Comic Book Review: The Punisher #9 and Black Widow #9

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While Friend from Foe is being marketed as a two-part arc spanning this week’s The Punisher #9 and Black Widow #9, it is actually a single done-in-one from the perspectives of both titular characters. (As such, it seemed appropriate to treat these issues as one complete story and combine reviews into a single overview.) Taken captive by Crossbones after his recent encounter with the new Howling Commandos, Frank Castle finds himself dropped onto an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean. There he meets Natasha Romanov, who’s come to the tanker with SHIELD’S help, tracking the activities of the mysterious organization known as Chaos.

With the tanker wired to explode, Frank proceeds to take out Crossbones’ men to ensure his escape while Natasha interrogates her target for intel, leading these two capable killers to personal and professional conflict. The emotionally invested Natasha completes her mission and quickly gains control of the situation, hijacking Frank’s plane and dropping him off on her way back to Los Angeles. Frank ends up in a nondescript jail cursing the Avenger and Natasha gets a call from Isaiah’s captor, ending their begrudging team-up and setting each character up for the next leg of their respective stories.

With the scripts of both issues following the same events, they vary only in terms of tone and exposition through the use of first-person narration, as well as the distinct visual styles of Gerads and Noto respectively. Noto’s muted palettes and soft lines bring a completely different sensibility to the violence from Gerads’ sharper, stylized character anatomy and minimalistic panel composition. Gerards’ style is as perfect for Punisher’s story as Noto’s is for Black Widow’s, and there’s a certain novelty in seeing how they each approach these same scenes and action sequences without feeling repetitive or gimmicky.

Overall the use of this dual perspective is an entertaining one on the part of Edmondson. While I typically see this kind of multiple perspective gimmick used in massive crossover events, I appreciate the decision to use it on such a small, self-contained storyline. Readers don’t need to pick up one issue to understand the events of the other, but readers of both titles will still appreciate seeing the story unfold from Frank and Natasha’s very different perspectives. Unnecessary, sure, but a welcomed little twist, nonetheless.

Neither issue particularly stands out on its own, but together The Punisher #9 and Black Widow #9 make for an enjoyable done-in-one adventure.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #22

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“THIS IS THE VERY END…” The Illuminati shatters under an exploding planet.

After the destruction of Earth-4,290,001 by Namor at the end of the last issue, the Illuminati splinters in the fallout. The team turns its collective back on the Atlantean as the truth of Namor’s involvement in the attack on Wakanda comes to light, bringing his blood feud with Black Panther once more to a fever pitch. With the weighty moral strain of Namor’s decisions taking its toll on the team, there’s little time to mourn the dead as the next incursion begins. The endless cycle of death continues unbroken, and the Illuminati must accept what they have become.

Rife with the operatic drama and philosophical questions this title has been building up to for twenty-one issues, New Avengers #22 is a solid postmortem on the dizzying ethical quandary the team now faces. As Namor forces the Illuminati to come to terms with their own actions (or inactions), Hickman’s script doesn’t miss a beat, maintaining the compelling momentum he’s established within the dynamics of this fractured and dysfunctional team. The long-awaited fight between T’Challa and Namor utilizes long-held tensions as each member makes his case, leaving the matter open to reader interpretation as no reconciliation can be found amid such horrific circumstances.

As he has since the beginning of this series, Hickman doesn’t spoon-feed any specific interpretation to his audience. While many writers in cape books all but instruct readers how to feel about the moral issues that their protagonists face, Hickman simply lays out the dilemma at hand and leaves the reader to ponder the consequences just as much as the heroes themselves. There are no clear right or wrong answers, and none of these characters can wash their hands of this now. This has been by far one of the most compelling elements of the series so far, and this issue is a strong example of that willingness to trust the reader rather than tell them how to feel.

