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.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #5

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An abandoned hotel in New York contains a single abductee and upwards of twenty armed mob enforcers. Moon Knight is going to go inside and rescue the abductee. Alone.

Titled simply Scarlet, the night’s greatest detective is on the hunt for a missing girl in Moon Knight #5. Already known for its tight done-in-one plots, sparse dialogue and unique graphic execution, this is the kind of story that only works in Marc Spector’s strange and brutal world. While at times the brevity of Ellis’ scripting has left me craving more depth and character development, this issue is a masterful example of the self-contained narrative.

With the girl held captive on the sixth floor of an abandoned building, Spector launches a brutal one-man assault on the unsuspecting thugs holding her hostage. Floor by floor, Ellis and Shalvey’s collaborative beat-‘em-up unfolds through expert storytelling and dynamic combat, never falling flat as every page provides new foes for Spector to dispose of in increasingly visceral ways. The variety of weapons and attacks thrown at Spector keep the fight fresh as he loses own weapons along the way, forced to improvise with whatever he has at hand to satisfying results.

Interspersed with short and entertaining dialogue, Ellis once again proves himself to be a master of short-form storytelling, but the real strength of this issues comes from Shalvey’s page design. The continuous fight sequence takes up nearly all twenty-two pages and evokes many other well-known fight scenes; foremost in my mind is the long take hallway fight in Old Boy, for the sheer fluidity of the violence from panel to panel. Each movement or action is connected to the next, emphasizing the physicality of these clashes and never allowing the reader to simply get lost in the action.

Rarely do I encounter fight scenes in comics that read so thoughtfully, conscious of motion and space. Shalvey uses these elements to their fullest potential, and with Spector’s eerie white silhouette slicing through the drab palettes and textures of the abandoned building, he and Bellaire complement each other beautifully. Once again, this creative team has produced a dynamic and highly satisfying issue. One of the best yet, and it’s only #5.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #5

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How does a young girl from Jersey City become the next biggest super hero? Kamala has no idea either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York.

As her first rescue mission goes awry, Kamala’s transformation from unassuming fangirl to superhero kicks into high gear in Ms. Marvel #5. Her powers are still on the fritz due to an untested healing factor, and battling her way through an unstoppable wave of mini robots, Kamala quickly finds herself unable to pull Vick out of the Inventor’s clutches. Defeated, she slinks home in the middle of the night, only to be confronted by her worried parents. Despite a much-needed heartfelt talk with her father, Kamala is still grounded, but that doesn’t stop her from putting her plan in motion.

Turning to Bruno for help, the ensuing training montage yields a brand-new costume and a greater sense of purpose for Kamala. Ready now to rescue Vick, she uses her newfound control over her shape-shifting powers to defeat the Inventor’s teenaged henchmen and escape with Bruno’s brother. This victory is short-lived, however, as Kamala finds herself with her very own nemesis on her hands. All in all, not bad for the teenaged hero’s first day on the job.

Once again the creative team of Wilson, Alphona and Herring collaborate for a purely enjoyable reading experience. Alphona and Herring bring Kamala’s story to the page with joy in every panel, developing this airy, pastel-tinged world with all the charm and whimsy of a storybook. The action scenes sequences are dynamic and satisfying with all the skittering robots and embiggening going on, but it’s the little things that make this book truly shine. Little details such as Kamala’s scrunched expressions of determination, her oft-exaggerated posture, and the cartoonish execution of her powers bring humor to the story and help to define her personality in visual shorthand.

Wilson’s characterizations continue to be heartfelt and endearing, following Kamala’s slow but steady coming-of-age. Every underestimation and misstep contributes to Kamala’s growing understanding of her powers, as well as her place in the world of heroes, taking responsibility for her actions and learning from her mistakes. And she does make a lot of mistakes, all of which help to carve her into the hero she was meant to be. I also love that, despite the typical social awkwardness and uncomfortable experiences of being a teenaged girl, Kamala’s origins are modest. She’s well-adjusted, has good relationships with her family and friends, and isn’t bogged down by generic anguish and strife that clutter the backgrounds of many heroes. Her life and experiences are realistic and relatable, from the embarrassing lows to the uplifting highs, and that makes this book all the more compelling.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #20

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How far is Doctor Strange willing to go to protect the Earth from the Great Society? Too far…

The end of days has finally come for the Illuminati. With the fate of two planets in the balance, the team goes to war against the Great Society in a battle that will cost them more than they bargained for. This has been a showdown in the works for the entirety of this title’s run, but, to their credit, Hickman and Schiti deliver. Just how much longer this title can logically carry on after this heavy-weight bout, however, remains to be seen.

