Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #10

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Picking up after last issue’s closing plot twist, Kamala discovers the Inventor’s heinous plans in Ms. Marvel #10. So far this series has done a great job of packaging Kamala’s adventures in ways that appeal to today’s diverse readership, and this issue is no exception. Using a compelling contemporary framework to approach the overt silliness of giant mechs and talking birds, Wilson and Alphona successfully ground this arc’s super-science hijinks in something meaningful that many younger readers (this reviewer included) can certainly relate to.

As Kamala learns, the teens volunteered to become the human batteries for Inventor’s machines in order to seek alternative power sources for a rapidly expanding world. The teens believe they are little more than parasites, an “extra generation” using dwindling resources and contributing little in turn. In sacrificing themselves, they aim to leave a positive mark on the future that adults already blame them for ruining with smartphones and student loan debt. Noble intentions aside, the Inventor shows his true colors when he attacks Kamala and abducts Lockjaw. In turn Kamala rallies the other teenagers in a cowboy speech that even Captain America would be proud of, and leads the teens against the Inventor to set up for the arc’s conclusion.

While admittedly a little heavy-handed in its execution, the theme of youth standing up against a culture that devalues (and often demonizes) them is extremely relevant in today’s media. The pervasive narrative that the lazy, selfish millennials have led the contemporary western world to its doom is all but inescapable these days. To see young people so beaten down by their parents’ generation that they consider their own lives as disposal rings very true to most post-grads on the street, and for Kamala to take a stand against that narrative is uplifting. It also further solidifies her role as today’s every-woman hero, speaking to (and for) a widening audience of comic book readers from all walks of life.

Once again Wilson and Alphona bring their A-game. Wilson’s scripting is strong and Alphona’s pencils are as beautiful and energetic as ever, wonderfully complemented by Herring’s palettes. Another compelling, visually engaging issue from this stellar creative team.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #10

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Carol Danvers returns in her 100th solo issue for an oversized anniversary special just in time for Christmas. The first chapter of a holiday-themed two-parter, Captain Marvel #10 catches up with Carol’s friends back home on Earth through a series of letters picked up by world-hopping rock star Lila Cheney. Shifting gears from the series recent spacefaring adventure theme, this issue slows down to show that behind every great hero is a strong supporting cast of family and friends.

Through messages from Kit, Jessica Drew, Jim Rhodes, and Wendy Kawasaki, Carol gets a glimpse into the adventures her fellow heroes are having without her. Self-proclaimed Captain Marvel villain Grace Valentine returns to antagonize the city once more, hatching yet another cartoonishly mustache-twirling evil plot. From these alternating perspectives the reader is treated to the old-fashioned heroic adventure story that DeConnick delivers so well, even if the set-up is pretty corny. The issue is peppered with endearing personal moments and memories, especially in Jessica and Jim’s respective storylines, which serve to ground all of Carol’s friendships in ways designed to tug at the heart strings. Every character is given a moment to shine on their individual merit, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Carol’s support network in action against a villain.

Artists Lopez, Takara and Braga lend their respective styles to each section of the story, splitting the workload with a great deal of success. While their styles do vary in weight and character of line, the transition from one artist to the next is pretty much seamless, and all of their individual pages keep the story moving at a good clip despite that initial visual discrepancy. Colorists Loughridge and Filardi also mitigate some of this inconsistency through uniform palette choices that make for a visually cohesive reading experience. Soft blues, muted beiges, and warm orange tones create an inviting, almost pastel world for the reader to follow, affecting the kind of dreamy reconstruction that comes of reading a story secondhand.

It has a predictable villain and a paint-by-numbers plot, but the endearing nature of the story and its execution is what makes this issue a highly enjoyable read. Captain Marvel #10 is obvious fan service, but with a sense of heart at its core, it perfectly encapsulates Carol’s enduring popularity in recent years. This title has made a name for itself by serving standard cape book comfort food with a strong emotional foundation that dictates the stories being told, and it makes sense that the 100th issue special is no different. This issue is must-read for Carol fans.

Comic Book Review: Sex Criminals #9

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As Fraction and Zdarsky’s clockwork universe of time-stopping sexual exploration broadens its scope, we’re introduced to Ana Kincaid. Better known as Jon’s pubescent sexual idol Jazmine St. Cocaine, Sex Criminals #9 tells of how a small town girl rose to porn star fame and discovered her otherworldly sexual abilities. While the set-up is certainly familiar, this is the story of Ana’s journey from porn to academia, subverting the blame-and-shame tropes surrounding sex work with Ana’s fresh perspective.