However, despite the strength of the script, the issue falls disappointingly short due to the work of artist Kev Walker. A poor fit for the tone of the book, his poses are stiff and awkward, with facial anatomy that proves increasingly inconsistent and somewhat off-putting throughout the issue. Four-to-five panel pages attempt to create drama through action sequences but read more as filler instead, with the panels consisting mostly of flat and empty background space. Interspersed as they are with random splash pages, there’s no real sense of tension, leading to a very bland and visually disjointed reading experience.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #6

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A threat from the first issue is back to cause problems for Moon Knight! This mysterious person is the new BLACK SPECTRE and it doesn’t mean anything good for the protector of night travelers.

Wrapping up their critically acclaimed six-issue run, the creative team Ellis and Shalvey offer one more fascinating tale for the night’s greatest detective before making their exit. Moon Knight #6 sees the return of the Black Spectre, the mantle taken up by a New York City police officer.

Tired of being brushed off, street cop Ryan Trent resolves to take his lifetime of disappointment out of Moon Knight’s hide. Trent has suffered failures and letdowns his entire life, sleepwalking through a seemingly loveless marriage and an unexceptional career in law enforcement. Working with NYPD consultant Mr. Knight, earning Trent’s squad the moniker “Freakbeat,” has wounded his pride for the last time as his own shortcomings are rubbed in his face. Desperate to be appreciated, he hatches a plot to win the respect of his superiors and the love he never received growing up.

This issue picks at the end of Moon Knight #1, moving through some familiar scenes and settings from the previous five issues. Having just wrapped up Mr. Knight’s first case alongside the rest of Freakbeat, Trent uses his access to evidence and information to research Marc Spector. This leads him to Carson Knowles, the original Black Spectre and former enemy of Moon Knight. Ellis delivers another tight, sparse script in this quietly gripping story of revenge, with his usual cutting dialogue and sharp storytelling. Consumed by his need to prove himself, Trent trains, develops weapons, and tracks down some of Spector’s former associations, setting himself to succeed where his predecessor had failed. Finally he concocts an elaborate plan, kills his wife and takes several hostages to lure Spector into a confrontation.

Once his long-awaited showdown with Spector finally begins, however, there’s no satisfaction in the battle. In the closing fight, another wonderfully tense and compelling action sequence from artist Shalvey and colorist Bellaire, Trent finds himself thwarted by his own hubris. Easily bested, Trent is once more unremarkable, a stupid lazy criminal left behind in Moon Knight’s wake, unworthy of even his stolen title. “I never wanted to be loved,” Moon Knight tells Trent as he leaves him bleeding and wounded in the street, serving to perfectly punctuate not only this issue but Ellis’ run on the title. “That’s why I always win.”

An extraordinary run from start to finish, Moon Knight #6 closes this arc with another brutal, engrossing, and unequivocally cool issue. Ellis and Shalvey will be missed, but they gave us one hell of a ride before they left.

Comic Book Review: Hawkeye #19

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I was going to begin this review by briefly summarizing the delays this title has gone through, but I decided against it. It’s not worth talking about this book’s erratic shipping schedule. It’s not worth talking about the numerous hiatuses and numbering hijinks. These are all inconsequential gripes when a book is this consistently good, this consistently affecting, and delivers this level of storytelling issue after issue. Hawkeye #19 is no exception.

Deafened during the last assault on the building, Clint is left reeling. He refuses to speak or sign, creating immediate tensions with a wheelchair-bound Barney as Clint retreats into his own head. The story that unfolds is a masterfully-paced tightrope walk of guilt, anger and love, juxtaposing Clint and Barney’s violent childhoods with the violent turns their lives have once again taken. Fraction’s sparse, emotionally loaded script is fully realized by Aja’s densely designed pages, silent visual exchanges interspersed by sign language and broken text.

