Comic Book Review: Black Widow #14

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The hunt for Chaos may turn all of Natasha’s friends against her in Black Widow #14 from Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto. Falling back on her brutal skillset, Natasha’s quest for revenge takes from one corner of the world to the next, checking names off her hit list along the way. She’s very much alone on this job, and despite what she says, it just might cost her.

Edmondson uses all the tools at Natasha’s disposal as her violent quest brings her to Chaos’ doorstep. While the character has always been known for her skills as an assassin and spy, she’s acting completely without restraint in this issue. Tossing accountants out of planes and torturing a target with a nail gun, Natasha pulls no punches and it’s satisfying to see. Natasha’s plot to ambush the members of Chaos is tense and action-heavy, and Edmondson’s terse dialogue carries the tone through to the end.

From the cover to the conclusion, Noto’s artwork is impressive as ever. The action sequences are especially interesting in this issue. They differ slightly from the flatter, looser application of color and shading of the sequences, a visual element that, while some may not notice it,  adds another layer to the story.

Natasha’s flight from armed Chaos agents has a great deal more detail and depth of palette, contouring the figures with a natural play of light and shadow. The contrast between the more realistic look of skin and texture with the smooth stylization of calmer scenes, often on the same page, explores the tension between the two spheres of Natasha’s world. On one hand, there’s her complicated, highly detailed work life, and on the other there’s the deceptively simpler life she denies herself in the “real world.” It’s a clever storytelling choice that explores Natasha’s duality in subtle but interesting ways.

Well-scripted and visually engaging, Black Widow #14 is another solid issue from Edmondson and Noto.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #10

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Elektra’s journey to track down the Guild’s leader brings her back to her darkest moment in Elektra #10 from W. Haden Blackman and Mike Del Mundo. This issue follows her trek into Bulleye’s broken mind as she searches for the final name on her hit list, calling Cape Crow and Kento for help. While Del Mundo certainly provides impressive artwork, Blackman delivers an equally strong script with some fascinating elements, culminating in a visually exciting fight in the streets of Jakarta.

The voyage inside Bulleye’s mind exposes the broken murderer within. Elektra finds herself in his private gallery, a sculpture garden of all of greatest kills, both real and imagined. In the center of his violent, self-aggrandizing monument, the addled Bulleye lies beside the statue commemorating Elektra’s murder at his hands, in one of the most haunting moments of the series so far. Threatening to destroy his most cherished memory, Elektra gets the information she needs to find the head of the Guild and allows him to live, albeit begrudgingly.

With Kento at her side, Elektra follows the lead to Jakarta. There they roam the grubby alleys of the Monkey Village, where masked trained monkeys lay siege on the unwelcomed visitors with chains, knives and power tools. The following fight sequence is an eerie one, the chaos of Del Mundo’s energetic lines and varying palette choices contrasted by the vacant calm of the monkeys’ doll-like masks. This is certainly one of the most visually striking fight scenes of the title so far, evoking a genuinely creepy tone that complements the subtle horror elements set up by Bulleye’s violent monuments.

Elektra soon figures out that their attackers belong to the Guild’s leader, a young masked psychic who uses telepathy to control her private army. Despite having the upper hand in size and strength, Elektra’s skills are no match for the psychic’s far-reaching control. Kento is easily disposed of, Cape Crow is bested by a rebooted Bulleye, and in the closing page assassins descend upon the alley.

Tightly scripted with lots of lasting imagery, Elektra #10 may very well be the best series so far. It’s creepy, well-paced, and it visually engrossing throughout. A very strong offering from this creative team.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #11

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Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood plumb the unsure depths of Marc Spector’s reason and remaining sanity in Moon Knight #11, as Spector finds himself held in captivity. Under the oppressive watch of masked guards, therapists, and nurses, he is trapped within a sterile white prison in an unknown location, remanded there by his doctor. There, his every movement monitored by his mysterious captors, Spector must reconcile his troubled relationship with Khonshu to overcome the trap his doctor has set up for him.

