Comic Book Review: Elektra #6

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The next installment of Elektra’s adventures begin in this issue,Double Tap: Part One, from series writer Blackman and new artist Alex Sanchez, stepping in after Mike Del Mundo. While I certainly miss Del Mundo’s pencils, it feels appropriate to begin this two-part arc with another artist as the book shifts gears slightly. What began as the race to save Cape Crow from Bloody Lips has become a bloody trek across the world, with Elektra fending off Guild assassins at every turn. Resigned to this mission, both professionally and philosophically, Elektra must keep Cape Crow, his telepathic son Kento and a wounded Matchmaker alive, moving from safe house to safe house in their search for refuge.

In the Himalayan Mountains, their journey brings them face-to-face with the Serpent Society, the latest batch of killers sent to take their heads. Elektra disposes of them quickly, but as she sends Crow and Kento to the nearby safe house, she doesn’t yet realize that a greater danger awaits them. Mortally wounded after her encounter with Bloody Lips, Lady Bullseye calls the Guild for help and is rescued from the artic. Unable to pay her medical debts, she agrees to become a testing subject for the Guild’s new nanite cocktail in exchange for life-saving surgery.

The cocktail rewrites her genetic code and turns her into something far deadlier than she ever was before. With the Serpent Society acting as a front, Lady Bullseye waits inside Crow’s safe house to attack the assassin and his son. Elektra and Matchmaker run to their aid but the newly mutated Lady Bullseye stabs Matchmaker through the chest, turning her attention to Elektra to finish the job she started on Monster Island.

Blackman and Sanchez deliver a strong opening issue of this two-parter. Blackman’s scripting is compelling and well-paced, turning slightly from the dual Elektra/Bloody Lips narrative vehicle of previous issues to give Lady Bullseye a turn as the primary antagonist. With her recent soul-searching behind her, this Elektra is as indomitable as she is ruthless, and it’s interesting to see that play out with so many people depending on her. I find his characterization of Elektra to be quite enjoyable over all, with the contrast of her short, clipped dialogue and the elegant prose-like quality of her narration.

Artist Sanchez and colorist Ester Sanz bring a similar aesthetic to this story, maintaining the fast-paced action and moody color palettes of previous issues but still keeping it fresh. Sanchez’s line work is fine and softened by rounded contours, making for delicate characters with big, wide-set eyes and an ethereal quality in their construction. Engaging two-page spreads are interspersed throughout the issue to play with page design, from the inventive recap of Elektra’s recent exploits to the dreamlike rendering of Lady Bullseye’s medical experimentation. His use of gutter space in these pages frames each spread in a variety of ways, achieving wildly different effects without breaking the overall narrative flow. Sanz colors these finely-detailed panels with palettes of deep reds and wistful turquoises, building up space with grungy textures and soft, painterly highlights.

Comic Book Review: The Wicked + The Divine #4

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Gillen and McKelvie continue to probe the outlandish world of pop stars and murderous divinity in The Wicked + The Divine #4. As Lucifer remains locked up for a crime she (possibly?) didn’t commit, the search for the judge’s real killer brings Laura and Cassandra to their number one suspect, Baal, who appears to find them quite by chance. With his incredible ego and long-standing grudge against Lucifer, Baal appears to be their best bet. However, this comical mystery still has some tricks up its sleeve, and Laura’s journey is far from over.

What Laura and Cassandra see as a break in the case turns out to be much less exciting when Baal explains that he sought them out through one of Cassandra’s fans. He makes it very clear that this particular act is not at all his style; to prove his point brings the intrepid (and quite smitten) Laura to meet with the rest of his fellow deities. Gillen’s strengths shine in these sequences of amusing and compelling character interaction as Laura pleads with the other gods to help clear Lucifer’s name. Despite her best efforts, Ananke explains that it’s in their best interests not to interfere, allowing things to take their course even if it means that Lucifer remains in prison until the end of the cycle.

