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Fantastic Four #4 – Review

By: James Robinson (Writer), Leonard Kirk (Penciller), Karl Kessel and Jay Leisten (Inkers), Jesus Arburtov (Color Artist), VC’s Clayton Cowles (Letterer)

The Story:
Firstly, the Frightful Four and Fantastic Four fight, in furious and four-color fullness; Subsequently, S.H.I.E.L.D. serves a summons for a civil suit.

The Review:
My criticism regarding issue #3 detailed its somewhat formless and needlessly multiple plot threads. Thankfully, that criticism is completely absent here, as the comic focuses on one central moment, a massive slugfest between two powerful teams, and its collateral damage, the most serious of which is S.H.I.E.L.D. threatening the Fantastic Four with a lawsuit.

And what a massive slugfest it is. This comic is full of spectacle, with several blows from villains and heroes, toppling buildings and civilian rescuing, and all the cracking energy, speed lines, smoke you’d need to create an intense, high-stakes tone with participation from all the players on both sides of the battle. One particularly effective moment is the choice of small panels to set up the page-turn reveal of the “second string” FF, complete with a dramatic panel and color palette change for emphasis. (Unfortunately, the size relationships among the characters in that panel ruin the dramatic moment, as more context or a more extreme camera angle might be needed to help Ant-Man’s giant-size “read” better.)

It’s more than just a good fight scene, as care is taken to render facial expressions and relationships, too. When the comic’s subplots show up here, it’s in context of the main storyline/battle, so whether it’s Johnny’s frustration or Sue’s desire to protect her family, or even the Wizard’s gloating or Bulldozer’s determination, the characterization flows through the action thanks to the artistic expression.
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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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Uncanny X-Men #1 – Review

UNCANNY X-MEN #1

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors), Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza & Al Vey (inks), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  An inside man approaches Maria Hill with an offer to help take down Scott Summers.

The Review:  One of the concerns I had about this book going in was the way it would differentiate itself from All-New X-Men.  Yes, I realize it wouldn’t feature the time traveling teens, but Cyclops and his gang have appeared quite a bit in that book such that having them star in this one seemed to be some serious overlap.  Thankfully, Bendis quickly dispels this concern.  It’s not so much that Cyclops team are front and center, which they are, but rather that the tone of the book has been subtly altered.  While part of it may be due to Bachalo’s artwork, with its muddy colors and its lack of distinct, clean lines (as opposed to Immonen and Marquez on All-New), the big reason for this is the subtle change in tone.  The book feels more shadowy, more “underground,” and a touch more edgy.  The humour isn’t there and the soap opera of All-New is shifted into something that’s a little closer to twisty, spy-thriller dramatics.  All-New is the above-ground, flagship story.  Uncanny is what happens beneath and on the revolutionary fringes that Cyclops and his team currently occupy.
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Indestructible Hulk #2 – Review

INDESTRUCTIBLE HULK #2

By: Mark Waid (Writer), Leinil Francis Yu (Artist), Gerry Alanguilan (Inker), Sunny Gho (Colorist), Chris Eliopoulos (Letterer)

The Review: At one point in this issue Bruce Banner wryly remarks that “You wouldn’t like me when I’m happy.” Ah Brucey, nothing could be further from the truth – you seemed pretty content in #1 and I haven’t enjoyed a Hulk comic that much in years. Still, maybe he has a point, as Banner later goes on to show that even when he’s happy there’s a still a few scores that he feels can only be settled with his fists. To recap, happy or angry, the end result is still lots and lots of smashing. It’s the one inescapable element of the character that even the mighty Mark Waid seems unable to reconcile within Indestructible Hulk’s new direction; the beast has to come out, even if it makes zero sense to the story he’s trying to tell.
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Hawkeye #4 – Review

By: Matt Fraction (story), Javier Pulido (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colors), and Chris Eliopoulos (letters)

The Story:  There’s a tape out there of Clint doing some very bad things for SHIELD and someone has put it up for auction.

The Review:  Matt Fraction is a pretty divisive writer among the online comics intelligentsia, particularly since Fear Itself.  He’s not at Bendis-levels yet, but he’s getting there.  Of course, the problem for those with a firm distaste for Fraction is that Hawkeye has been an excellent comic book.  So what to do?  After all, Matt Fraction can’t write a good Marvel comic!  The explanation was simple:  the book was only good thanks to David Aja’s efforts.  Everything that made this book a good one could be attributed to Aja.

