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Uncanny X-Men #24 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Kris Anka (art)

The Story: As the X-Men worry about Xavier’s final bequests, the will reveals a dark secret…and a gift to Emma Frost.

The Review: Let’s get this out of the way. Last issue Brian Bendis ended part I of “The Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier” by revealing that Scott Summers had to be present to read said will. I hope you’ll forgive me saying so so early in the review, but if you suspected that we wouldn’t actually see that reading in this issue, you were right. We actually end the second issue of this arc just about to hear Xavier’s final orders to his X-Men. That means that there are twenty pages between last issue’s cliffhanger and actually hearing the will. So now the question is, what does Bendis use those pages for?

The answer, for the most part, is character. It’s slightly cynical, but, as comics have grown shorter and more decompressed, the traditional recipe of a superhero story – discovery, character development, b-plot, and conflict – has become largely untenable. A quality action scene requires at least a few pages and those pages are in short supply.

If a battle sequence is a requirement for you, you’re really better off avoiding this issue. There is a fairly tame action sequence in the middle of the book, but it’s neither here nor there and probably the story’s least interesting moment. No, this issue is all about exploring the X-Men.

Bendis gives us another particularly good example of his trademark wordiness this week, but rather than drag on the issue, it energizes it. Bendis knows exactly what voice he wants to use for the characters he’s using, perhaps even better than he does for the usual cast of this series. Though they tend to run a bit on the casual-side, as Bendis’ dialogue often does, the immediacy that this brings the issue just grabs the reader. There’s an illusion of naturalism that goes a long way.
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Uncanny X-Men #22 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer); Chris Bachalo (pencils); Tim Townsend, Marc Deering, Mark Irwin, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, & Al Vey (inks); Chris Bachalo & Jose Villarrubia (colors)

The battle with S.H.I.E.L.D. comes to an end this week as Cyclops, Beast, Maria Hill, and even Magneto put aside their differences to combat the rouge heli-carriers. Everything comes together this issue as the huge cast of Uncanny X-Men finds its way into the climactic battle.

Bendis does do an impressive job of laying out the stakes. Particularly if you respect Logan’s dream for the Jean Grey School, the threat of annihilation is exceedingly real and present throughout the issue. Likewise, each victory for the X-Men, no matter how small, feels like reason to celebrate, thanks in no small part to the sheer amount of set up that’s led to these crucial moments. The whole affair is appropriately cataclysmic, but Bendis actually gets a couple of nice jokes and fist pumping moments in amongst the gloom. Despite the building feeling that this is the end, a sensation that is all the sweeter for its rarity on this series, Bendis’ plotting has some serious problems.

There’s no denying that this is something of an abrupt ending, and one that deals more in expectations than in actual content. The best example is probably our villain. After last month ended with Beast dramatically announcing that he knew who was behind this, you’d expect that the answer would be fairly forthcoming, but I assure you, you’ve got a bit longer to wait. Despite repeating his certainty on page 5 and again on page 13, Hank isn’t ready to reveal his findings to his fellow X-Men until halfway through page 14…off panel. The scene actually ends with Scott demanding “Who?! Who is it?, leading me to actually throw up my arms on a crowded subway and cry “oh come on.” In actuality it doesn’t take too much longer to learn the identity of the mastermind, but, like much of this series, it’s absurdly and painfully drawn out.

Worst of all, when we finally do meet our villain, it comes out of nowhere, lacks any attempt at motivation, and is largely without value for the title going forward. I respect Bendis as a writer too much to believe it, but it almost feels like he planned this arc without knowing who the villain was himself! More likely, the rushed and confusing resolution is the result of the upcoming “Original Sin” tie-ins. There may be any number of reasons why things turned out this way, but it doesn’t change how flimsy the ending comes across.

Luckily that apocalyptic tone I mentioned is beautifully realized by Chris Bachalo, who provides one of his strongest issues in recent memory. Bachalo starts with an unusually stark style that works wonderfully with the bright simplicity of the Canadian sky. The next scene introduces a little bit of grit into this style before it all breaks loose on the grounds of the Jean Grey School.
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Hulk #3 – Review

By: Mark Waid (Writer), Mark Bagley (Penciller), Andrew Hennessy (Inker), Jason Keith (Color Artist), VC’s Cory Petit (Letterer), Jerome Opena & Dean White (Cover Artists)

The Story:
For a visual summary, simply replace the Hulk on the cover with the Abomination.

