By: Jeff Parker (story), Neil Edwards (pencils), Terry Pallot (inks), Chris Sotomayor (colors)

The Story: Boss Cage better hope there’s a generous retirement package waiting for him.

The Review: I’ve made it kind of a maxim here that it doesn’t matter so much what the story is; it’s all about the execution.  I guess I neglected to mention that the story still matters; if you’re working off of weak material, the execution will suffer proportionately.  Parker’s work ever since this title became Dark Avengers must be the first time I’m experiencing a case where his execution is solid, but he’s just not telling a story worth hearing.

Even looking just at the Thunderbolts issues I reviewed, you felt a stronger investment there than here.  Part of the reason was at the time, Parker only had to write these time-traveling two-issue arcs, so he didn’t really have any loftier aim than to have fun and entertain.  Then, too, we had a tighter cast to focus on, so we had more time to listen to them argue and banter, again all for the sake of fun and entertainment.

But the inflation of the cast alone hasn’t wreaked havoc on this title so much as splitting them apart has.  With Parker switching from the Thunderbolts in a dystopian future, Abe and Jess infiltrating F.A.C.T., Luke and Skaar confronting Sultan Magus, and the Dark Avenger trio invading the sultan’s palace, and a whole side storyline involving new character Boss Cage, the issue feels lively (and never confusing), but so focused on the action at hand that the character work just disappears.

Notice how little personality goes into the dialogue in this issue.  If you blind your eyes to the art and just take the text as is, you’d never know who was speaking.  About the only moment where the cast shows some actual character is Skaar and Luke’s amusing exchange during a crisis.  Luke yells at Sultan Magus not to kill Skaar, whom he’s got in a chokehold.  Magus rationalizes that Skaar would kill him given the opportunity.  Skaar agrees: “Hell yeah, I would.”

Luke pleads, “Son, work with me here.”

The predictability of how events proceed in this issue doesn’t help.  Last month, I made out exactly how F.A.C.T.’s plan would go down and lo and behold—it does.  The only thing I didn’t predict right away was the scale of their ambitions, but the moment I saw the size of the turbines in their secret HQ, I knew exactly how this confrontation in Sharzhad connected with the crazy future stuff the Thunderbolts are dealing with, even before everyone started freaking out about some mysterious “cataclysm.”

This issue offers a good lesson on the difference the inker and colorist can make to an artist’s work.  At no point did I recognize the art as belonging to the same guy who did the short-lived Herc last year.  Back then, Edwards’ figures looked slick and sophisticated, the very example of the Marvel school of art.  I don’t mean to imply that things look bad here.  It’s just that Pallot seems to have gotten so used to working on delicate pencils that he takes a soft hand to Edwards’ work and it comes across less powerfully than it should.  Sotomayor’s light coloring also makes the figures seem a bit insubstantial.

Conclusion: Again, nothing stands out as blatant bad writing or poor plotting, but somehow nothing strikes you as particularly interesting.

Grade: C+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – For such an apparently intelligent villain, it’s hard to believe how pissed and flustered Magus gets at discovering he’s fighting “a diversion!”

– On the bright side, since the Dark Avengers are clearly troublemakers, maybe we can hope they’ll be dropped from the title soon.