Well, bad news folks; David Aja is out of the picture this month and you know what?  This book still rocks.
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Avengers #34 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (story), Brandon Peterson,  Mike Mayhew, Jim Cheung, Leinil Yu, Mark Morales, Mike Deodato, Olivier Coipel, Terry Dodson & Walter Simonson (art), Scott Hanna & Rachel Dodson (inks), Jason Keith, Laura Martin & Paul Mounts (colors), and Cory Petit (letters)

The Story:  The Avengers work to escape the microverse after one more big fight with centaur kingpin Lord Gouzar.

The Review:  I’m a big fan of Bendis and, as such, I’ve stuck with his Avengers books for a long, long time now.  Suffice it to say, it’s been a rocky road with highs and lows.  With that said, he’s done a lot for the franchise and so I really do wish I could give a glowing review for this giant-sized farewell issue.  I mean, the sheer amount of heart he puts into his lengthy farewell letter at the end of the issue makes me really want this issue to be a great one.  But it isn’t.

Quite honestly, it’s been pretty clear for a while now that Bendis perhaps overstayed his welcome on Avengers; ideas were being recycled, certain issues felt phoned in, and this issue really only evidences that fact.  Everything just feels so derivative and phoned in that it’s hard to believe much passion and effort went into its creation from Bendis.  Given how sincere his farewell letter was, you’d figure that he’d really try to blow us away with this issue, but perhaps he just doesn’t have it in him anymore.
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Indestructible Hulk #1 – Review

By: Mark Waid (Writer), Leinil Francis Yu (Artist), Gerry Alanguilan (Inker), Sunny Gho (Colorist), Chris Eliopoulos (Letterer)

The Review: By the fifth page of Indestructible Hulk #1 I was sold; sold on whichever weird locales Mark Waid wants to take me to and whichever artist he wants us to hitch a ride with. It was a subtle build-up to that point – a Banner talking head, probably the smallest panel in the whole issue with the focus falling on its first line of dialogue: “I’m incurable.” A Gamma-mutated monkey was wrenched from the character’s back in that moment my friends. No more Hulk vs. Banner! That concept’s been cut open, peeled apart and roughly stitched back together so many times that we’ve been desensitized to the vivisection. It’s one of many tried and tested themes (that have oftentimes dragged various Hulk titles into predictable patterns) which Waid ably sidesteps in the interests of rebranding the character as a major player in the Marvel universe, recognised as much for his brains as his brawn. And that’s all before the smashing even starts!
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Captain America #1 – Review

By: Rick Remender (story), John Romita Jr. (pencils), Klaus Janson (inks), Dean White (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  Steve Rogers unwittingly escapes the prospect of marriage by hopping onto a train to…..DIMENSION Z!!!!!

The Review:  “Bold new direction” is sort of a buzz-line that is a dime a dozen in comics solicitations and promotion and, more often than not, it’s a gross exaggeration, if not an outright lie.  Frankly, of all the Marvel NOW relaunches thus far, Thor: God of Thunder has been the only one to live up to that phrase thus far.  Well, you can now add Captain America to that list.

Ed Brubaker, having been on Cap for 8 years, basically established what felt like “the Captain America story.”  It was all too easy to see Cap fall to the same pattern that Daredevil did pre-Waid, with new writers working within a particular mold with ever diminishing returns.  I’m glad we were able to skip all that creative quicksand this time around, jumping headfirst into the paradigm shifting run that reshapes the property’s landscape entirely.
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New Avengers #33 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (story), Michael Avon Oeming (art), Rain Beredo (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story: Daniel Drumm continues to wreak havoc as Dr. Strange looks increasingly murderous to SHIELD.

The Review:  Without a doubt, the star of this issue is the artwork.  Of course, I’m also left thinking how bloody WEIRD this arc is going to look when it’s collected, as we’ve gone from artists as wildly different from each other as Michael Gaydos to Carlos Pacheco to, now, Michael Avon Oeming.  And apparently next issue, we’re going to Mike Deodato, because why not?
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New Avengers #32 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (story), Carlos Pacheco (pencils), Roger Martinez, Cam Smith, & Scott Hanna (inks), Rain Beredo (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  Our mysterious body-snatching villain wreaks absolute chaos at Avengers Mansion.  Also, someone dies.

The Review:  Anyone who’s followed Bendis’ Avengers books for an extended period of time know that it’s been an uneven ride and often a rough one.  That being said, I proudly confess to being a fan of the man, willing to give a look at just about anything the man does.  Given that he’s written three of my favourite comic runs of all time (Alias, Powers, and Daredevil), I feel I owe it to the man.  As such, I’m really happy to see that he’s closing out his New Avengers run in style.