Undeterred, Laura visits Lucifer to tell her the bad news, swearing to keep searching. True to character, Lucifer doesn’t take the news sitting down and breaks out of her cell in a flashy display of power. Laura tries to stop her, to reason with her, but Lucifer’s already made up her mind, resigned to her role as the great rebel.

As ever, Gillen and McKelvie offer a highly entertaining tale in this fourth installment, anchored by the determined and relatable every-woman of Laura and the disarming complexity of Lucifer. Seeing the pantheon together in Laura’s confrontation scene was one of the major highlights of the issue, beautifully brought to the page by McKelvie with suitably fantastic grandeur. Any one of the gods seated in the circle could be the killer; between Gillen’s shrewd use of dialogue and McKelvie’s storytelling chops, the well-executed tension keeps the reader second-guessing the killer’s true identity throughout the sequence. Colorist Matthew Wilson continues to bring his A game and his palettes are a beautiful complement to McKelvie’s pencils.

While there are many visual high points, such as this confrontation and Lucifer’s eventual escape, there are a few places throughout the book that suffer slightly. The four-page walk down the hallway leading to the pantheon’s meeting chamber reads as oddly static, with several panels of floating heads and awkward expressions to break up sense of the momentum. McKelvie uses these open, neon-lit hallways to create a sense of space and motion, but they are too frequently interspersed with flat, undefined areas of color and talking heads.

Still, I will say that this in no way detracts from an otherwise well-paced and engaging issue. The Wicked + The Divine is a slick treatise on pop culture and celebrity that keeps the reader guessing issue after issue. An absolute must read.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #8

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Following her recent team-up with Wolverine, Jersey City’s Ms. Marvel is hot on the trail of the Inventor. She’s also found herself on the radar of both the Avengers and Inhumans, bringing Lockjaw to her door. Sent by Medusa, everyone’s favorite oversized teleporting bulldog charges into Kamala’s life, eager to help her on the next case. Her parents aren’t pleased with this turn of events, but Kamala manages to convince them to keep the Inhuman in the backyard as a pet. So begins the first part of Generation Why, the next arc in Kamala’s adventures.

Series writer G. Willow Wilson delivers another rock solid script as Kamala swears to track down the Inventor’s teenaged test subjects, emboldened by her recent successes. Always ready with a clever line, Kamala enlists the adorably lumbering Lockjaw and long-suffering Bruno to help her find the next kidnapping victim. The search brings them to a seemingly abandoned testing facility in Bayonne where they encounter a giant mech, powered by a local runaway.

Whisking the boy to the hospital, what seems like a win for Kamala and Lockjaw turns into a tragedy when another mech follows her to school. Her teacher and classmates escape, but Kamala is wounded in the attack and her shapeshifting powers. With a demolished school and a runaway mech on her hands, Kamala’s problems are just beginning.

Artist Adrian Alphona returns to bring Kamala’s adventures to the page with his usual imaginative, highly detailed line work and strong sense of storytelling. Together again with colorist Herring’s soft palette choices, their collaboration once more yields beautiful results. Alphona’s style is simply inviting, with his full rounded organic shapes and the careful detail paid to the movement of Kamala’s windswept hair or fluttering scarf, imbuing every panel with a sense of energy. The exaggerated perspective employed throughout action sequences help to encapsulate that sense of energy, as though Kamala’s world is as malleable as she is. Sometimes this forced elasticity can lead to some awkward panel compositions, but it works more often than not.

Comic Book Review: Hawkeye #20

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Kate’s adventure in Los Angeles comes to a dramatic conclusion inHawkeye #20, with all the heartache and uncomfortable revelations you might expect from this title. Kate came to LA to find herself as a private investigator, and instead has ended up homeless, framed for her friend Harold’s murder, and in over her head against Madame Masque. Outnumbered and outgunned by her cruel and far-reaching nemesis, LA wants Kate Bishop gone, but she still has work to do in Annie Wu’s last issue of the series.