With Jon and Suzie reconciling their complicated relationship status, Jon begins looking into the others on the Sex Police’s radar. This is how we meet Ana. Born into typical small-town mediocrity as Rae Anne Toots, throughout high school Ana balances her academic success with the thrills of her hard-partying lifestyle. High school’s cheap thrills wane as she looks forward to college, but Ana’s attempts to begin her life are thwarted when her father refuses to help her pay for school. On her own, Ana struggles to pay for her education with a minimum wage job before an excursion to a strip club clues her into the serious cash-making potential of stripping. She leaves McDonald’s behind to become a stripper, becoming addicted to the sense of sexual freedom and power that comes with it. She also develops an addiction to cocaine, and soon college is left to the backburner.

When the excitement of her current work fades, Ana goes on to modeling and later porn to recapture the rush. In a sequence that lovingly parodies Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and The Divine, Ana’s first foray into porn unlocks her secret power when she has her first real orgasm. Having suffered a childhood injury that left her unable to feel sexual pleasure, this transcendent time-stopping experience becomes Ana’s new addiction, chasing it throughout her career. With time and sobriety, Ana’s fascination with her experiences in the Quiet/Cumworld become an academic preoccupation, and eventually she leaves porn to become a horology professor. This is how Jon and Suzie meet her in the closing pages of the issue, in her office at the local college, studying how sex and time coincide.

Fraction’s voice for Ana is one of the strongest in the series so far, a no-nonsense perspective on sex and addiction that breathes some new life into this series. While Jon and Suzie are competent narrators, their respective emotional baggage views the Quiet/Cumworld through a melancholy lens that, at times, feels a little repetitive. Ana’s clinical understanding of their powers helps to shed some light on the larger world that these characters operate in, and reorients Jon and Suzie’s story in a more proactive direction. The nuanced treatment of her story is engaging, and delivers one of the best stand-alone issues in the book.

As ever Zdarsky’s rendering of her scenes is both humorous and heartfelt, and employs some meaningful imagery throughout. The appearance of Gillen as the director of Ana’s first porn is an amusing touch, as is the eight-panel splash of Ana’s career portfolio, true to the title’s irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone. He also manages to make Ana’s treks the Quiet/Cumworld specific and unique to her story, despite the recycled color and texture overlays that serve as visual shorthand, distancing her from Jon and Suzie’s shared experiences.

Short Story: Molly’s Entropy, Speculative Fiction by Magen Cubed

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I knew my memories could no longer be trusted when the old brownstone on Morning Avenue disappeared. It was a morning in October when it vanished, a townhouse with green shutters and wide flower-boxes. I passed a row of them each day on my way to the office, cups of designer coffee in hand and my scarf tucked under my coat. The brownstone had left a void in its place, a soft white outline where it had once stood before being snatched up from the foundation, every shingle and tile evaporating with it. Something shined from inside the silhouette, a gentle light, maybe radiation, pouring into the street and between the shrubs and fences of the neighboring houses.

Police put a barricade of yellow tape and plastic cones around the brownstone, uniformed officers posted outside in shifts. Each morning people walked past them without looking, and each morning I stared into the cavity and waited for something to happen. For someone to step out or something to fall inside of it, doors to open or dimensions to crumble. Nothing seemed to change. I stopped one day on my way to work to ask the officer there what was going on. The man looked too young for his black uniform, with big brown eyes and a dopey half-smile. He said it was to keep out the trespassers and school children that wandered too close, taking cell phone pictures or throwing rocks into the white space. He never explained where the brownstone had gone, like it had never been there at all. I couldn’t say that it had either, with nothing to point to but an outline, so I thanked him for his time instead.

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Fleshtrap: One Year Later

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So as of this week, my novel Fleshtrap has been out for a year. You know how the story goes: Casey Way has been haunted by visions of his dead pedophile father for the last twenty years, tormented by hazy recollections of his father’s murder at the hands of his stepmother. The trauma has left Casey burdened with guilt, which has manifested in debilitating insomnia and violent hallucinations. As the anniversary of his father’s murder approaches, his step-sister Mariska takes him back to the scene of the crime: their childhood home, to confront their past and finally get some closure. Instead, something follows Casey back out into the world, something ugly, violent, familiar.

Blah blah blah, that old chestnut.