This arc of New Avengers really does deliver Bendis’ strengths without the weaknesses – the characters feel human, more friends than team-mates, and there’s a personal touch to the characters throughout.  I also love the fact that it’s a mystic storyline.  Bendis ramps that aspect of the story up this month, with battles in the astral plane and even a light touch of horror, as mind controlled persons are forced to do bad things to themselves and others.
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Captain America #16 – Review

By: Ed Brubaker & Cullen Bunn (writers), Scot Eaton (pencils), Rick Magyar (inks), Guru Efx (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  Cap finds himself swarmed by brainwashed cable news devotees as Sharon and Dum Dum get to the heart of the smear campaign against him.

The Review:  It’s been hard times for the main Captain America book over the last few months as it’s become increasingly clear that Ed Brubaker has been phoning it in.  Sadly, I think that this may be the worst issue of his justifiably legendary run.

At a fundamental level, the writing is simply poor.  The dialogue and cable TV demagoguery of Reed Braxton is actually painful to read.  It’s ludicrously over the top and completely lacking in subtlety.  This isn’t a case of a guy making nuanced or layered arguments against Cap or superheroes.  No, his speeches are ridiculously blunt and completely and utterly hamfisted.  His accusations have zero evidence, he straight up calls himself the savior of America, and he says very little of substance beyond “Cap sucks.”  There’s no subtlety, no smoke and mirrors, nothing.  The most shameful part is that even Brubaker and Bunn seem to realize that Braxton’s dialogue is so clumsy and heavy-handed that no reasonable person would buy into it.  Instead of just, well, writing better, they’ve decided that it would be easier to just use ye olde mind control crutch.  This of course ultimately means that Braxton and everything he’s saying is actually completely unimportant.  He could literally just stand in front of a camera for an hour and say “Kill Cap” repeatedly and it would yield the same effect.

But what still beggars belief is that given how stupid Braxton’s monologues are, it leaves one wondering how he even GOT on television?  Is there a HYDRA News Network cable station in the Marvel Universe that I’m unaware of?

The worst part of the issue, however, is that Brubaker is also completely content with not just recycling his own material, but recycling material that was used TWO STORY-ARCS ago.  Seriously, we end up seeing Cap struggling against an angry, brain-washed mob suddenly turned against him.  Again.  For goodness sake, we saw just about the same exact scenario in the Mad-Bomb arc earlier this year.  Has Brubaker become that lazy and that starved for ideas?  The mad-bomb arc was basic and unoriginal as is, but we’re already repeating that?  There’s even a scene, once again, of a person distracted by his/her iPhone to the point of being unable to notice the exploding wreckage and general Armageddon surrounding them (….yeah), forcing Cap to dive in for the save.  It’s the same exact sequence that we saw just a few issues ago!  How did editorial even approve that?  Not to mention that that scene was stupid enough of the first time.

The Discordians aren’t any better either.  They’re a visually dull group of bad guys whose sole gimmick is saying that America is broken.  That sounds great, it’s a phrase that has a lot of contemporary resonance….but hey, it’s not like that phrase is ever expanded on or explain, so it’s basically meaningless.

Scot Eaton’s art is solid, but unremarkable.  It’s art that leaves nothing to complain about, but nothing really memorable or jaw-dropping either.  It’s solid art, but not stunning, which is what it would take for it to save this issue.  Patrick Zircher managed to do a lot of heavy-lifting in the last arc of Cap, which was also fairly derivative, and Eaton is not quite at Zircher’s level and lacks Zircher’s more distinct style.  And, well, this story is also worse.

Conclusion:  I never thought I’d truly say this about an issue of Brubaker’s Captain America: “This sucked.”

Grade: D

- Alex Evans

Captain America #14 – Review

by Ed Brubaker (writer), Patrick Zircher & Mike Deodato (artists), Paul Mounts (colorist), and Joe Caramagna (letterer)

The Story: Captain America tries to put down Scourge, not knowing that it’s an old friend under the mask.

The Review:  Who the hell is D-Man and why should I care?