The decision to show Clint and Barney’s conversations through sign language, often without translating it for unfamiliar readers, is a moving one. It’s such a simple visual trick that only resonates with readers who sign, but it brings a sense of intimacy to the issue. The use of sign language involves the reader in Clint’s experiences with hearing loss, both as a child and an adult, and creates an illusion of silence that is both sad and enriching in different ways. As the emotional fist-fight between the brothers instills Clint’s resolution to strike back, spoken language gains real weight, making his plea to Jessica for assistance all the more important.

Hawkeye #19 is an example of the power of graphic narrative, and a testament to the strengths of Fraction and Aja as storytellers. Delays be damned, this is a truly wonderful issue from an amazing team of collaborators.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #21

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A world must die! But which New Avenger will find the strength to press the button? And what will come in the aftermath?

Once more the fate of Earth-616 hangs in the balance in New Avengers #21. The Illuminati’s showdown with the Great Society comes to a dramatic ending as the team struggles to bring Doctor Strange back from the brink. After so much build-up and emotional tumult, this final battle ends with more of a whimper than a bang. But, at least in this case, it works due to Hickman’s strong (albeit monologue-heavy) scripting and Schiti’s emotionally-charged artwork.

With the team splintered and beaten down, each member wrestles with the reality of destroying a world with its defenders crippled before them, only to find themselves unable to go through with it. The Great Society, notably leader Sun God, bring the true horror of the situation home for the Illuminati as his team meet gruesome ends at the hands of a power-mad Strange. Schiti’s Strange, with his bloodied face and ghastly third eye, was one of my favorite elements of this issue, wreaking havoc on the Great Society with those menacing yet elegantly rendered tentacles.

The decision by Martin to use purple tones to define the otherworldly, such as Strange’s hellish Lovecraftian magic and T’Challa’s visits with his ancestors, continues to please me as it has in previous issues. It breaks up the somewhat monotonous red and orange hues of the desert action sequences and murky palettes of the Necropolis. I enjoy how things in this series are so color-coded, from the soft off-whites and grays of Black Swan and Maximus to the distinct uses of bright blues to denote energy, be it man-made or ethereal.

As brief as their appearances have been in the series, the Great Society’s deaths are remarkably poignant, serving to fully humanize the Illuminati’s moral plight. Despite defeating the Great Society, the team wavers, unable to destroy the parallel world. While Black Panther, Iron Man, and the rest of the team cling to virtue in the eleventh hour, Namor rises to the challenge and unleashes the doomsday weapon. As much as the reader may want to sympathize with the Illuminati for choosing altruistic oblivion over the destruction of another world, there’s something hollow about their final decision.

The real driving force behind this series has been Hickman’s open-ended questioning of ethics, morality and heroism, with Namor serving as the only member willing (and perhaps eager) to take the ultimate burden upon himself. Hickman has been largely successful so far in exploring these ideas, navigating the tensions and moral platitudes that ultimately befall all superhero comics, and this issue cashes in on that build-up in satisfying ways.

Comic Book Review: Storm #1

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Thief. Goddess. Headmistress. Queen. The X-Man called STORM has always defied a single title. And her desire to better the world has never been limited to only her own kind. On a mission to foster goodwill and safeguard the mutant race’s continued existence in her own way, Storm will travel the globe, confronting man and mutant, god and monster and everything in-between. She will overthrow tyrants, quell tsunamis and strive to see her dream for the world realized. She is STORM, a hero like no other….and the skies will tremble at the sight of their namesake.

After Marvel’s recent success with numerous female-led titles, Storm #1 follows on the heels of books like Black Widow and Ms. Marvel to bring the X-Man back to the page in her own ongoing solo. Storm fans will be thrilled to see her strike out on her own, beginning on a journey of affirmation beyond her roles as a school headmistress and mutant hero. There is a lot to love about this book, but there are also some shortcomings as the title finds its footing with a less than memorable opening story, enjoyable though it may be.