The book I wrote between 2010 and 2011 in a fit of quarter-life nihilism has been out in the wild for a whole year now. Casey Way has been left to his own devices as I started work on four other books, finishing one and abandoning another along the way. He’s grown up and left me, living outside of me and the stories I’d planned for him, leaving this nostalgic little hole in my gut that I occasionally wax philosophically about if the mood strikes me.

And looking at it now, at how much has changed in that year, it’s a little strange.

I met a lot of people because of this book. In May I went to Texas Frightmare Weekend with the rest of the guys from Post Mortem Press. I’ve been on podcasts to talk about the book and had an interview on BookieMonster.com. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with people who enjoyed the book; I’ve talked a lot about the nature of abuse, the duality of human nature, and how people can survive despite the weight of family history bearing down on them. It’s been rewarding, and in a lot of ways, it’s been cathartic to see something that I wrote at such a low point could resonate with people in ways I hadn’t even considered. To see that people could get something out of Casey’s story has made the blood, the sweat, and the tears — all the fear and loathing and panic that went into the book itself — worth it.

But this was my first book. Your first book is meant to be your training wheels. It’s the best you could do at the time that you did it, but it’s by no means all you have to give. I wrote it when I was 24 and 25; I’m now 28, going on 29. When I look at Fleshtrap, I see so little of myself in it now that it’s a bit strange to think even about. For a while I considered turning Casey’s story into a trilogy of books to explore similar themes and ideas, using Casey as kind of an unwitting bloodhound for the psychic scars left in the world. Think John Constantine, but with less swagger and attention to detail. I even started the second book last summer, just to see if I still had a horror book in me. After a year of seeing Fleshtrap out in the world, however, I figured out that I just didn’t. I don’t think I want to go back to that world. I don’t even think I could, really; Fleshtrap is so far removed from where I am now and the stories I want to tell. And that’s okay.

Fleshtrap was the book I wanted to write when I was 24 and 25. It was the exorcism I needed. Now that I’m older, Casey can be put to bed. It’s better this way, I think, for me and Casey both. In the time since I sent him out into the world, I finished the first book of my six-book superhero fiction series The Crashers. I’m currently shopping for a publisher while I work on the sequel, The Crashers, Volume Two: Koreatown. These are the stories I’m interested in, the characters that I care about putting out into the world. And if you liked Fleshtrap, I hope you’ll be back to check those books out, too.

Comic Book Review: C.O.W.L. #6

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After a grim finale to its inaugural arc, C.O.W.L. begins its latest storyline in #6, Raven’s First Flight. Higgins and Siegel shift gears to delve into the backstory of C.O.W.L. Chief Geoffrey Warner, the Grey Raven, in this faithful reproduction of his imagined comic book exploits. Artist Charretier brings Warner’s early life to the page with all the strong jaws, fisticuffs and theatrical villainy of 1960s adventure comics, wonderfully developed by Reis’ flat primary colors and halftone textures. This issue serves an artifact of a comic book from a comic book world, posing questions about the nature of its own mythology and format.

According to his heroic origin story, graciously licensed to Image Comics in the spring of 1962, Warner begins life as the hopeful son of a decorated Chicago cop. However, his dreams of following his father into the police force are dashed when he finds out that his father is on Liam Stone’s payroll. Disillusioned, Warner turns to life as a professional boxer, earning him fame as a rising young star. His speed and determination make him a local sensation, but the wounds of his father’s betrayal are reopened when his manager asks him to throw his championship match. Disgusted, he quits.

Spurred by his desire to change his city for the better, Warner then becomes a private detective, pursuing cases that the crooked CPD won’t touch. This still isn’t enough for Warner, who is sickened by the sleaze and exploitation around him. When a series of robberies results in the death of cop, he seizes the opportunity to take a stand and becomes the Grey Raven. The case brings him face to face with the Robber, the city’s first masked villain, and in a daring takedown Warner learns that his father is the Robber’s getaway driver. With the Robber defeated and his father arrested, the Grey Raven becomes the hero that Chicago desperately needs.

Warner’s rise is neatly packaged in this well-crafted piece of propaganda, contrasting the virtuousness of those who don masks to fight crime against the corruption that had infested Chicago. Seeing what lengths Warner is willing to go to get his way, his righteousness and incorruptibility here is almost comical and sad in equal measures, but for different reasons. Is there some truth to the story? Was he ever this noble, or is this simply how Warner wants his city to remember him? To see a man with such good intentions get in bed with the mob he’s fought so hard against sheds an intriguing light on the moral complexities of this world and its cast, and Higgins and Siegel pull it off well.