Smallwood’s tightly gridded pages tell the story of Spector’s descent into this cold and unforgiving hell. Time has no meaning as the days pass by the small sporadic windows of the prison, one room as empty and sterile as the next as Spector passes through them vacantly. Bellaire’s bold reds and oranges break up this alienating monotony with a sense of urgency or isolation, based on their application. This well-executed balance of violence and stillness, action and inaction, makes for a visually fascinating read from the first page to the last.

Khonshu appears to confront Spector’s failure to act, prodding him to confront his doctor. Still angered by his abandonment by Khonshu, Spector has all but resigned himself to his captivity, resulting in another inmate getting the drop on him and stabbing him in the side. These scenes between Spector and Khonshu are perfectly scripted with tense, sparse, dialogue, exploring the strained connection between Spector and the god whose aspect he wears. They also further investigate the objective difference between Spector’s vigilantism and his doctor’s, and the ethics they use to exact violence on those that deserve it. Spector is convinced of his purely sensible rationale even in the face of his own unsure sanity, which raises even more questions in the face of his current circumstances.

Moon Knight #11 is a tight, well-paced read that continues to raise interesting questions about morality, justice, and vigilantism in the modern age. This thoughtful new direction under Wood has been a very satisfying to watch unfold, and will prove exciting to see in the future. Moon Knight is an already great series that has only gotten better, and if you’re not reading it you are missing out.

Comics Squared, Episode #1: Secret Wars, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle World

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Comics Squared, Episode #1: Secret Wars, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle World

Welcome to the first episode of Comics Squared! It’s my new podcast about comics, movies, TV, news, and whatever else that pops into mind. This week, while perpetually ill and braving the horrors of my first week back to school, me and my young ward Blaine talk about our favorite recent releases, as well as our pulls for the week. We also discuss the news (and general confusion) surrounding Marvel’s upcoming Secret Wars event, as well as the buzz about the possible X-Files reboot. So sit back, relax, and pop open a cold one, because it’s time to talk about some nerdy business. (You may want to send the kids to bed, though, because this show is intended for grown-ups.)

Here’s to crime!

Adventures in Real Life: Do Writers Owe Their Readers?

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It’s a question that I see many a writer squabble about on blogs and in the comment sections across the wild expanses of the untamed internet. Does a writer owe anything to their readers? Must a writer compromise their pure artistic vision to appeal to the ever-changing tastes of the market? What the hell does that even mean? (Pro-tip: If you’re writing schlock genre fiction for a quick buck, please stop talking about your divine creative spark or whatever. Just accept what you do, bro. Be proud of that schlock.)

While I’ve attempted to figure this question out for myself, the apparent general consensus is that all writers are geniuses who owe nothing to their readers. Just as the brilliant painter owes nothing to the drooling public, nor the driven filmmaker to the unwashed film-going masses, writers must be allowed to bring their uncompromising vision of pure creative energy to the world. Or something. This is what I’ve been told on Facebook and Twitter, anyway. Nobody owes anybody anything, and we should all just be glad for the writers putting out stuff for us to read. Writing is a hard job, somebody has to do it, so readers shouldn’t feel entitled to have a say in the work itself. And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s an alright way to look at it. This is a business. I make the product, you buy the product, and hopefully everybody gets what they want in the process.

But, the older I get, and — let’s be real — the crankier I am, my response to that question is far more personal and complex. As a writer, I see what I do — writing stuff for people to read, be it a comic book review or a 100k novel — as an extension of the morality I adhere to in my daily life. It’s like an oath to do what I can to make the world suck less than it already does. Which, when I hear myself say that, makes me sound as much of a wind-bag as the self-described geniuses I spend most of my time lampooning on the internet. (#Genericwritertweets?) Before you accuse me of donning my Social Justice Warrior armor and shield, and taking to the internet to rain on your collective parade, think about it like this.