Storm #1 follows the titular hero as she balances her duties as a hero with the real-world consequences of international diplomacy. Writer Pak handles Storm’s characterization beautifully, capturing her narrative voice through impressive first-person exposition. His Ororo is as fierce and determined as her fans expect her to be, but as forgiving and self-aware as she must be as the headmistress of the Jean Grey School. Besides, I’ll be the first to admit that I love a good Storm monologue, and Pak writes a great one here.

While the story seemed to have been falling into the predictable “hero finds self amid period of internal strife” trope from the onset, Pak cleverly steers the issue in the right direction. He gives Ororo room to make mistakes as well as the means to correct them, such as her scenes with the student Marisol, a young mutant frustrated by life at the school. Also, by reorienting Ororo’s focus to issues regarding mutants and humans alike, Pak makes her a far more proactive hero and opens the door to adventures beyond mutant struggle and oppression.

However, the plot itself, while certainly hitting critical emotional notes both with Marisol and the storm-ravaged villagers of Santo Marco, is a bit generic. It gets the job done, setting the stage for this chapter of Ororo’s life and her character development moving forward, but plays it safe. The most interesting character to be introduced, the life-creating mutant Marisol who leaves flowers in her tread, exits as quickly as she appears when she returns home to Mexico. It seems like such a shame to have such a visually intriguing character removed from the story so early on, especially in a done-in-one adventure like this one.

Artist Ibanez brings a sense of weight to the book through the use of thick, bold lines. His character faces are wonderfully diverse and expressive, their postures and bodies equally communicative. Heavy use of contour and shadow give dramatic emphasis to facial anatomy, and varying line weights affect the wildly different textures of hair all these character process with a proficiency I rarely see in action. Wide open panel compositions allow Ibanez to showcase Ororo in flight through graceful lines and fluid motion, rarely sacrificing storytelling or pacing through mindful page design choices. Colorist Redmond does beautiful work with the cool blues and beiges of daylight in Santo Marco, but her palettes easily become muddled in darker or nighttime scenes.

Overall Storm #1 is a solid issue. It isn’t flawless, but it strives to put its best foot forward and set up Ororo’s growth in coming issues. Strongly recommended for Storm fans, but its somewhat forgettable plot may not be enough to keep the attention of new readers.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #4

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After escaping the ruins of Shicheng, Elektra corners the elusive Cape Crow at the edge of the world where she must finally decide his fate. Will the deadliest assassin in the Marvel Universe defeat Cape Crow and collect the biggest bounty of her career, or help the hardened killer and his son escape the psychotic assassin Bloody Lips?

Brought face to face with their earliest victims, Elektra and Bloody Lips find themselves on a strange journey in the depths of Shicheng inElektra #4. Confronted by their pasts, each looks into the faces of the innocents they’ve slain, Elektra her mother and Bloody Lips his wife. There they see the lives they would have lived in other circumstances, had her mother not died in childbirth and had he not murdered his family, and the fates that might have awaited them. These visions are false, however, some kind of psychic trick that Elektra is able to escape from, with Bloody Lips still hot on her heels.

Aided by the Matchmaker, Elektra is able to get the wounded Kento back on the plane to leave Monster Island, only for Bloody Lips to attack again. A brief aerial battle ends as Elektra jumps from the plane to crash into the other’s cockpit, killing Bloody Lips and flying to safety. Matchmaker’s plane is heavily damaged in skirmish and goes off-course, crashing into the Antarctic where Elektra comes face to face with Cape Crow.

While this series loves to stick to standard assassin fare, it does so in visually exciting ways. Blackman’s scripting is strong with prose-like dialogue and narration, some of the best I’ve seen from any Marvel title, but the true strength of the book lies with Del Mundo’s impressive art. From energetic line work to compelling page design, grim grungy textures paired with delicate palettes and painterly strokes, this book is beautiful start to finish.