I suspect that’ll be the reaction of most readers to this issue.  Brubaker never tells us who exactly D-Man is, what the nature the nature of his friendship with Cap is, or why we should feel even remotely attached the character (who, thank you Comic Vine, has only appeared twice in Brubaker’s 8 year run).  For some reason, Brubaker has decided that it would make good sense to write an issue, and by extension an entire story-arc, that was contingent on a reader’s being familiar with Mark Gruenwald’s run on Captain America 20 years ago.   Unless a reader has working knowledge of those early 90s stories, he or she is going to be totally in the dark about why D-Man is important.

The result is an issue that I can’t help but feel apathetic about.  Brubaker hasn’t given us a reason to care about D-Man or his fate and never really even seemed to try to.  The HYDRA elements were never explored.  Worse still, this entire issue is basically just one extended punch-up between  Cap and Scourge.  Making the issue feel even more phoned in is the fact that said punch-up ends up being yet another return to the tired old “mind control” comic book trope.  I half expected Steve to cry out to D-Man to “fight it.”  As talented a writer as Brubaker is, it really didn’t seem like he was trying very hard here.  D-Man’s motivations and insane rambling were entirely vapid and trite and we were basically just given a bunch of pages of punching.  And when the tragic ending strikes, who cares?  Maybe those two readers who fell asleep last night hugging onto their twenty-year-old Gruenwald comics, but that’s about it.
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Winter Soldier #6 – Review

By: Ed Brubaker (writer), Michael Lark (penciler), Stefano Gaudiano & Brian Thies (inkers), Bettie Breitweiser (colorist), and Joe Caramagna (letterer)

The Story: So….where the heck is that third sleeper agent?!

The Review:  Between Michael Lark’s dark, moody artwork and Ed Brubaker’s tight narration, I was really struck by how much this issue felt like an issue of Brubaker’s Criminal.  Naturally, that’s a very good thing.  It makes for beaten down characters lost in existential crisis and a general whirlwind of desperation and things constantly going from bad to worse.  In other words, Criminal is noir and so this comic is superhero noir.

Much of this issue is spent establishing new villain, and third sleeper agent, Leo Novokov.  Once again, Winter Soldier succeeds where Brubaker’s Captain America has faltered as of late, as in one issue, we have a very well-established, compelling villain with an interesting backstory and a clear trajectory from sympathetic figure to cold-blooded killer.  Brubaker manages this through a sequence of street-level flashbacks narrated by Leo, a sort of Jason Bourne meets Criminal mash-up.  It’s fantastic watching Leo slowly struggling to figure out who he is, only to have events kick in to dictate to him the answer.  The end result is a character, and a plot, loaded with pathos and ice in the veins.
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Captain America #11 – Review

by Ed Brubaker (writer), Patrick Zircher (art), Paul Mounts (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story: Someone’s leaking SHIELD intel to a vigilante who’s taken to killing reformed criminals in SHIELD’s witness protection program.

The Review:  As another arc of the relaunched Captain America begins, the same problem rears its head again.  Put simply, the story here is far from high concept.  In fact, it’s pretty unoriginal and unimaginative.  At surface level, it’s another story about a Punisher type villain, this time Scourge, who’s KILLING the bad guys and, as such, the heroes have to stop him.  It’s just an extremely basic, familiar premise, much as the core concept behind last arc’s plot (Steve loses his powers) was also extremely basic.  I’m not sure if this is a sign that Brubaker is running out of steam for Cap, but it’s a bit disconcerting how simple the core plot is.

It’s not all bad news however; while the plot may be familiar, there are enough elements and mysteries to it to keep you reading.  The identity of Scourge is completely up in the air and unknown and Brubaker also lets us know that HYDRA is, somehow, involved, but literally tells us no more than some yelling “HAIL HYDRA.”  At the very least, these teases will keep you going and keep you interested in what would otherwise be a fairly by the numbers plot.

Moreover, I’ll admit to being a sucker for “superheroes do detective-work” storylines.  Hell, Batman made a career of it.  There’s always something smart and extremely down to earth about these sorts of stories that I appreciate.  Cap isn’t battling cosmic entities here, nor is he protecting or avenging the deaths of any big name heroes.  Rather, Scourge is killing former criminals under SHIELD’s protection, guys who are either random AIM thugs or D-list, forgotten villains.  The result is a story that feels much smaller, more contained, and hence more focused.  There’s a sense in which the heroes have to put their brains to work here.  There’s also a great scene where Diamondback and Dum Dum visit a crime scene that had a very “Gotham Central” vibe to it.  There’s something innately satisfying about seeing superheroes, particularly in plain clothes, visiting a crime scene, exercising jurisdiction, and looking for clues.  At the very least, it makes for something a little different.
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The New Avengers #26 – Review

by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Mike Deodato (art), Rain Beredo (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  K’un-Lun gets its new Iron Fist as well as a very special guest.

