Comic Book Review: Black Widow #11

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Natasha’s search for Isaiah brings her and X-23 to Macau, where the always duplicitous Tori Raven fills them in on the kidnapping plot. Rashid and his henchmen await in the penthouse suite of the casino where the issue opens, in true spy genre fashion, as Natasha and Laura battle their way to the top floor. If it’s action, intrigue and exotic locales you’re after, Edmondson and Noto deliver the goods in Black Widow #11.

The kidnapping plot deepens in this issue as Rashid and Tori make their respective returns, teasing information about Chaos, the nefarious group behind Natasha’s recent troubles. As always, there’s more to this rescue mission than meets the eye, with Natasha, Isaiah, and the other players serving as cogs in the larger machinations of the overall arc. Edmondson successfully ties up this leg of the story with Isaiah’s daring rescue and leaves the future shrouded in appropriate mystery, through well-crafted exchanges and ample foreshadowing. This issue offers a satisfying conclusion to Natasha’s present predicament, with plenty of action and adventure to show for it, but closes with the promise of more intrigue as Tori is revealed as an operative of Chaos.

Black Widow #11 has a lot going for it. Natasha and Laura prove a very formidable team as they cut through waves of henchmen, carried by their fun and engaging dynamic. Laura is the muscle with anger management problems and Natasha is the brains behind the operation, and their styles and personalities complement each other well. Such a team-up in the hands of a less conscientious writer would be cheesy, but the strength of Edmondson’s characterizations and dialogue make for some great chemistry throughout. Isaiah is even given the opportunity to pull his weight, and I hope to see him take a more active role in this arc moving forward.

The action-heavy issue is impeccably paced, with gorgeous action compliments of Noto, moving from sequence to sequence with a great sense of energy and momentum. Not only is Noto’s artwork is as beautiful as ever, but so is the rest of the production, continuing to prove just how in-synch this creative team really is. The synergy between script, art and lettering never fails to impress, with every panel and dialogue bubble working together to keep the story moving at an exciting pace.

Comic Book Review: C.O.W.L. #5

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After the riot at the C.O.W.L. picket-line, Geoffrey Warner’s feud with Mayor Daley takes a grim turn in C.O.W.L. #5. The strike falls apart as supporting unions flee Warner’s sinking ship, and with no one else in the chief’s corner, desperate times call for desperate measures. This issue will likely be a polarizing one for readers of this compelling reimagining of cape book fare, as these heroes are forced to cross lines that no amount of genre convention can sweep under the rug. Writers Higgins and Siegel promised to take this series in an intriguing new direction, and while some of the twists were foreseeable, they’ve certainly lived up to their word.

As the fallout of the riot at City Hall reverberates across Chicago, Warner is working every angle he can to maintain power in his political play against Daley.  The police, teachers, and other labor unions pull their support and leave Warner alone in the fight. Meanwhile, Pierce reaches out to Hadyn, tapped to be the face of C.O.W.L. in an effort to win back public favor. Pierce plans to turn all his findings on the weapons leak to the CPD and bring Warner down, and Hadyn finds himself caught between the opposing plans of the chief and the detective.

One of the strengths of this issue, and the series in general, is the complexity of the characters. In only five issues we haven’t had much time with this cast, but Hggins and Siegel have managed to make an interesting antagonist of Warner. Despite his corruption, he seems to operate from a world-weary sense of good and evil, one that is perpetuated by the corrupt power systems at work around him. This makes for a fascinating confrontation between Warner and Hadyn, as Warner reaches out to Hadyn’s sense of duty, however diluted it may be by excess and self-preservation. Hadyn’s motivations are unfortunately a bit hazy at this point, which raises some irksome questions as the issue draws to a close.

In the end, however, just as Pierce is about to break the entire scandal, Hadyn’s allegiances to Warner win out. He murders Pierce in an alleyway and takes the evidence file, closing the door on Pierce’s case but opening another as the ramifications of Pierce’s death loom. In the closing pages, Warner meets with Camden and proposes a deal with the mob to put costumed aggressors back on the streets of Chicago. With villains to fight, the heroes must return, and C.O.W.L. will live on. The cycle of good and evil will sustain itself once more, just as Warner needs it to.