Some reviewers have been critical of the arc’s pacing, especially with the somewhat metaphysical detour of this issue and the last. The action is frequently broken up with memories and flashbacks, often a mess made gnarled by Bloody Lips’ cannibalism of thoughts and experiences, and this issue repeats that pattern. However, given the nature of Elektra’s mental and emotional history, this contrast between internal reflection and external action works. The story itself has little novelty but the way it’s told, with the dual narrative of Elektra and Bloody Lips coming to a violent close, makes for another entertaining read.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #6

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On the run from the Inventor, Kamala needs all the help she can get. Did someone say Wolverine?

Kicking off the latest arc, Healing Factor, this issue sees Kamala hit her stride with her first superhero team-up. With the Inventor causing trouble all over Jersey City, Kamala finds herself in over her head. A trip into the sewers to investigate a strange growling sound brings her face to face with the Inventor, only to find Wolverine on the same case. There they battle against weaponized alligators, only for Kamala to discover that Wolverine has lost his healing factor, forcing her to step up to protect the older hero.

With Kamala’s origin story out of the way, this issue starts Ms. Marvel’s career as a proper superhero off with a suitably heroic adventure. Kamala’s growing confidence helps to set the right tone, moving beyond the thematic coming of age tale and giving her some solid foundations to work with. Wilson’s scripting is solid overall, with great dialogue and characterizations throughout. Kamala’s awkward introduction to Wolverine is amusing and an issue highlight for me as she recounts her various forays into X-Men fanfiction, soon giving way to a mutual respect as Kamala proves herself to be a competent hero despite her age.

As much as I enjoy Kamala’s youthful dorkiness, however, the Doge meme reference during Wolverine’s first appearance made me cringe. Pop culture references give a story a sense of time and space, which is fine. It’s also perfectly normal to hear a teenage girl so well-versed in the ways of Tumblr to use meme-speak today, but references like these can later date books in very unflattering ways. It’s funny, yes, but as a writer I avoid those kinds of references for the same reasons they rub me wrong as a reader. Also, I’m not quite sure what to make of the Inventor. A mutated cockatiel named Thomas Edison feels a bit out of place, even in a book this lighthearted, and Wilson has yet to really define the character in any way as to make him memorable. It’s cute and novel enough as to be entertaining, but the character isn’t very interesting beyond that.

Artist Jacob Wyatt steps in after Adrian Alphona and delivers a truly enjoyable reading experience, making his mark on the series. His line art is clean and detailed, with highly expressive characters that make the most of Kamala’s humor and physicality. Subtle design choices like Kamala’s scarf always fluttering in the wind add an element of motion to nearly every panel, bringing a youthful energy to Kamala’s presence on the page. Choosing to frequently white out Kamala’s eyes in the domino mask gives her a very cartoonish appearance, further highlighting her fun and over-the-top expressions. As ever Herring’s color palettes are thoughtful and lovely, from the soft warm tones of Kamala’s visit to the mosque to the cool blues and turquoises of the sewer sequences. Issue after issue, this book is a visual treat, and Ms. Marvel #6 is no exception.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #5

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Ever since she set off on her latest “adventure,” Carol Danvers has had her butt handed to her at every turn. She’s done with that nonsense. Let’s start flipping some tables, shall we? Tic, the Rocket Girl, and Jackie, the Warlord, are getting in on the “Oh no you di’n’t!” action too!

The bad solicit aside, Captain Marvel #5 is a solid issue that thrusts Carol in the middle of an ongoing intergalactic incident. As talks between the Torfans and the Spartax break down into violence, Eleanides orders her people to leave the poisoned planet via ship caravan, abandoning the sick and dying. Conducting their own investigation, however, Carol and her rag-tag team make a dramatic discovery. Intercepting the goods being imported and exported the dark side of Torfa, Tic and Jackie uncover J’Son’s secret vibranium mines, which are causing the refugees’ unknown illness. With their cover blown, the Spartax plan an assault on Torfa to remove the refugees and protect the mines.