The Review: Continuing from the last issue, the Hulk battles the Abomination, and the Avengers join in, allowing for Bagley to draw an extended, and very visceral and physical, fight scene. Nearly every panel of the fight is staged and rendered to provide POWER, and I use the all-caps very purposefully. One key moment– leaving one page with a 3/4-page panel of the Hulk leaping and rearing back with an oversized “SMASH!” balloon, then flipping (swiping?) to receive a full-page splash with the Abomination’s fist/arm full-on in the center. A visual escalation of the narrative of the battle.

Bodies twist, fists are balled, and everything is depicted as solid and massive, as appropriate. Unfortunately, the non-fight scene battles are often confusing and less effective. The shadowy agents of mystery supposedly disappear through the floor, but the figures are nearly completely seen, with no coloring or other visual clues to what’s going on. Moreover, Agent Hill’s eyes (and thus the readers’) are cast away from the page in the previous panel, failing to set us up for this “surprising” revelation. There’s also a few panels when the anatomy gets confusing, or misdrawn.

The story is just as much Maria Hill’s as it is Bruce Banner/Hulk’s. I never really get into too much plot summary when making a review, but I’ll indulge myself– Hill escapes capture thanks to magic, I mean, SHIELD technology that lets you do whatever you need to do at the moment. Apparently, Felix and his Bag of Tricks works with SHIELD R&D. The character representing the voice of reason last issue is told to run along, so Hill can provide exposition to something called “Base” that we never see, and she earns a glowing bracelet as a pickup. The Avengers show up, since it’s been, maybe, a minute or two since the Abomination started the battle, and they notice the Abomination has unconscious-looking eyes that mean someone is controlling him. We learn some hints about the Big Bad who “faced the Hulk on the very day he was born” so some continuity buff somewhere can make a connection unless this is yet another character to be retconned in to sunny New Mexico in 1962. Hill won’t answer Captain America about the Hulk, thereby giving him an answer unspoken, but does explain that somehow Hulk’s healing factor is both healing Banner’s brain and also preventing it from healing. The Abomination is also radiating radiation, so that Captain Marvel, who is supposedly in space right now, wonders what it’s doing to her. And Banner decides to sacrifice his healing brain, as diagnosed by the medical expertise of Maria Hill, and plunge again into battle as the Hulk. After all, he “never give[s] up,” but does, it seems, borrow other people’s shields when he needs them.
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Uncanny X-Men #21 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors); Tim Townsend, Mark Irwin, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, & Al Vey (inks)

The Story: One of these days S.H.I.E.L.D. is just going to give up on helicarriers…but it is not this day.

The Review: After an intriguing but uneven showing last month, things are really heating up in Uncanny X-Men. While the premise of the New Xavier School actively going to war with S.H.I.E.L.D. is an exciting idea, Bendis’ story is playing out in a somewhat different fashion than expected. With Scott’s powers gone haywire and S.H.I.E.L.D. closing in, I think it’s fair to say that things are very much going wrong for Cyclops, however the trick of this issue is that he’s not alone in that.

There’s a rule of storytelling that says that if you can make things worse for your character you should. Certainly it’s hard to deny the potential for building narrative tension, but when you have to make things worse, it can actually get somewhat rote. Still, where many stories feel like the gods of their world hate the protagonist, Uncanny X-Men #21 is the sum of its people’s machinations, their fortunes rising and falling, building a web of fascinating intrigues. Bendis is playing with our expectations, throwing several wrenches into the works, and to great effect. The whole thing feels unexpected and organic.

The issue is also thankfully free of the padding that plagued previous installments. While one could certainly argue that we didn’t need an interlude on Madripoor, watching Mystique struggle on two fronts really sells this issue as an essential read and highlights the interplay of the characters’ differing principles and ideas about the place of mutants in society.
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Avengers # 28 – Review

by Jonathan Hickman (Writer), Salvador Larroca (Artist), Frank Martin with Anres Mossa (Color Artists).

The Story: Hulk Smash, Banner deduce.

The Review: Now this is what I’ve been waiting for! Hickman’s long form Avengers epic has been a frustrating beast at best, I’ve wanted to like it so badly but have often been frustrated by how disparate all of the elements Hickman and his horde of superstar artists have introduced thus far are. I recall being curious but ultimately disinterested during Hickman’s first year on the Fantastic Four title only to be blown away by FF and the confluence of all the seemingly standalone stories that the writer had been crafting. And so it is that I’ve been following Avengers, New Avengers and now Avengers World,  waiting patiently to see how the puzzle pieces fit together.

With issue #28 it seems as though two mysteries are revealed, one to the reader and another to Bruce Banner who’s unravelling of the continued existence of the Illuminati provides the meat of this issue. I’ve often thought of the Avengers as a very epic but ultimately cold book, devoid of much characterisation or humanity but this issue goes a long way to reversing that paradigm by focusing on the conversation between Tony Stark and a Bruce Banner who repeatedly injects himself with tranquillisers in order to keep his monstrous alter-ego at bay. The tension that builds through these scenes is palatable and riveting, bravo to Hickman and Larroca.