While the scripting from Higgins and Siegel is excellent, artist Reis brings the gritty world of C.O.W.L. to the page with impeccable line work and smart design decisions. Moody color palettes and soft, gestural painting add subtle variance and emotional weight to these sequences, which are distinctively color-coded as the story progresses. The blues and indigos of the post-riot street scene give way to the clean grays and lighting effects of Warren’s following meeting. These scenes, as well as the consistently gloomier ones that follow, are broken up by the bright yellow hues and halftone textures of Pierce’s conversation with Hadyn. This makes for a diverse but overall cohesive reading experience, memorable from the first page to the last.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #24

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Eight months after Namor assembled the Cabal in preservation of Earth 616, he realizes the error of his ways. While the Cabal was devised to raze worlds and stop incursions, Thanos, Maximus and the rest of the team are mad with power and bloodlust, unleashing cruelty and violence across the multiverse. With the Illuminati scattered, the bloodbath comes back to 616, and Namor must try to correct his mistake in this issue from series writer Jonathan Hickman and returning artist Valerio Schiti.

Hickman’s dismal picture of a multiverse overrun with villains is an intriguing one. Namor attempts to rekindle old ties to Dr. Doom in the hope of gaining an ally against the Cabal, but Dr. Doom refuses. Little does Namor know, Doom’s already begun investigating the incursions on his own. Doom and his army of scientists find a way to reverse-engineer Mapmaker technology, with the help of Molecule Man’s powers, and bring the conflict to the Mapmakers directly. Meanwhile Maximus and Proxima Midnight ravage Wakanda as T’Challa and Shuri make one last desperate, and remarkably poignant, stand to save their nation from brutality.

The series lagged a bit for the last few issues due to a loss of momentum, but New Avengers #24 brings the title back where it needs to be. As Namor comes to terms with the terror he’s helped release, the true horror of this apocalyptic scenario comes from within 616 rather than the Mapmakers themselves. Thanos leads a bloody march across the multiverse and the supposed heroes, save the cornered Black Panthers and a repentant Namor, are nowhere to be found.

Hickman’s thematic exploration of the hero/villain ethical paradigm continues to be the best part of this series. Once more this series is raising interesting questions about the nature of duty, self-preservation, and heroism in the face of planetary annihilation. What remains unclear, however, is what is going on with the rest of the heroes in the Marvel Universe. How can all of this be allowed to carry on for eight months, while the Avengers in Hickman’s other titles hunt down the Illuminati for what they’ve done in defense of Earth 616? These issues may be resolved in coming months, but it does create some confusion for the time being.

Schiti’s return to the series is a much-appreciated one, after the previous visually and stylistically disappointing issues. Namor’s dinner with Doom is one of the best sequences in the issue, truly capturing the palpable tension of their encounter. This issue features some of his best artwork of the series thus far, having truly found his footing in Hickman’s grim and ghastly world. With the assistance of colorists Martin and Curiel, this is a cohesive and visually satisfying issue from start to finish.

Comic Book Review: Storm #3

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Alongside artists Scott Hepburn and David Baldeon, series writer Greg Pak continues delving into Storm’s emotional journey as a hero and X-Man with a great wealth of emotional storytelling. Storm #3 brings Ororo back to Kenya as a new technology promises to bring rain to the desert. This trek brings Ororo not only to the place that she came into her own as a mutant but as a young woman, holding many memories for the wind-rider, both good and bad, when she runs into her former friend and lover Forge.

The plot is simple: Forge has brought technology to Kenya that will create rain and end the droughts that have plagued the region. One of the villagers, the grandson of a wise elder woman who remembers the young Ororo’s first arrival, is weary of American interference and wishes to use this technology as he pleases. The tensions between Ororo, Forge and the villagers over the power to manipulate weather comes to a head when Ororo destroys the machine, forcing the opposing sides to work together for the sake of the nearby town.

True to the themes of the series so far, this issue is laden with personal reflection as Ororo looks to the past to learn for the future. Pak has a knack for writing Ororo’s dialogue, rolling back the formality often associated with the character to explore her complex characterization through strong, emphatic language. Her interactions with the villagers and Forge are intimate and telling of a woman with a complicated past, one who has worn many masks for many reasons. There’s a poignant strength to Pak’s Ororo that just feels organic and relatable, no matter how convoluted her backstory with the villagers and Forge has become after so many retellings.

While artist David Yardin delivers a beautiful cover, the interior art is a little less satisfying. Hepburn and Baldeon are a distinct stylistic shift from previous issues, which in and of itself is a little jarring. Even more jarring is the stylistic differences between the artists themselves. Both Hepburn and Baldeon deliver solid pencil work throughout, but the noticeable differences in facial anatomy and varying attention to detail are unnecessarily distracting. To her credit, colorist Rosenberg does a good job of creating visual unity through soft, painterly application of color and beautiful uses of lighting, making for an otherwise cohesive reading experience.

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.