The Review: This issue proves that last issue wasn’t just a fluke, one-issue thing: despite not featuring a single Avenger, being set in the past, and being an event tie-in, this is one of the best New Avengers stories since the relaunch of the title.  Actually, it’s probably my favourite next to the first, Stuart Immonen illustrated arc.

Bendis’ Avengers books have gradually fallen into a creative rut of repetition and stagnation, but this issue, much like the issue before it, allows Bendis to do something totally different: a K’un Lun comic.  The result is a book that is filled with a sense of wonder.  Bendis immerses us into the strange world of prophecy and mysticism that is K’un Lun and the result is an ominous, escapist trip that only comics can provide.

Perhaps the one weakness of this issue is the lack of meaningful character-work, particularly in the case of our redheaded protagonist, who really hasn’t been explored much beyond the surface level.  Oddly, I’m fine with that in the context of this comic.  It’s clear that Bendis has chosen instead to focus on the atmosphere and tone of dread and impending cataclysm; it’s clear that this story, and its characters, are completely driven and controlled by events.  Characterization takes a backseat, but only because the characters are simply pieces in a larger game with the highest stakes.  In this sense, Bendis’ approach actually works for the comic.
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Moon Knight #11 – Review

by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Alex Maleev (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colors), and Cory Petit (letters)

The Story: Buck and Moon Knight go after Madame Masque in order to recover the Ultron head.

The Review:  In it’s penultimate issue (unfortunately), Bendis and Maleev’s Moon Knight is cooking on all cylinders.

The majority of the issue is taken up by a fight between Moon Knight and Madame Masque.  It is elegantly drawn and carries the required, gritty “street level” feel.  It’s well choreographed, but feels just as low-powered as should be.  More than that, Bendis and Maleev really bring home the ludicrous “faux Avengers” fighting style of Moon Knight, including just how bizarrely effective it actually is.

A good part of what makes this issue exciting, however, is that with the death of Echo still casting a shadow on the book and Buck’s being a new Bendis-created character, you really don’t know if everyone is going to make it out alive.  The result is some serious teasing on Bendis’ part – at a couple points, he really does succeed in making you think Buck is a goner.  After all, if Buck went, it wouldn’t even be a blip in the Marvel Universe.

Buck and Marc’s buddy teamwork is also part of what makes the action so much fun.  It’s enjoyable seeing them work as diversions for one another and really, as a no-nothing SHIELD agent, that teamwork only make’s Marc’s fighting style seem all the more ragtag.  Even without much dialogue, the “buddy dynamic” the two share shines through even in their actions.
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Captain America #9 – Review

by Ed Brubaker (writer), Alan Davis (pencils), Mark Farmer (inks), Laura Martin (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  Sharon Carter tries to cut a deal with the devil, Falcon  tries to go solo, and Steve Rogers struggles with being puny.

The Review: With its second arc post relaunch, Captain America has showed steady improvement, once again becoming a solid, entertaining read without any real, glaring faults.

It’s hard not to attribute a lot of this to Alan Davis’ brilliant, timeless artwork.  Davis’ art is not so much pretty as it is classic.  It has a vintage, characterful feel to it that makes the book so much easier to love.  It’s brimming with energy and manages to be nostalgic but not dated, bringing to mind all the pure fun associated with classic stories but also having all the polish of modern comics.

The remarkable thing about Davis’ work though is how it reflects back onto Brubaker’s script, which I think is what’s largely behind the gradual improvement this book has experienced since Davis took over.  In reality, Brubaker is telling a fairly simple story, but it also has a similarly classic, nostalgic tone to it, with “mad bombs,” wacky villains seemingly from a bygone era, and the age-old plot device of a hero having lost his powers.  There’s something distinctly old timey about Brubaker’s story and that suits Davis perfectly.  Due to the perfect synchronization between artist and writer, what might be a very bland comic ends up feeling like a fun tribute to a bygone era.
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Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates #6 – Review

By: Jonathan Hickman (writer), Brandon Peterson and Esad Ribis (artists), John Rauch and Edgar Delgado (colors)

The Story: The Ultimates take a collective breath and say, “Oh, f#@&!”