The Writer’s Oath (stolen from Hippocrates, for reasons)

I swear by Warren Ellis the mad asshole who made me want to write as a kid, and William Gibson who was rad as hell, likewise Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, and call all the writers to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.

I will reverence the cool guys who taught me the art. Equally with my peers on the intertubes, will I allow them things necessary for their support, and will retweet their sale links. I will be aware of my privileges, and check them frequently, before I make an ass of myself. With regard to writing for my audience, I will devise and produce for them the best work that I can, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care not to regurgitate harmful or toxic stereotypes. I will walk a mile in the shoes of my audience, so that I may better understand their points of view and the hardships they face. If I expect their money, they expect a product worthy of it, and this transaction must be based upon respect.

Never shall any publisher’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poisonous, harmful, or abusive viewpoints to anyone, even if it is to make a quick buck; neither will I counsel any writer to do so. Not even in the service of plot, so don’t give me that shit. Moreover, I will do what I can, whenever I can, to advance the presence of women, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and all other marginalized people in the media that I produce. I will do what I can to elevate their voices and stories above than my own, and try to keep my white middle class American feels out of the conversation.

If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, feel free to kick my ass to the curb!

The typical response I receive from other writers is “I don’t write stories like that,” or “I don’t need to get bogged down in politics or PC stuff.” This sounds like good reasoning on the face of it; after all, everybody has their own agenda, and writes with different intentions. But is writing about perspectives outside of your own just a matter of politics? Shouldn’t a writer be self-aware enough to examine their own place in the world, and to consider writing about characters that don’t look or think like they do? If your high concept sci-fi epic is white as Miracle Whip, you’re hardly a visionary. If your gritty supernatural horror novel just spits out the same old sexist or transphobic cliches, that’s not ‘edgy’ or ‘rebellious’ – it’s just falling in step with the status quo.

In the end, I can’t tell anybody how to write. I can’t tell you how to feel about your audience, either. I can only do what I do, for the reasons that I do it. For me, that means do no harm. Take that as you will.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #11

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Christmas came a month late for Captain Marvel in this holiday-themed two-parter, but the wait was worth it. Carol’s back in New York City with mutant rock star Lila Cheney, but her vacation is cut short when antagonists Grace Valentine and June Convington hatch an elaborate kidnapping scheme. DeConnick delivers a solid holiday romp while Lopez breaks out some of his best artwork in the series to date, making for a fun read Carol fans are sure to enjoy. (Also, don’t let the dramatic cover fool you – Kit is fine, no worries there.)

While Captain Marvel has suffered a bit in recent issues, with meandering plotlines and gimmicky filler, the conclusion of A Christmas Carol brings back some of the best aspects of this title. Carol’s seemingly never-ending journey to prove herself comes at a cost as she comes home to be with Tracy, whose health has taken a turn for the worse. With a panicked Lila dashing around getting her last-minute shopping done, Carol sets aside spacefaring business as the Avengers’ intergalactic representative, only to have her quiet holiday foiled by Valentine and Covington.

The ensuing plot involves a kidnapped Santa Claus and genetic experimentation, as Carol’s self-appointed nemeses conspire to harvest her powers. This gimmick barely holds together but for the strength of DeConnick’s dialogue, characterization, and quirky sense of humor. As silly as it is, it works for a holiday issue, with Captain Marvel saving the day in time for the heartfelt conclusion. DeConnick’s narrative language, especially in the opening splash page, is particularly warm and descriptive, and that establishing narration was just lovely to read.

This issue features some of Lopez’s best work to date. His work on this series has been consistent, but the page designs in Captain Marvel #11 are noteworthy on their own merits. The panel compositions are stronger than they have been in recent memory, creating richly detailed street scenes and visually interesting transitions that move the story along at an engaging pace. For another nice change of pace colorist Lee Loughridge dips into cooler palettes this time around, using predominately blue and purple tones. This  shift provides balance to the earthy beige color schemes he’s been primarily employing since he came onboard, and breaks up some of the bland visual monotony the book has fallen into with recent issues.