Fraction works slowly through all the threads of this story, from Kate’s arrest to the truth about Harold, Kate’s last desperate attempt to stop Madame Masque to its unsatisfying aftermath. This issue unpacks every facet of Kate’s west coast adventures as she comes to realize that, despite the makeshift safety net she’s made for herself, she’s lost without her true family back home. On her own against Madame Masque, she can’t survive, no matter how hard she fights or how bad she wants it, and those she leans on for help don’t always have her interests in mind.

The bitterness of that revelation is coupled by the discovery that her father is connected to Masque’s criminal network, leaving Kate angry and looking for answers. Packing up Pizza Dog and saying goodbye to LA, Kate is bruised, beaten, but not defeated as she makes her way back to New York to save Clint. The Kate Bishop that came to California is not the one that left, in one of the strongest, funniest, and most sobering character arcs I’ve seen in years.

Fraction’s script is full of the swagger that has encapsulated Kate’s arc, her sharp, almost lyrical dialogue punctuated by youthful determination. Even for the customary Kate Bishop witticism, the story is tinged with the sorrow of loss: loss of friends, loss of trust, and loss of innocence. The closing page as Kate confronts her father on the phone features some of the best dialogue in Kate’s arc and certainly my favorite line of the book, “Hawkeye out.” This issue strikes the right balance of sobriety and bravado, sadness and resolve, making for a meaningful end to Kate’s storyline.

Likewise, this issue features some of Wu’s best artwork to date. From Kate’s mugshot on the fourth page to her dramatic final departure on the last, Wu employs stunning page designs and storytelling techniques throughout, cleverly incorporating gutters into the story to break up space. Together with the unfailingly shrewd palette choices of colorist Hollingsworth, Wu leaves her mark on this series with a truly affective, compelling and memorable visual reading experience.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #7

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After her dramatic showdown with the Spartax, things look to be slowing down for Carol as she sets off to rendezvous with the Guardians of the Galaxy. However, once more plagued by nightmares, and with Tic stowing away on her borrowed shuttle, Carol’s respite is short-lived. Carol’s adventures in deep space take a strange turn, shifting from intergalactic political intrigue to some good old-fashioned alien horror in this issue from series writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Marcio Takara.

Just when she’s at her highest, Carol finds herself slogging through nightmares of loss and failure, bringing her back to earth in the face of recent traumatic events. It doesn’t help that the young alien refugee Tic has hitched a lift with her, refusing to stay on Torfa in lieu of seeking adventure with Carol. This shift in tone from the heights of Carol’s recent win against J’Son reads more like an epilogue than a continuation of the Higher, Further, Faster, Morestoryline, but it works. I always appreciate DeConnick’s careful balance of action and character development as Carol flies from crisis to crisis, sometimes unable, but mostly unwilling, to deal with her problems upfront. Predictably, Carol chooses work over reflection, even as her fear and doubt persists.

Despite her stubbornness, Carol still draws people in, even when she doesn’t want to. Tic, like Kit, is another self-proclaimed sidekick, adding an intergalactic branch to Carol’s eclectic tree of friends and family. The mirroring image of Kit holding Chewie in Carol’s nightmare and Tic holding Chewie in the last page really speaks to Carol’s fear of letting down her loved ones, and her reluctance to let others in. These small, personal touches keep this character grounded for readers in poignant and relatable ways.

While Carol and Tic come to a temporary resolution, they meet up with Rocket to pick up her ship and cat. Rocket, still insisting that Chewie is a vile Flerken, continues to rub Carol the wrong way in an amusing clash of egos. Their eventual confrontation is cut short by the arrival of a strange alien creature that tries to break into the ship, seemingly after Chewie. Takara brings levity to their energetic banter, interspersed with Chewie’s cartoonish interference, making the most of the scripted visual gags. His panel compositions and character poses are very energetic throughout, from the flyaway wisps of Carol’s hair to his bombastic and expressive Rocket, making from a brisk and dynamic read.