The Review: Goodness, I really love the concept of the Ultimates. I really think it’s fascinating to watch these imperfect men and women try to live up to the impossible ideals they define themselves by; it’s equally fascinating to watch the world react to these super-people in such a realistic manner. Obviously, this was not the interpretation in Jeph Loeb era, but I choose to ignore that run. Besides, Jonathan Hickman has really returned this book to its philosophical roots, and I’m delighted.

This issue opens on a conversation between Nick Fury and the retired Steve Rogers, discussing all the disasters that have taken place in the last five issues. The outlook is grim. Someone has set off a nuclear bomb just off the coast of Uganda; Southeast Asia has been taken over by mutant supremacists; and Reed Richards has conquered 200 square miles of Europe, destroyed Asgard, and now commands forces that far surpass those of SHIELD and the entire US Military combined. In the face of this, Fury asks Rogers to return as Captain America. But here’s the interesting thing: he’s not asking Captain America the super-soldier, because—let’s face it—there’s not a hell of a lot even Captain America could do about this. Instead, Fury is asking for the help of Captain America the political symbol, to reassure the public and to support Fury’s plans. The conversation displays a great understanding of who these characters are, and what values drive them.

The conflict of realism versus idealism is the driving force of this issue. From Stark facing the superrich he suspects of nuking Uganda, to the Braddocks coping with Captain Britain’s catatonic state, to even Falcon confronting his former colleague Reed Richards, the characters are forced to reconcile the way they would like the world to be, and the way the world is. It’s a powerful theme, and well explored. However, because Hickman is taking his time to explore these themes, it also means this is the second issue in a row with everyone just sitting and talking about what has happened. I’m fine with that, given the enormity of what has passed, but characters need to start being active again soon.
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Avengers #16 – Review

by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), John Romita Jr. (pencils), Klaus Janson (inks), Paul Mounts (colors), and Cory Petit (letters)

The Story: Having gotten a lead, Steve Rogers leads a strike force to claim vengeance against Sin.

What’s Good:  Aside from the first couple of pages, this isn’t really an Avengers comic at all.  Rather, it’s almost entirely a Steve Rogers comic, seeing Steve, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, and Victoria Hand battling Nazis in an old castle.  Quite honestly, I’m perfect fine with that and I’m thrilled Bendis did this.  This is absolutely a comic that needed to be written, as we haven’t really seen much of a focus on Steve Rogers’ reaction to Bucky’s death.  Finally, we see the extent of his grief and inner turmoil, both from his own perspective and those of his friends.  With Brubaker’s new Cap series being divorced from Fear Itself, there really needed to be a Cap tie-in within which we could experience this emotional fall-out, and that’s pretty much what this is.

Bendis also does well in his pacing and framing of this issue, as “emotional fall-out” could’ve easily just been Steve wailing and whining for 22 pages.  In framing the issue within the context of a revenge mission against Sin, Bendis is able to give us enough thrills and the sort of fluid, high-paced action Romita excels at.  The result is a balanced issue, with almost dialogue-free action scenes interspersed by the monologue sequences that have been the staple of these Avengers tie-ins.

The end result is an issue that feels emotionally genuine, while also managing to move along at a brisk pace and remain fairly exciting throughout.
Also, readers familiar with Jonathan Hickman’s recently concluded Secret Warriors will be really, really happy by a cameo towards the end of the issue, which is a really pleasant surprise that promises things to come for a fun character with a lot of potential.
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Fear Itself #4 – Review

by Matt Fraction (writer), Stuart Immonen (pencils), Wade von Grawbadger (inks), Laura Martin (colors), and Chris Eliopoulos (letters)

The Story: The Serpent shows a massive growth in power, and Thor returns to Midgard to make plans with some old friends.

What’s Good:  While I’ve been fairly positive about Fear Itself thus far, I really did feel that with this issue, the plot has really showed momentum.  I think a good part of this development has to do with the fact that over the last three issues, Fraction has really spent a lot of time scene-setting and creating the status-quo for this event.  He needed to show that our heroes had their backs well and truly up against the wall against massive odds.  Last month, Bucky Barnes’ death was truly the final nail in the “shit just got real” coffin, and the scene setting was complete.

So when we see Fury, Thor, Black Widow, Steve, and Iron Man talking tactics and plans, there’s a really satisfying and comforting sense of the story becoming better defined and moving forward.  It’s as though while we’ve seen that things are bad, it’s this month where we start to learn what the Avengers plan on doing about it.  Hence, there’s more story and character than big action and explosions.