Bringing this issue together is its production design. Its endearingly vintage aesthetic, complete with smudged and stained pages, is really brought home by the pulpy house ads scattered throughout the book. Charretier’s pages appropriately ape the cheap, quickly-produced action books of the 60s, with their flattened spaces and simple panel construction. Reis’s coloring use of bright, bold palettes is effective throughout, although I wish some of the stains in the margins could have been incorporated into the panels themselves more prominently.

Overall, C.O.W.L. #6 is a clever issue that uses the aesthetics and storytelling conventions of its setting to deliver is visually fun and thoughtful reading experience.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #8

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After a somewhat lackluster two-parter, Blackman and Del Mundo return to breathe some excitement into the series with Elektra #8. Their imaginative collaboration once again carries this title in an issue rife with magic and mayhem, brought to the page by the strength of Blackman’s narrative voice and Del Mundo’s gorgeous artwork. While this series suffered from a loss of momentum in recent issues, this book is definitely back.

Hot on Bulleye’s trail, Elektra finds herself at Mercury Drop, a highly-guarded S.H.I.E.L.D. detainment facility. There she fights her way through jetpack-sporting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to take Bullseye’s comatose body, only to find herself squaring off against Maria Hill. Maria gives Elektra the chance to leave without further conflict, out of respect to the assassin’s relationship with Nick Fury. However, as Elektra refuses, their confrontation is cut short by a surprise attack by the Hand. With Bullseye caught in the middle, Maria and Elektra put their differences aside to fight back against the Hand, concluding in a stunning magically-infused battle complete with dragons and mech suits.

Del Mundo’s artwork once again makes this book. His fight scenes are intricate and beautiful, his line work refined and delicate. The soft, painterly development of space and form makes for engaging reading as man and machine clash in these highly-energized panels. There’s simply so much energy in every exaggerated gesture, extended finger and swirling strand of wayward hair, creating a sense of vibrancy from the first page to the last. Completed by the rhythm of Blackman’s prose-like scripting, Elektra #8 is a beautiful issue and a highly enjoyable to read.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #9

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Moon Knight #9 brings Spector to his doctor’s doorstep once again, this time to peer behind her cool façade and work out her motivations. Her contract on General Lor and the fallout of his last mission have left Moon Knight with a lot of unanswered questions as to his dear doctor’s extracurricular activities. Under shared hypnosis, the doctor guides Spector to his memories of Egypt and Khonshu, before delving into her own memories. There Spector watches General Lor’s military occupation of the micronation Akima, his doctor’s childhood home, as soldiers slaughter her village and kill her family.

What begins as a seemingly routine session exploring Spector’s various identities takes a sharp turn as Spector becomes a part of his doctor’s violent past. Within this shared dream-space she walks him through the horrors committed by men like Lor all over the world, men that she intends to wipe out by any means necessary. Smallwood brings these scenes to the page in tight, claustrophobic panels, overlapping time and space through alternating perspectives. The action is expertly paced and visually compelling throughout, utilizing negative space to emphasize the abruptness of Moon Knight’s violence. As ever Bellaire’s bold, nearly monochromatic palettes are on point.

Spector, despite his own charge as the protector of night travelers, refuses to help the doctor get revenge. Wood poses some interesting questions about the nature of vigilantism here as Spector argues against her murderous campaign. When the only thing that separates his mission from hers is his own set of moral standards, who is he to stop her? All of Spector’s righteous indignation aside, however, the doctor quickly turns the tables on him and becomes the vessel of Khonshu. Waking in her office, Spector finds himself alone, with no other personalities or identities living alongside him, with a bomb under the desk.

With its intriguing premise and cliffhanger ending, Moon Knight #9 is an engaging read from start to finish.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #12

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Natasha’s past comes back to haunt her in a very public way in Black Widow #12. As Anderson Cooper exposes Natasha’s recent activity, both as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative and contracted agent, the rest of the superhero and espionage communities at large must scramble to deal with the backlash. While “celebrity guest appearances” such as the one made here tend to be campy, the use of the news anchor serves to ground the story in a semblance of realism and considerably raises the stakes for Natasha.