The other reveal shows us exactly what the Map-makers are and how they come to be, further marrying the narrative of Avengers to New Avengers and finally giving readers an answer to help orientate themselves within the deluge of mysteries that Hickman has heaped upon us so far in this run. If this issue is an indicator of what to expect from the third act of Hickman’s Avengers saga then I’m cautiously optimistic about what comes next. That last page reveal/cliffhanger should have readers on the edge of their seat like a good episode of 24 or Breaking Bad it’s such a cinematic, ominous can’t-wait-for-the-next-issue reveal.
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Hulk #2 – Review

By: Mark Waid (Writer), Mark Bagley (Penciller), Andrew Hennessy (Inker), Jason Keith (Color Artist), VC’s Cory Petit (Letterer)

The Story: In this corner, weighing in at 980 pounds, the Abomination. In this corner, Hulk. Somewhere in the middle? Maria Hill and S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Review: I was cautiously optimistic after reading the previous issue, as I noticed a certain trope of suspense/horror genre was being used to a good effect: namely, the sidelining of the “monster” to focus on the *effect* of the monster on characters and setting. By the second issue, this sidelining of the monster remains, but gone is the effect. And without it, there is no explicit tone of mystery to maintain a level of distinction for this book.

To be clear, there is still a mystery as the core plot of the book, but there is no overt tone/atmosphere to it. S.H.I.E.L.D. is protecting (and to some extent coddling) a brain damaged Bruce Banner/Hulk, even though the Mysterious Organization of Mystery has found him and sends a newly-reconstituted Abomination after him. However, the cliffhanger suggests the M.O.M. really has it out for S.H.I.E.L.D. instead.

Other things are missing from last issue as well, including the woman who was a key player for the villains. Also? There’s not much time to really explore things– you certainly can’t call this comic “decompressed.” Before the fight with Abomination, we learn it took S.H.I.E.L.D. a month to infiltrate a town pretty extensively, we see some token the affection for Bruce by his new caretakers, some foreshadowing of Bruce’s transformation, and Maria Hill’s arrival and reveal. I am all for non-decompressed stories, but we’re missing out on some big implications. I don’t necessarily care for Bruce’s caretakers or really much for the town in general, and I don’t know why these characters, like Maria Hill, are doing what they’re doing. Sure, it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and all, and they are protecting and serving, I guess, but there’s no sense that they really care about Bruce as a *person.* I feel that Maria Hill cares more about success at her job than truly ensuring peace for Bruce or protection for the town. Maybe it’s there in one panel as she apologizes for instigating the Hulk’s transformation, but this issue seems to care more for a breakneck pace of plot to the detriment of character, setting, tone.

One thing that’s not missing is the storytelling skills of Bagley and the art of Hennessy and Keith. Bagley’s Hulk, and Abomination for that matter, is as visceral and solid-looking as ever, and he brings a sense of power to the characters; the battle is genuinely fun to watch. There are some more attempts of verisimilitude in characters’ expressions, but this remains a bit of a weakness as Bagley usually portrays the characters in “grim” mode more than anything. Camera angles are deliberate, although some opportunities for more atmospheric drama are missed, such as when the Reverend gets his mysterious phone call in the beginning– this is a key plot point that could have been emphasized in the illustration. Also, I’m not a fan of Bagley’s depiction of Bruce, as the sharp cross-hatching creates a gaunt and weathered look even though it “reads” like it wants to be presented as something soft and rounded.
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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E20 – Review

By: Paul Zbyszewski & DJ Doyle (story)

The Story: Ward and Skye attempt to work through their trust issues.

The Review: Okay, it’s official: I don’t care what happens to Ward. Other than an admiration for his godlike chin, which, honestly, will never die, it really doesn’t matter to me on which side of the moral coin he lands. If he comes back to the good guys, fine—we can spend half the second season with everyone as bitter and angry with him as they have been with Skye or May’s betrayals at other points of this show. If he stays bad, that’s fine with me, too; I wouldn’t mind seeing him dead or locked up.

I say all this because revealing Ward as Hydra hasn’t been the magic trick that suddenly made him interesting, as many of us hoped. His sob story about how Garrett saved him from his brother problems is right now still too abstract for us to justify his alliance with (as Skye accurately calls Hydra) a neo-Nazi group bent on ruining a lot of people’s lives for no reason other than their differences in ideology. He can repeatedly say that he owes Garrett all he wants; you’re not going to buy it, not until you see exactly how this rescue worked and probably not even then.
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