But there certainly are big explosions.  Immonen’s art is gorgeous and characterful as ever (and includes a couple of really cool layout decisions), but he and Fraction really hit the big notes well.  Thor’s literal fall to Midgard, Steve’s being back in the Captain America uniform, the Serpent’s transformation, and the holocaust inflicted on the Atlanteans all really hit home and come across as truly large and epic in scale.  There aren’t just blips in the plot, they’re the big occurrences that are the bread and butter of a successful comic book event.

Then there’s Tony’s sacrifice to Odin, which is certainly a surprise and striking in its own way.
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Fear Itself #3 – Review

by Matt Fraction (writer), Stuart Immonen (penciller), Wade von Grawbadger (inker), Laura Martin & Larry Molinar (colorists), and Chris Eliopoulos (letterer)

The Story: A major Marvel hero dies at the hands of Skadi/Sin, the final member of the Worthy is chosen, and Thor tries to escape prison and rush to Midgard’s aid.

The Review:  I’ve really been enjoying Fear Itself thus far, but I’ve been pretty honest in saying that the sub-text and tone of the story was often more interesting than the hammer-laden story itself.  I’ve really loved that inclusion of desperation and anxiety that has made the book feel relevant, current, and a surprisingly smart read.

So yeah, cue my disappointment when Fraction basically forgets about that sub-text altogether this month, instead focusing on the Worthy stomping about with their hammers and a crapload of action scenes.  It’s not a bad comic in itself, but certainly a letdown given what we’ve been getting, as the book immediately becomes less nuanced and a whole lot simpler.  It’s dangerously close to going from being a book that’s a reflection of the times, to being “just another” superhero comic event.

There’s a lot of fighting, yes, but things also seem to move slowly.  Thor’s inevitable escape from Asgard seems a little more long-winded than it needed to be, for example.  In other cases, pre-event hype hurts the book: the identity of the last member of the Worthy, crowned this month, has been known for quite some time now.  I mean, even the book’s cover more or less gives it away.

On the other hand, there are definitely things to like about the issue.  The ending, for example, is very well plotted and sequenced and delivers the “shit just got real” effect that was clearly intended, particularly given the deceased characters’ identity and his/her last words.  Things definitely feel a lot more dangerous and the superhero community, and the world itself, continues to look vulnerable and truly in danger, not an easy feat in superhero comics.   While some might have predicted it, the death is nonetheless one that’ll hit home for a lot of readers, as it should.

The end result is one that shows much of what the last page of last month’s issue told.  That is, it emphasizes the powerlessness of the Marvel Universe’s heroes in the face of this threat.  From the Hulk running rampant and tossing Betty around, to the major Marvel characters who die and transform to join the Worthy, to a pitiful last stand late in the issue, the point is driven home.
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Secret Warriors #26 – Review


by Jonathan Hickman (writer), Alessandro Vitti (art), IFS (colors), and Dave Lanphear (letters)

The Story: Trapped in each other’s company and facing certain death, Nick Fury and Baron Strucker have an important conversation, one that leads to a few very big surprises.

The Review:  The biggest problem I have with this issue of Secret Warriors sort of has more to do with how Hickman’s brand of storytelling in some ways makes the single-issue format into an obstacle.  With so many bits of information and important scenes having been haphazardly spread across two years worth of issues, it can be difficult to fully appreciate an issue like this one, one that draws upon moments spread across the series’ run.  Frankly, it can be hard to fully remember everything that this issue recollects, which in all honest does rob the major reveals of some of their impact.  I almost feel like once this series ends, I need to re-read the entire thing to get the full effect of Hickman’s work.

That said, the reveal this month is substantial enough to pack a mighty wallop nonetheless.  It comes right out of left field and it changes the ball-game entirely as the series heads to its conclusion.  It also shows just how damn good a spy Nick Fury actually is and seeing Strucker gasping in disbelief is so, so awesome.  Many of Hickman’s best moments in Secret Warriors have involved showing Nick Fury for the cunning badass that he is, and certainly, this is one of those moments.

It’s also hard to have a bad issue when the entirety involves Fury and Strucker locked in a room together, attempting one up each other while throwing the occasional verbal barb.  These are two great characters and scenes like these allow them to cement that fact.  The character dynamic and the conflict of personalities here is a treat to watch.  Certainly, Strucker’s quick and vaguely slimy attempt at cooperation and Fury’s steadfast and grizzled, stubborn resolve makes the conversation all the more appealing.  Of course, having a story play out with such a small cast and environment also forces Hickman to sharpen his narrative focus, which is also a good thing.
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Secret Warriors #25 – Review


by Jonathan Hickman (writer), Alessandro Vitti (art), IFS (colors), and Dave Lanphear (letters)

The Story: The origins of Leviathan are revealed in a team-up of epic proportions.