Warm, funny, and visually pleasing, Captain Marvel #11 is just a good issue all the way around.

Comic Book Review: Storm #7

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Storm’s troubles are just getting started when she finds herself in FBI custody, accused of attacking a plane and all its passengers. From New York to Mexico, Santo Marco to Kenya, Ororo’s friends and fellow X-Men look on as the ensuing media firestorm makes her a wanted terrorist. After a daring jail break, Ororo must clear her name and expose the political conspiracy behind Davis Harmon and Eaglestar International, even if it costs her.

Pak delivers a solid script in Storm #7, pitting Ororo against a corrupt US senator and the full force of the FBI. It’s always nice to see emphasis placed on Ororo’s skills as a thief, which Pak does well. Physically engaging and evading the armed guards rather than relying solely on her powers, Ororo proves herself a competent hero in more ways than one, even with her busted ankle.

The dialogue gets a bit thin in the closing confrontation at the senator’s house, but overall Pak uses Ororo’s supporting cast well. Call-backs to characters like Forge and Marisol watching the drama unfold helps to strengthen Ororo’s support network, as well as her role as a leader. Readers want a hero they can root for, and Pak certainly delivers that.

Artist Barrionuevo does a decent job, especially in the opening pages. The way he renders Rachel’s telepathic projection is both inventive and amusing, expressing the discussion through  the use of tiny X-Men running around on Ororo’s unconscious body. Unfortunately the rest of the issue is visually disappointing.

Panel transitions during the jail break sequence break down as the action becomes somewhat muddled and confusing. The explosive show of power at the senator’s house suffers from awkward facial expressions and uninteresting panel designs, and the climax falls flat as a result. Redmond’s color palettes are effective, but as the artwork becomes increasingly less engaging, even her efforts lose their punch.

While certainly a rousing premise, the uninteresting artwork leaves the whole issue a bit flat. Solid scripting on Pak’s end, but if the interior pages lived up to Stephanie Hans’ attractive cover artwork it would be an entirely different story. A decent issue, but not a memorable one.

Comic Book Review: The Wicked + The Divine #6

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After the death of Lucifer, life has carried on in the midst of the ensuing media spectacle as gods become a topic of intense debate. Laura’s life continues on as anti-climactically as it always has, with the added complication of Luci’s lingering powers. As the next six-part arc kicks off, Gillen and McKelvie introduce us to new characters, new dynamics, and new questions in this clever supernatural mystery and pop culture dissertation.

At her lowest point, when she’s most alone in a world of gods and divas, Laura is approached by Inanna. Inanna, outlandishly dressed and a bit socially awkward, was a fan of the pantheon just like Laura before he was transformed into his god persona by Ananke. With his insight into the internal goings-on of the pantheon, he reaches out to help Laura find out who framed Luci. It seems that the pantheon may be using fans to do their earthly dirty work, and with Inanna at her side, Laura decides to come out of her self-imposed social media hiatus to infiltrate pantheon fandom. Her vast Twitter audience, which exploded after her recent interviews and media appearances, eagerly awaits her return, promising to catapult her into the fandom spotlight.

McKelvie’s breakdown of Laura’s life post-Luci tells sets the tone of this issue, and this arc, perfectly. His page designs and panel constructions utilize white space and expansive gutters in a way that frame Laura’s sense of emptiness and loss. These first few pages are some of the best in the book, especially the labeled diagrams of Laura’s bedroom, serving as the sad inventory of her life. Even without Gillen’s scripting to guide the reader, McKelvie’s figures and splash pages tell the story with affective precision, and Wilson’s deep, moody palettes complement that well.