Even with their doomsday weapon on their side, the team is hit hard by the Great Society. With their skills and strategies honed by battle after battle with planet-killing invaders, Hickman makes a compelling case for this evenly matched conflict, giving the Illuminati a run for their money. Just when the odds look their bleakest and the team is beaten down, Doctor Strange emerges as the dark horse to tip the scales. This is where things get interesting. After Strange all but disappeared from this leg of the book, relegated to the background for several issues, the true extent of his quest for ultimate power becomes clear. As seen in New Avengers Annual #1, in stores this week, Strange has done a great and many terrible things to come to this point, opening himself up to unspeakable evil. Unleashing the demon on the Great Society, Strange vows to do whatever he must, and pay the ultimate price, to save his Earth once and for all.

Following the battle with interspersed flashbacks of Strange’s quest, Hickman successfully integrates this subplot into the story with satisfying results. I had been very critical of the lack of Strange, who had seemingly fallen by the wayside amid many other conflicts and clashing personalities, but Hickman folds him back in with a bold move that will likely alienate some fans. These flashbacks, cool blue-tinged scenes to contrast the feverish red tones of the battle sequences, provide useful exposition without slowing down the action. They explore both Strange’s desperation to gain the power to stop this madness as well as his resignation to this loss of self, making the final page so much more unsettling.

Coupled with the events of the annual, it certainly makes for a compelling read for a character who has been otherwise largely ignored up until this point. The only part were Hickman really stumbles this issue is with the continuous use of in-battle monologues, which range from the short and punchy to the long-winded and melodramatic. I understand that without dialogue this issue would be a single, almost completely uninterrupted fight, but some of the lines feel clunky and unnecessary.

Schiti’s pencils in this issue are lovely throughout. His lines are clean and his shapes full, instilling a sense of weight and resolve in the characters on the page. After several issues of tense conversation and quiet reflection, it’s nice to see Schiti stretch his creative legs with a no-holds-barred fight between such equally matched heroes. As much as I enjoy Hulk-smashing and face-punching, however, the flashback sequences were the loveliest and most well-designed pages of the issue, wonderfully complemented by the palettes of Martin and Mounts.

Starting Books, Finishing Books, and Other Things

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If you’ve followed me around online for any period of time, chances are you know I’ve been working on a superhero fiction series called The Crashers. I’ve talked about it pretty in-depth already, for those who may recall. One part urban fantasy, one part vaguely sci-fi romp, and one part love letter from my inner eight year old to my jaded comic book reviewing adult self, this six part series is the culmination of a lot of things going on in my life, for better or worse.

This series was what got me back to writing, after about a year of feeling really out of sorts and unsure of my next move, if I even had one. It got me working again. Back in May, I wrapped up typing the longhand manuscript, worked out the major plot issues and glaring stupidity staring a hole in my head, and sent the story off to a couple of trusted beta readers to get some feedback before the next leg of the process. The next leg of that process, of course, being another round of edits before shopping the story around to literary agents.

And, yes, this terrifies me. A lot. I’ve never seriously queried agents before and I basically have no idea what I’m doing, but, hey — I have a GED and a give-’em-hell attitude, and I’ll figure it out. In the meantime you can read the first chapter of the book on my Tumblr today, because it’s all free to read and junk. So if you’re into that kind of thing, go forth. All the feedback I’ve received so far has been really enthusiastic, and if you enjoyed my last book at all, I think you’ll get a kick out of this series. And if you like what you see, let me know.

With that evil bitch known as summer now upon us and the first book chilling in my drawer, I’m well on my way into the next book of the series, Koreatown. And that’s crazy coming from me. The turn around between Fleshtrap and Crashers was painfully, probably idiotically long, due to a lot of personal frustrations and my ongoing struggle between crippling self-loathing and unchecked megalomania. But now that I’m getting into the full swing of this series, it’s getting easier and easier to write. The first book was all origin story, all vegetables and set-up. It’s the why of everything; getting the feel for who these characters are, how their powers work, and how they grow and change to become something better than they are now. It’s basically the boring stuff I didn’t want to do.

Now in this book, with the larger overarching plot of the six books underway, we’ve finally gotten to the meat and potatoes. The core stuff. The fun stuff. All the hijinks and jokes and escapades that I so desperately wanted to get into with the first book but couldn’t, that’s finally on the table. And that feels really good. That’s what writing is about to me: Not the plot, not the tale itself, but the often underwhelming daily lives of these sort-of heroes and the stupid things they get up to.

And if I can actually get this book finished faster than the last, well — that’ll be pretty great, too.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers Annual #1

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The Incursions aren’t the only horrors threatening to end the world! DOCTOR STRANGE has faced the impossible time and again as an Avenger and the Sorcerer Supreme, but when he is called upon to fulfill an old debt to an enclave of techno-monks high in the Himalayas, even the good doctor may be beyond his limits! Written by acclaimed young writer Frank J. Barbiere (Five Ghosts, The White Suits) and illustrated by the illustrious Marco Rudy (Swamp Thing, Marvel Knights: Spider-Man), this oversized annual is one you won’t want to miss!