Carol defends her beloved pet against Rocket’s advice to hand the cat over to the alien, only to discover that Chewie is indeed a Flerken, and a very proud one, having laid a huge clutch of eggs. Just when the alien pierces the ship, the eggs begin to hatch, and Carol has more trouble on her hands than she knows what to do with. Fun from start to finish, Captain Marvel #7 is yet another successful issue in this arc, promising even more adventure in the next leg of the story.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #7

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With its new writer and artist, Moon Knight #7 begins the latest chapter in the life of the night’s greatest detective. Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey departed the title after just six issues, leaving very large shoes to fill, especially given the sharp tone and tight, done-in-one adventure storytelling this series has been known for. To their credit, Wood and Smallwood certainly rise to the challenge before them, and do manage to continue the spirit of this title as readers have come to know it. It’s not quite the same Moon Knight you’ve been reading for the last six issues, but it’s strikingly close to the formula. Just how long Wood and Smallwood can, or even want, to keep it up, however, remains to be seen.

A high-tech assassin stalks the streets of New York City, using digital camouflage to hunt a foreign dignitary. The general is Aliman Lor, now recognized by the U.N. as a legitimate political leader, is responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own people in a bloody civil war. His would-be killer is a former member of an advanced recon team who witnessed Lor’s cruelty first hand during a peace-keeping mission. Now he’s come to the city to pursue Lor with all the weapons and gadgets at his disposal to create havoc for unsuspecting by-standers. This greatly displeases Moon Knight, who doesn’t stand for that kind of vigilantism and chases the gunman down. Dispatching the former soldier, he soon learns that his own former psychiatrist put the hit out on Lor, looking to avenge her family. Things, it would seem, just got a little more complicated for Marc Spector.

Overall, this new team’s debut is a compelling one. While the story itself is pretty standard revenge fare, Wood’s scripting is impressive, delving into complicated themes of duty and justice. As for the artwork, Smallwood’s sense of pacing, storytelling and layout  is equally engaging, maintaining the tone of previous issues without coming off as emulation. The deliberate absence of black outlines affects a more open, fluid transition from panel to panel, bringing the gutters and empty spaces into the overall page design. As the layout varies page to page, from dense fifteen-panel action sequences to the broader scope of wide five-panel pages, Smallwood plays with panel composition in interesting ways. Some layouts are more successful than others, but I appreciate the effort to break up the page. Bellaire, as ever, applies beautiful palettes and textures to this stark cityscape, building upon Smallwood’s thick, finely detailed line art with deft touches of light and color.

If I had one gripe about this issue, it would be Wood’s characterization of Spector. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by Ellis’ sharp and pithy take on the character, but Wood’s Spector is just a bit too wordy for me. Perhaps I’ll come around in time, but for now this is indeed a strong offering from this team. I had my reservations, but Moon Knight is still a great book, and one of my favorites on the shelf.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #10

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The race to save Isaiah from his mysterious captors sheds even more light on Natasha’s complicated past in Black Widow #10. Picking up after Natasha’s recent begrudging team-up with the Punisher, this issue opens with a lengthy flashback, interspersed with scenes of Isaiah’s torture at the hands of his kidnappers. Sins of the past are, as ever, the theme of the day as someone in the shadows uses Isaiah to strike back against Natasha where it hurts. Despite Isaiah’s attempts to keep Natasha out of it, and her own dogged self-reliance, her loyalties to others will always make her a target.

Flashback sequences dominate the book, following an assignment in Pakistan from several years earlier. Tasked with helping a fugitive named Rashid escape to the country, the job put Natasha on the wrong side of SHIELD and the Avengers alike, protecting Rashid from a relentless (although conflicted) Hawkeye. Just what Rashid did to put him in danger is unclear, as is the full extent of the Avengers’ involvement in the mission, which will likely be revealed in coming issues. However, a candid phone conversation with Captain America reinforces Clint as the garbage man of the Avengers, so to speak, the guy who they send to kill people when higher profile heroes can’t be caught in such a compromising position. Pitted against her friend and former lover, this contrast between Avenger and operative plays out Natasha ultimately chose the mission over her heroic affiliations, keeping her word to protect Rashid,despite his presumably unsavory deeds.