Eleanides retracts her orders upon this discovery, choosing to stand ground and fight. Carol, a foreign interloper in this situation, is instructed to return to Earth, but doesn’t take the order sitting down. Instead Carol sends her ship Harrison back, Chewie in tow, and stays behind to fight on the behalf of the outnumbered and outgunned Torfan civilians. Given that the Spartax were part of the intergalactic alliance that the Avengers fought alongside during the Builder war, the issue ends on a dramatic (and very in-character) cliffhanger that poses diplomatic challenges for the Avengers in the future.

DeConnick continues to easily manage the political intrigue of this storyline, with an amusing supporting cast and solid characterizations throughout. The plot of this renumbering’s inaugural story has been pretty straightforward and familiar so far, with its timely cameos and space-faring adventure, but it’s characters like Jackie and Eleanides that keep things interesting.  I could have done without Carol’s big speech at the end during her showdown with the Spartax armada, which felt a bit phoned in for new readers, but otherwise DeConnick’s scripting doesn’t disappoint.

The relationship of Lopez’s line art and Loughridge’s colors continue to please, even after the now fifth issue of this arc. Lopez’s artwork is fun, expressive and highly detailed throughout, with a clean narrative style that never fails to capitalize on the humor of the script. Loughridge’s palettes are generally quite lovely, from the dry sandy tones of Torfa to the soft purple and blue hues of J’Son’s reveal scene. Even the drab greens and greys of interior scenes connote a sense of space and lighting that other colorists may fall short on, which is why I’m always impressed by Loughridge’s color choices so far in this arc.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #8

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On a snowy night in Prague, Natasha must fight her way out of disaster alongside the WINTER SOLDIER! Meanwhile, Isaiah has business of his own in London, but a simple plan gets complicated.

A mission to Prague brings Natasha to the side of one of her greatest loves, but she no longer remembers their relationship. What sounds like a hokey attempt at romantic tension turns out to be the basis of another tightly-scripted action/adventure story courtesy of Edmondson and Noto. As always a seemingly easy mission goes awry when Natasha is tasked with sneaking aboard a train and retrieving a stolen briefcase, only to find herself embroiled in an attempted train robbery. When Winter Soldier arrives to stop the international gang of thieves, Natasha is pulled into his case as they flee gunmen and helicopters.

Meanwhile, Isaiah is in London to collect an unpaid debt from a former client. As Bucky struggles with his unrequited feeling for Natasha, who has forgotten their longstanding romantic history due to prior memory manipulation, Isaiah is kidnapped. His self-fulfilling prophecy come to pass, the ominous foreshadowing of previous issues pays off with this inevitable abduction, leaving Natasha well and truly alone. Her own case wrapped up, she and Bucky part ways and Natasha goes on the next adventure while Isaiah’s fate remains uncertain.

Even after the appearance of Daredevil last issue, and a surprise cameo by Hawkeye before that, Bucky’s guest appearance in Black Widow #8 is still an enjoyable one. It seems that the more Natasha insists on being alone, the more her romantic history rears its ugly and complicated head. Instead of allowing the story to be bogged down in drama, Edmondson scripts Bucky and Natasha’s banter with a solid understanding of their working dynamic, making them a formidable team despite Bucky’s one-sided longing. It makes me eager for Bucky to return in the near future, as this issue opens up a wealth of character drama I would love to see explored.

As always, Noto carries truly this issue through dynamic page design and compelling action sequences. His color choices are impeccable and his skill for storytelling is impressive, using body language to develop the flirtatious chemistry between Natasha and Bucky amid shoot-outs and daring escapes. As exciting as the adventure is, however, I find the most enduring visual elements to be the tiny details that Noto emphasizes. From the reflection of street light in a pair of sunglasses to the fly-away strands of Natasha’s hair, such small flourishes communicate emotional weight to scenes that may otherwise not survive amid so many action-packed panels.