise Simonson, who edited Magik, was one of my favorite titles, but it wasn't the story of Illyana. She was relegated to subplots in which she fought the temptation of her demonic side, eventually transforming back into her younger self, "de-aging" to a time before she was taken to Limbo. After that she died, was brought back to life, re-aged, and most recently was one of the “Phoenix Five,” a group of X-Men characters who were given the power of the Phoenix Force. Occasionally she's served as a damsel-in-distress when an exterior motivation for heroism is needed for her brother Colossus.

Serialized comics are too often tombs for great potential. Characters and entire storylines are forgotten or abandoned as creative teams change, editorial decrees are passed down, or creative energies wane or wax in new directions.

But stories don’t just belong to the storyteller. An executive from Lucasfilm can say the Expanded Universe stories don’t really count anymore, but they do -- they do, if you want them to.

Illyana’s story still counts, too. Maybe the merry gang at Marvel didn’t realize her full potential, but that doesn’t mean that potential goes unrealized by the rest of us.

Storm & Illyana: Magik #4 is written by Chris Claremont with pencils by Sal Buscema, finishes by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, and letters by Tom Orzechowski. It is edited by Louise Jones with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Published by Marvel Comics and dated March 1984. It can be found in dollar bins around the country, or in the collection X-Men: Magik - Storm & Illyana.