In the end, Rashid escaped with his life but Natasha couldn’t protect him from Clint’s arrows, one of which scarred his face when it pierced the hood of the getaway car. Back in the present Rashid reveals himself as one of the kidnappers, reaching out to Natasha to draw her in. However, it’s going to take help from her friends to save Isaiah, and she’s going to call on some more Avengers to get the job done.

As tightly scripted and beautifully rendered as ever, Edmondson and Noto deliver yet another a fast-paced and engaging read. Although the story is a straightforward one, split between the flashback to Pakistan and Isaiah’s torture, the use of red lettering in the flashback sequences was a subtle yet clever, bringing visual balance to the issue. Drawing from the dry, earthen palettes of the chase scenes across Islamabad and into the desert roots the action in that particular time and place. It creates a nice contrast with the black backgrounds and text of the interspersed torture sequences, and affects a distinctive tonal shift between these scenes.

Small touches such as these, while seemingly nominal, make the book memorable and interesting issue after issue. Deliberate design choices like this really bring the art, scripting and lettering together as a fully engaging collaborative effort, and make the most of what’s on the page. Great work all around.

Comic Book Review: C.O.W.L. #4

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As C.O.W.L. chief Geoffrey Warner leads his men to the picket lines against Mayor Daley’s proposed hiring of non-C.O.W.L. heroes, it’s up to deputy chief Blaze to try to unite this fractured department. With the inaugural arc of this series coming to an end in the coming issue, the troubles for C.O.W.L. are continuing to heat up. Intrigue and internal conflict abound in C.O.W.L. #4 as chaos and mystery continues to beset the restless streets of 1960s Chicago, building up to conflicts that will likely shake the city to its core.

Navigating problems both at home and with his fellow heroes, Blaze has inherited a divided house. The slowly unfolding story of Blaze’s brother Elliot, former leader of the Chicago Six, teasing future tensions as Blaze’s ward and nephew, Elliot’s son, manifests his father’s powers. Demonstrating outside City Hall, picketing heroes cause tensions with the police, while Eclipse and Radia continue their secret assault on mob boss Camden Stone. What began as settling the score with Stone has turned into an ongoing mission as Radia takes point on a bloody series of raids, despite Eclipse’s reservation and the pressures of the ongoing strike.

As Pierce continues to unravel the conspiracy of the C.O.W.L. –designed weapons, Blaze must deal with the PR disaster of Arclight’s extracurricular activities. After the ensuing skirmish, Warner further pressures Blaze by choosing to put Arclight on the picket line as the face of C.O.W.L., creating even more tension among the department’s already fractured leadership. Before any of this can really be resolved, however, a fight breaks out on the picket lines and heroes clash with police outside City Hall in a violent show of power, making things far worse than they already were.

Smart and well-scripted, writers Higgins and Siegel prove that their deconstructed vision of superheroes amid the political corruption of 1960s Chicago works, and works well. The tension comes from tightly written character interaction rather than big fight sequences, with the palpable discord between this cast simmering to an inevitable conflict. So much so that when the action kicks in it’s pleasant rather than overplayed, as Radia inflincts satisfyingly bloody violence on Stone’s superpowered muscle. The decision to put Radia in the forefront of her and Eclipse’s war on Stone is also cool, in that positions her to take a more defiant stance among the rest of her cohorts, proving she is much more than just a pretty face. Also, the little teases about Blaze’s brother Elliot set the stage for family tumult, as well as further intrigue regarding the redacted material in the backmatter, opening the door to an interesting dynamic in coming issues.