Every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling a bit tired of the state of cape books, I read a comic that gets me excited again. New Avengers Annual #1 is that comic for me at the moment. From writer Frank J. Barbiere and artist Marco Rudy, this Doctor Strange-centric oversized annual fills in the frustrating blanks of Jonathan Hickman’s recent post-Infinity storyline. But that doesn’t quite do this annual justice, does it?

Barbiere’s script follows Strange’s personal journey to take on ultimate power and finally stop the incursions that have been threatening 616 Earth since the beginning of New Avengers. This story has been missing from series continuity for several issues as Strange all but disappeared, relegated to the background amid the clashing egos of Black Panther and Namor, the philosophical waxing going on between Tony Stark and Reed Richards. His absence has been a peculiar one, still struggling as he is with his possession by Ebony Maw during Hickman’s Infinity event, rocked by this violation of his sense of self.

The story itself straightforward and to the point, juxtaposing Strange’s desire to take on ultimate power with the hubris of his younger self in a compelling and poignant way. It makes for a fitting comparison between conceit and fortitude as Strange resigns himself to his choice for the sake of the planet. To do the unthinkable and make a deal with a demon to save the soul of a possessed princess, becoming its new host in exchange for untold power. Barbiere’s scripting is solid if but a bit lacking in the dialogue, the issue having its fair share of flat characterization and awkward lines. The real storytelling, however, is in the graphic narrative.

Rudy’s artwork is nothing short of phenomenal. His style reminds me a lot of artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams, and I mean that in the best way possible. The story unfolds in lush pages of undulating patterns and organic shapes, panels bleeding into one another without gutters or borders to separate them. Time and space don’t exist in Rudy’s vibrant, feverish world of color and texture, a psychedelic exercise in line, shading and weight. Each and every page is strikingly different from the last, employing different visual and stylistic choices to develop the nightmarish planes that Strange must traverse to face the demon. The narrative is visually disjointed, yes, but it also feels fresh and engaging for these same reasons. You never know what to expect when you turn the page, your eyes following every inviting curve and violent stroke like you would a painting up close in a gallery. Rudy makes you work for it, and I appreciate that.

There is no sense of safety here, no comfort in predictable page design as colors run together in full painterly gestures and unpredictable qualities of line. Some may argue that the issue is too busy, too weird; I would argue we need more cape books like this. I imagine this kind of work is painstaking and time-consuming, but damned if it’s not gorgeous. Damned if it doesn’t play with the narrative possibilities of a cape book and impart something lasting even after you close the cover over and set it down. Damned if it isn’t just fun to look at, and, sometimes, that’s enough for me.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #3

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The seductress of the sai makes the hunt look easy–but this might be one quest Elektra’s not prepared for. Further plunging into the deep crevices of the Marvel Universe, her quest for Cape Crow becomes murkier, as the hit is not what it seems. Will Elektra do what she’s never done before–and protect the mark?

The hunt for Cape Crow puts Elektra on a collision course with Bloody Lips that forces both killers to face their sins. This surreal chase story takes another sharp turn as Elektra and Kento travel to the sunken city of Shicheng to trace Cape Crow’s steps, finding only the abandoned catacombs that entomb Kento’s mother and fresh flowers on her grave. Having just missed the elusive killer, there’s no time to regroup as Bloody Lips appears in an all-out assault. Elektra is able to save Kento but in fighting Bloody Lips they both seemingly drown, only to find themselves at the gates of the underworld where those they’ve killed await their revenge.

Though the age-old cliché of the seasoned killer coming face to face with one’s victims is certainly well-trodden territory, Blackman and Del Mundo make the most of this trope through captivating storytelling. Blackman’s scripting, while too slow for some critics, gradually unfolds the dual narratives of Elektra and Bloody Lips with prose-like sensibility through further exploration of memory and identity. The full scope of Bloody Lips’ powers is better developed in this issue, left previously as the somewhat vague manifestation of his violent madness, as we learn he’s a cannibal who gains the memories and knowledge of those he consumes.

While Elektra has lost a part of herself over the course of her long and bloody career, Bloody Lips has taken from others, establishing an interesting parallel that brings them together to face their pasts. Blackman also takes this parallel one step further by having Elektra confront her dead mother, just as Bloody Lips faces his own murdered family, only to be told that Elektra’s first victim was her mother during childbirth. It isn’t the most original idea, but repackaged in this surreal world that Elektra now finds herself, it works.

Once again, Del Mundo’s pencils are truly outstanding. The dynamism of his lines beautifully detail Bloody Lips’ mental landscape of stolen memories, a wildly contrasted and playfully grotesque jumble of color and texture. Bloody Lips’ peculiar design, a tribal hunter with simple, almost childlike features beneath a beastly headdress, has become one of my favorite elements of this storyline. That highly stylized face, with its cartoonish expressions, perfectly straddles the line between the absurd and the otherworldly that this series has struck so far, at once grimly humorous and inhuman.