Comic Book Review: Storm #2

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After her run-in with the government of Santo Marco, Storm’s new hands-on approach to life continues to set the tone for her adventures under series writer Greg Pak. This Ororo Munroe is older, wiser, but a far more playful and joyous character than I have seen her in recent years, often pigeonholed as the somber matriarch of the X-Men. This series so far has been about taking chances and learning from mistakes, a theme core to superhero fiction as a whole, and together Pak and Ibanez are steering this title into interesting directions.

This done-in-one issue sees the return of Callisto in her latest encounter with Ororo, as Ibanez’s cover promises. When the X-Man embroils herself in the case of a missing young woman, Ororo follows the clues to the tunnels beneath New York City where she finds the Morlock waiting for her. As with the last issue, Ororo’s proactive outlook brings on new trials and tribulations for both her and the long-suffering Hank McCoy, serving as Ororo’s only somewhat chagrined partner-in-crime. And as with the last issue, there is a steep learning curve for the weather witch, when a surprising revelation hammers home for Ororo that things aren’t always what they seem on face value.

The thematic core of this book is Ororo’s growth as a hero, and this issue develops on the foundations of the last with satisfying results. Pak’s scripting is great, from the light character banter to Ororo’s dramatic narrative voice, establishing that balance and duality within Ororo’s own nature. Her relationship with Logan is a lovely counterpoint to that nature, from the triumphant mohawk to her stubborn tenacity, with Logan slowing down as Ororo herself gains momentum through action. These subtle intimate moments, like Ororo’s banter with Hank and her playful dynamic with Logan, lend to some touching exposition without slowing down the pacing.

Artist Ibanez proves himself a highly competent storyteller through his clean line work and page designs. He has this incredible knack for making Ororo look absolutely statuesque, both in and out of costume, emphasizing the true strengths of this character even when she isn’t at her strongest. With colorist Ruth Redmond’s alternating use of warm earth tones and cool blue palettes, this is a solid visual reading experience from the first page to the last. Another satisfying offering from this creative team.

Comic Book Review: Sex Criminals #7

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Jon breaks into Kegelface’s house and oh my golly what on EARTH do you think he finds there. Not only are our beloved Sex Criminals not alone…they’re not unwatched, either. And Suzie learns once and for all the fate of her precious library.

As Suzie suffers through the uncomfortable realities of life after her ill-conceived criminal career, Jon can’t let it go. Sex Criminals #7follows this increasingly unlikely duo through their respective storylines, Suzie trying to move on from the robberies and the Sex Police as Jon follows their strange new world down an even stranger path. Fraction once more proves himself the master of understated storytelling while Zdarsky’s smart page layouts and panel designs remain almost completely beyond reproach.

Braving the unpleasant (and oft unstated) side effects of birth control in a bid for normalcy, Suzie runs into her friend Rach, with whom she hadn’t spoken since throwing herself in to Jon’s initial robbery scheme. As Suzie comes clean about her time-stopping powers, the two friends pick up where they left off. Still reeling from his last encounter with Kegelface, Jon, however, finds himself on a mission. The intensely personal narrative further recounts Jon’s fumblings with his powers in high school, an awkward and ultimately destructive observer of human intimacy and experience through the lens of The Quiet.

Fraction doesn’t pull any punches in Jon’s backstory, making for a clinically uncomfortable sequence that describes how the young Jon’s voyeurism brought him to this point. Once more faced with creeping guilt, and with his deepening relationship with Suzie still on uncertain ground, the thrill of voyeurism and danger propels Jon to use The Quiet to break into Kegelface’s house. There, spying on this seemingly normal wife and mother in the middle of the night, he finds the Sex Police’s lair in her basement along with an abundance of dildos and, more importantly, a cache of case files. Other offenders, Jon finds, other sex criminals like him and Suzie, and after a ridiculous scuffle in Kegalface’s equally ridiculous sex basement, Jon steals everything he can carry and rushes to tell Suzie everything.

Even with its silly and unflinching sense of humor, Sex Criminals #7 proves itself to be yet another remarkably emotionally complicated issue. The thread of Suzie and her friend Rach is played subtly and straightforwardly by Fraction and Zdarsky, as their reconciliation comes with a fair measure of comedy and relief for Suzie. Jon’s thread, as is his overall developing backstory, is an awkward tale of youthful sexual curiosity interspersed with a cold, detached sadness. Despite the ever-increasing absurdity this book revels in, the underpinning of intimacy, loss and human connection continues to be my favorite element of the book.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #6

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THE BATTLE ISSUE. Space! Ships! Super heroes! Captain Marvel has been caught in the middle of an interplanetary turf war for weeks. Now, it’s time for Earth’s Mightiest Hero to get her hands dirty and show the Spartax and the Haffensye what’s what.

The battle between Captain Marvel and the Spartax heats up inCaptain Marvel #6 as this storyline draws to its rousing close. With the fate of Torfa on the line, Carol and her band of rebels lead the charge on J’son’s forces as the Spartax and Haffensye try to cut down the refugees harbored there. Full of space-farring adventure and political intrigue alike, Higher, Further, Faster, More has proven to be a very enjoyable arc for Carol fans, and this issue is no exception.

Each member of this ragtag team plays a useful role in the final battle, although the pirate Jackie steals the show as the most lovable of the group, as Carol destroys J’Son’s secret vibranium mines. Given J’Son’s attempts to sell out Earth to the Builders during the Avengers’ last run-in with the Spartax, Carol takes a moment to enjoy this retribution, although it will have lasting effects on Earth/Spartax relations going further. Diplomatic tensions aside, the issue ends on a high note as the refugees retain their new home planet and Carol goes off to reclaim her cat Chewie from the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Creative team DeConnick and Lopez deliver a highly satisfying climax to this arc, as confrontations both on-planet and off-world come to an appropriately big and flashy culmination. DeConnick’s remarkable strength for characterization continues to set this title apart from other cape books, finding an apt balance between humorous banter and poignant narration that few other writers pull off as effortlessly. Readers will cheer Carol and her friends all the way to the end, no matter the uncertainty that lies ahead in the wake of J’Son’s corrupt and duplicitous activities. Few titles make me cheer the heroes on as much as Captain Marvel, where even short-term sidekicks like Tic and Jackie are given a chance to shine.

Lopez, with his clean and extremely detailed line work, brings these fun and expressive characters to the page with impressive consistency. Oftentimes in reviewing I see the details of even well-established characters lost amid exaggerated facial expressions and comically distorted anatomy; Lopez, however, is a very capable artist and storyteller, able achieve drama and humor without losing touch with character design. Colorist Loughridge uses muted golds and yellows to evoke a sense of dryness in the deserts of Torfa, followed by deep blues and turquoises to build up the highly textured backgrounds of Carol’s dogfights with the Spartax fleet. Every element of the story is rigidly color-coded, from the red hues of starship interiors to J’Son’s ghostly purple hologram, from the beginning of this arc to its climax, maintaining a sense of tone and environment from issue to issue.

Overall, Captain Marvel #6 is another enjoyable read from this exceedingly enjoyable series.

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.