As for the artwork, beautiful is the only word that comes to mind. The line work is refined and elegant, with painterly strokes of color and texture to bring depth and emotional context to small, cleverly composed panels. The soft, almost gauzy sunlight in the sequences at Blaze’s breakfast table are some of the loveliest pages in this issue, with the bold highlights on their skin affecting the heat of a sun-warmed kitchen. Small and thoughtful touches, like the smudged white marks of telekinetic energy shielding Radia from the rain, or the use of white in a dark hallway to delineate a character’s silhouette, make this book a sumptuous visual experience.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #5

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Picking up after last issue’s dramatic ending, Elektra’s Antarctic showdown with Cape Crow comes to a head in Elektra #5. As Kento races to protect his father, Bloody Lips makes his final stand against Elektra, the four threads of this adventure meeting in the artic wasteland. Still working under her contract with Kento, Elektra promises to honor her word and keep Cape Crow safe, bracing herself to take on the waves of assassins that will come for them next.

Heavy on the action, Blackman and Del Mundo construct a visually stunning tale that interweaves prose-like exposition and sharp dialogue amid lavish fighting sequences. As ethereal as it is visceral, Del Mundo’s artwork truly makes this book. It strikes an impressive balance between the beauty and energy of Elektra’s violence in motion with the lurid nature of Bloody Lips and the headspaces  he inhabits. He also takes the time to incorporate fun little flourishes like his glowing heart-shaped eyes or the K.O. written in blood.

The double-page spread of Bloody Lips’ mind as he tastes Elektra’s blood is a feast to the eye and the biggest highlight of the issue. This nightmarish journey of pain and death winds through the intricate labyrinth of colors, textures and shapes to recount the many great tragedies of Elektra’s life. It is fair to say say  lot of artists tend to abuse the double-page layout, Del Mundo always brings his A-game.

While Blackman’s scripting is well-paced and thoughtful, I found the amount of narrative shifts between Elektra, Kento and Bloody Lips a little clunky. The dual exposition of Elektra and Bloody Lips in juxtaposition with each other has worked overall in previous issues, but Kento’s sudden involvement in the narration felt a little out of place. Compared to the overall successes of this issue, it’s just a small nitpick that doesn’t take away from a highly enjoyable book.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #7

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Ms. Marvel’s first superhero team-up continues in this issue, as she and Wolverine battle against the Inventor’s giant alligators in the sewers beneath Jersey City. Even if battling mutated alligators created by an evil anthropomorphic cockatiel isn’t your cup of tea, the dynamic creative force of Wilson and Wyatt will win you over regardless with this charming adventure. From heroic bonding to important life lessons, Ms. Marvel #7 is sure to please.

With Logan’s healing factor failing him, it’s up to Kamala to do most of the heavy lifting. This unlikely duo have great chemistry together, thanks to Wilson’s knack for endearing and witty character banter, which capitalizes on Logan’s well-documented paternal bond with teenage X-Women like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee. Always eager to prove herself, Kamala rises to the challenges of the Inventor’s secret lair through strength and perseverance, and some timely advice from the elder hero. Artist Wyatt imaginatively brings the story to the page with clever page design and highly expressive stylization, such as Kamala’s frequently bugging eyes and tendency to chibify herself in moments of panic.

In the heart of the underground maze, Logan and Kamala discover one of the many kidnapped teenagers that have been powering the Inventor’s machines and bring her to safety. When Logan returns to New York, he tells Captain America of Jersey City’s plucky young Inhuman hero, who in turn relays the message to Medusa. Medusa, overseeing the reconstruction of her decimated empire from Attilan’s new home on the Hudson River, resolves to see that Kamala is looked after until she grows into her powers. Despite Steve’s hesitation, she sends Lockjaw to watch over Kamala, opening the door to their future adventures together.

Full of action and humor, Ms. Marvel #7 is a well-crafted superhero adventure from start to finish.