The Review: Secret Warriors #25 is a very interesting issue, if for no other reason that it once again points to Jonathan Hickman carving his own little corner in the Marvel Universe.  His idiosyncratic SHIELD series bleeds over into Secret Warriors this month, and the result is that much of what makes that series good bleeds over.  That and, at a more basic level, it’s just pretty damned cool seeing Hickman’s hidden city and Leonardo Da Vinci in Secret Warriors.  It even threatens to make SHIELD feel less cryptic and inaccessible in a way, but I digress.  The presence of Da Vinci in particular (though he’s never actually named as such) makes everything seem way heavier and more significant and given the scope of SHIELD, it raises the game, and the stakes, as far as Secret Warriors is concerned.  Given that we’re heading to the series conclusion, that’s definitely a good thing.

As far as the plot goes, this is an issue that really lives up to the “Wheels Within Wheels” moniker.  Seeing all the power players of the Marvel spy-world working together under Da Vinci, regardless of what side they may be on, is damned cool.   Seeing Kraken, Baron Strucker, Fury, and hand ninjas all the same team is awesome and makes their shared goals seem all the more important.  Oh, and you even get to see who’s behind Kraken’s mask.

Unlike what has often been the case with the series, the story is still very large this month, but it’s also focused enough to feel excited about.  The characters are easy to root for, if for nothing but name value, and seeing the birth of Leviathan feels important.  And that’s the meat of it really: this issue feels important, not tangential or digressive.  That’s no small feat given that many of the series characters play no role this month and almost the entire issue is a flashback.  It’s an issue that feels vital and exciting and fully comprehensible, despite the massive and largely unfamiliar cast and the non-linear nature of it.
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Invincible Iron Man #33 – Review

by Matt Fraction (writer), Salvador Larroca (art), Frank D’Armata (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story: Tony takes the Resilient on a test drive as he tries to escape Detroit Steel and his horde of drones.

What’s Good: I realize that a lot of people have complained regarding the pace of this arc.  While I can’t say that they’ll be entirely relieved by this issue, this was an exciting installment and one that had a big, big development in the story that was a real shocker.  It’s a major development that adds a whole new depth to this arc as a whole.  Not only is a big jump in terms of story progression, but it also may give unsatisfied readers the scope that they want.  Basically, we see the interesting return of one old Iron Man villain and the absolutely shocking return of another.  It’s good stuff that has me excited.

Oh, and there’s a big, Iron Man-powered car chase that’s a heck of a lot of fun.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Watching Tony drive his car with Detroit Steel and co. in tow is a blast to read and full of cinematic flair.  All of this is buoyed by Matt Fraction’s confidence; his comfort and consequent ease with Tony makes the book flow all the better and make everything feel natural.

Beyond that, the issue, and the back-up story in particular, once again highlight Fraction’s obsession with near-future/present-day technology.  From the Detroit Steel cell-phone app to the smartphone based back-up, the issue feels incredibly modern, sleek, and relevant.  It’s a comic that could only come in 2010.

On art, this is an action-based comic featuring tons of machines, robots, cars, etc blowing the crap out of Seattle.  In other words, it’s Salvador Larroca in his element and doing what he does best.  The end result is a very pretty looking issue.
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Secret Warriors #21 – Review

by Jonathan Hickman (writer), Mirko Colak & Alessandro Vitti (art), Andres Mossa & IFS (colors), and Dave Lanphear (letters)

The Story: Nick Fury and the kids try to make good their escape and Phobos clashes katanas with Gorgon.

What’s Good: This issue is basically one gigantic action scene or, more accurate, one extended escape attempt.  As such, the book has a fast, frenetic pace that really feels frantic and desperate.  In that sense, it’s a fun, exciting, and easy read.  Don’t expect to have your brain challenged, but this is basically Jonathan Hickman going Michael Bay on us without tumbling cars in the air.

There’s also a really cool sword fight at the end of the issue that is genuinely epic.  The conclusion of it was breath-taking, leading to a really big ending for the issue and a really important event for the series, unless we’re being baited.

Part of the reason this sword fight is so enjoyable is Hickman’s use of Phobos’ prophetic abilities, which also lends a very engaging tone to the entire issue.  Fury’s escape route’s being dictated on the fly by Alex and what he has “seen” was both effective and foreboding.
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