This by no means is a slight to Gillen. His invention of fandom espionage deepens the plot considerably, and the introduction of Inanna opens the door to further intrigue. Inanna as a character fits well into this world, with his effusive personality, gaudy outfits, and plunging necklines. It will be interesting to see how he and this grimmer, somewhat more jaded Laura continue to play off each other.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #10

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Picking up after last issue’s closing plot twist, Kamala discovers the Inventor’s heinous plans in Ms. Marvel #10. So far this series has done a great job of packaging Kamala’s adventures in ways that appeal to today’s diverse readership, and this issue is no exception. Using a compelling contemporary framework to approach the overt silliness of giant mechs and talking birds, Wilson and Alphona successfully ground this arc’s super-science hijinks in something meaningful that many younger readers (this reviewer included) can certainly relate to.

As Kamala learns, the teens volunteered to become the human batteries for Inventor’s machines in order to seek alternative power sources for a rapidly expanding world. The teens believe they are little more than parasites, an “extra generation” using dwindling resources and contributing little in turn. In sacrificing themselves, they aim to leave a positive mark on the future that adults already blame them for ruining with smartphones and student loan debt. Noble intentions aside, the Inventor shows his true colors when he attacks Kamala and abducts Lockjaw. In turn Kamala rallies the other teenagers in a cowboy speech that even Captain America would be proud of, and leads the teens against the Inventor to set up for the arc’s conclusion.

While admittedly a little heavy-handed in its execution, the theme of youth standing up against a culture that devalues (and often demonizes) them is extremely relevant in today’s media. The pervasive narrative that the lazy, selfish millennials have led the contemporary western world to its doom is all but inescapable these days. To see young people so beaten down by their parents’ generation that they consider their own lives as disposal rings very true to most post-grads on the street, and for Kamala to take a stand against that narrative is uplifting. It also further solidifies her role as today’s every-woman hero, speaking to (and for) a widening audience of comic book readers from all walks of life.

Once again Wilson and Alphona bring their A-game. Wilson’s scripting is strong and Alphona’s pencils are as beautiful and energetic as ever, wonderfully complemented by Herring’s palettes. Another compelling, visually engaging issue from this stellar creative team.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #10

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Carol Danvers returns in her 100th solo issue for an oversized anniversary special just in time for Christmas. The first chapter of a holiday-themed two-parter, Captain Marvel #10 catches up with Carol’s friends back home on Earth through a series of letters picked up by world-hopping rock star Lila Cheney. Shifting gears from the series recent spacefaring adventure theme, this issue slows down to show that behind every great hero is a strong supporting cast of family and friends.

Through messages from Kit, Jessica Drew, Jim Rhodes, and Wendy Kawasaki, Carol gets a glimpse into the adventures her fellow heroes are having without her. Self-proclaimed Captain Marvel villain Grace Valentine returns to antagonize the city once more, hatching yet another cartoonishly mustache-twirling evil plot. From these alternating perspectives the reader is treated to the old-fashioned heroic adventure story that DeConnick delivers so well, even if the set-up is pretty corny. The issue is peppered with endearing personal moments and memories, especially in Jessica and Jim’s respective storylines, which serve to ground all of Carol’s friendships in ways designed to tug at the heart strings. Every character is given a moment to shine on their individual merit, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Carol’s support network in action against a villain.

Artists Lopez, Takara and Braga lend their respective styles to each section of the story, splitting the workload with a great deal of success. While their styles do vary in weight and character of line, the transition from one artist to the next is pretty much seamless, and all of their individual pages keep the story moving at a good clip despite that initial visual discrepancy. Colorists Loughridge and Filardi also mitigate some of this inconsistency through uniform palette choices that make for a visually cohesive reading experience. Soft blues, muted beiges, and warm orange tones create an inviting, almost pastel world for the reader to follow, affecting the kind of dreamy reconstruction that comes of reading a story secondhand.

It has a predictable villain and a paint-by-numbers plot, but the endearing nature of the story and its execution is what makes this issue a highly enjoyable read. Captain Marvel #10 is obvious fan service, but with a sense of heart at its core, it perfectly encapsulates Carol’s enduring popularity in recent years. This title has made a name for itself by serving standard cape book comfort food with a strong emotional foundation that dictates the stories being told, and it makes sense that the 100th issue special is no different. This issue is must-read for Carol fans.