In Somalia, Natasha is far removed from the troubles brewing back home during a routine mission with the Howling Commandos. After the recent dilemma with Chaos she welcomes the change of pace, even as the Avengers confer with Maria Hill to try to minimize the damage of the report. Every mission since the title began is put under the microscope, her actions and motivations analyzed and debated as eye witnesses give accounts of her very public encounters with assorted antagonists.

The visual transition from screen to screen, room to room as Natasha’s friends and compatriots across the city watch the news is expertly managed by Noto, using the tension of the script to its potential. Contrasting Natasha’s breezy, almost naïve narration during her Somalia mission against the grimness befalling her concerned friends as they watch AC 360 is a clever move on Edmondson’s part. In the end, however, Isaiah is the one who must pay the price for Natasha’s transgressions as he is shot in her apartment, seemingly killed by an unknown gunman as Natasha’s taxi pulls up outside.

In the age of whistleblowers and the demand for government transparency, Black Widow #12 strikes a timely chord. Such an investigation into the scope of Natasha’s missions as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and member of the Avengers calls both of their authorities into question; considering what these entities have recently been up to in Avengers and New Avengers respectively, the public is surely watching people like Natasha quite closely. Edmondson also brings up an interesting point of contrast, whether implicitly or not, between how the public (and the reader) views operatives like Black Widow or Hawkeye and “heroes” like Iron Man or Captain America.

While Natasha’s reputation as an assassin is well-known, all of them have done questionable, sometimes even treacherous things in the name of larger causes. The only thing that really separates them is the fact that people like Natasha primarily use violence as their means, whereas people like Tony Stark are largely Machiavellian, scheming and manipulating people and scenarios to achieve their desired outcomes. Of course the Avengers have been scrutinized by both the public and the government in various storylines, but it still raises the interesting question of who bears the guilt when secrets such as these come to light.

With strong scripting and artwork from start to finish, Black Widow #12 is another solid read from this creative team.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #9

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In general, I have very negative reactions to pop stars and singers in cape books. The bombastic, cartoonish depictions of musicians who drop into a scene to belt out a song while superheroes gush in the margins just doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how well-intentioned. Planet-hopping rock stars aside, this done-in-one romp, titled Lila Cheney’s Fantabulous Technicolor Rock Opera, tries to add some fun to Carol’s recent intergalactic adventures with a detour to an alien planet. Unfortunately, this breezy filler issue falls a bit flat in its execution.

Carol and Tic are on their way to their next undertaking when Lila Cheney teleports onto their ship, summoned by the sound of her own music playing. Lila quickly recounts her childhood adventures as an interplanetary traveler before transporting the three of them to an alien world. We learn that, during one of her youthful exploits, she became betrothed to Prince Yan of the Aladna Court, a group of flamboyant humanoids who speak only in rhyme, to establish an alliance with Earth. As an adult, however, Lila has no interest in becoming queen of the court, even if it leaves Yan’s legitimacy as heir to the throne in jeopardy.

Carol, roped into posing as Lila’s mother, tries to stop the wedding through mediation. Before she can save Lila from an unwanted marriage, a rival suitor named Marlo bursts in and demands to battle Lila for Yan’s hand. Carol steps in to fight on Lila’s behalf and easily trounces Marlo, but the king and queen still demand their son to take a wife. Tic offers to marry Yan to fulfill his royal duties and assure his ascension, so long as she remains free to travel with Carol. All’s well that ends well, until Lila gives Carol a letter “from a friend,” whose mysterious contents shock Carol in the closing panel.

To its credit, this issue does have some endearing elements. Allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Ziggy Stardust-esque costuming throughout bring a sense of fun and whimsy to the story. Furthermore, the gender role reversal that facilitates Prince Yan being married off in a society that privileges women in courtship is an interesting one. As ever DeConnick’s Carol is fun to read, and the respective contributions of artist Lopez and colorist Loughridge help to deliver another solid graphic narrative.

However, the rhyming dialogue convention quickly becomes grating to read as it persists throughout the issue. Such a device can be humorous in small doses, and in abundance, begins to read too much like a children’s book. The plot itself is decent enough but its execution is somewhat tedious, relying heavily on gimmicks and quirky alien customs to drive the story along while Carol awkwardly tries to navigate these circumstances. It’s jaunty, yes, but not memorable.

Overall, Captain Marvel #9 isn’t a terrible issue, but it certainly isn’t the best. It also isn’t my favorite kind of story. While I wouldn’t recommend this issue to readers outside of the Carol Corp., it is a lighthearted and silly adventure that some Carol fans are sure to enjoy.