Saturday, 15 February 2014


Really wish DC would have some sort of cover bar
so that these all look like a matching set.

It's certainly been long enough since my last rambling comic review post, and I haven't exactly been letting my reading slip since then, so there's more than a few books I'd like to talk about.  For the sake of keeping things brief, I'll stick with four for now.  Firstly, my muddled thoughts regarding DC's divisive Superman/Wonder Woman series, which has just released its fifth issue this month, and then some looks at three of the new start-up series from the All-New Minty Fresh Marvel NOW! initiative, namely Black Widow, X-Force and Ms. Marvel.

WARNING:  The following post discusses - and contain spoilers for - issues 1-5 of Superman/Wonder Woman, issues 1-3 of Black Widow and issue 1 of both X-Force and Ms. Marvel.  Turn back now if you're sensitive, y'big wuss.

Yeah, I've had dates like this.
I.e. the ones where the lady prefers dealing with natural disasters
over spending time in my company.

Superman/Wonder Woman: I don't think I've ever had more sympathy for a creative team than I do for Charles Soule and Tony Daniel, the writer/artist combo behind this series.  The romantic relationship between Clark Kent and Diana of Thema Therxes FUCK Themyscira that Geoff Johns rather off-handedly introduced in Justice League before editorial staff did everything they could to attract mainstream attention with it has been one of the most criticized tweaks to existing DC canon since the 'new 52' reboot (and seriously, guys, it's been like 3 years now, can we get a new name for this?), and being told to craft an ongoing series entirely built around that development/marketing stunt must've been like walking into a thunderstorm and being paid to hold a lightning rod.  While wearing copper boots.  And a t-shirt that says "HI I'M BILLY BATSON, PLEASE SHAZAM ME".

For the record, you can mark me down as being against this particular 'ship.  Partly because I've always believed Diana is a lesbian (as should be her entire Amazonian race, given their society), but moreso because however much we might like to believe the three members of the Justice League 'trinity' are equal, and however much they should be, it's all too easy to see Wonder Woman as the weakest.  She doesn't have a string of big-budget movies to her name, or even a dedicated animated series, she's not fronting a series of mega-popular videogames, and she typically only gets one ongoing comic series to herself, compared with Superman's two and Batman's five hundred or so.  As a result, pairing Wondy with either of those two lunkheads reduces her to being "This Bloke's Girlfriend" rather than them being "Wonder Woman's Boyfriend".  And yeah, I know some people somehow convince themselves that Batman is a better match for her...yeah, no.  Remember, Batman is THE GREATEST HUMAN WHO EVER LIVED and THE BEST AT EVERYTHING HE TURNS HIS HAND TO, so having Wonder Woman be with him just looks like UH HUH SEE BATMAN IS SO AWESOME HE HAS TO HAVE THE BEST POSSIBLE GIRLFRIEND YOU GUYS and the internet continues to fellate a fictional character and I continue scheming how to burn Tumblr to the ground.

...why am I even talking about Batman?  My therapist told me not to.  Anyway, my feelings on this matter aren't nearly as strong as most of the DC faithful's, and the sheer shitstorm surrounding the series' launch piqued my curiousity enough to give it a shot.  Plus, I was promised Faora.  You could convince me to leap stark naked into a volcano if you said there was an armour-plated Antje Traue beneath the lava.

(also the next time caption is hella stupid)

So, what did I find?'s an alright series that's continually on the verge of being something much more fun, yet held back by its commitment to the original pitch.  Soule has a good sense of both title characters individually, so when they speak the 'voices' hit all the right notes - and while I've got at least one other option for current comics featuring a convincing take on Superman (specifically Smallville, which continues to erase the memories of the TV show it began life as), convincing takes on Wonder Woman are harder to come by.  Between the rather bland 'it's Thor but a girl' in Justice League, and the angry war goddess who seemingly always fails in Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, New 52 Diana hasn't exactly come off well; there's been a very firm focus on the idea of her as a warrior, without any thought of the more compassionate or idealistic qualities she's been known for in the past.  I guess it's easier to sell her to male nerds if she's just running around stabbing stuff.  The Diana of SM/WW still stabs a prerequisite number of things, but she's softer and more considerate in her actions without losing her inner steel, and feels so much more personable and alive as a result.

Then there's Hessia.  For reasons known only to himself, Azzarello surrounds his Wonder Woman with an ever-increasing assortment of manly men, and chose to first remove her sister Amazons from the story (by turning them into either statues or snakes) then strip them of their potency as paragons of virtue (by stating they kidnapped sailors to essentially rape, then murder).  It' odd way of approaching the world's best-known female superhero, not one I personally agree with, and it makes Diana having an innocent chat with someone of her own gender a surprising rarity.  Recognizing that Diana needed a damn friend who's not some weird god of something or other, Soule has thrown together a new Amazon who escaped her sisters' fate seemingly just by having left their island long ago (for reasons I hope are developed later), and Daniel's design for her - a tall, defined African-American woman with distinctive buzz-cut blonde hair - is striking and unusual for comics but doesn't look overpoweringly odd.  Her interactions with Diana ring true of how women speak casually to one another - at least slightly-mythological super-strong women, anyway - and her presence lets Diana talk about Amazon-related problems encountered in Azzarello's series, which are typically ignored in other New 52 books and makes his series feel like it's happening in some weird bubble universe.  A little bit of bridge-building goes a long way.  On the Super-side of the fence, Clark still has his little web start-up with Cat Grant, whom Soule writes just narcissistic enough to be fun but not irritating, and there's some business with her boyfriend which has Future Villain Plot smeared all over it.  Also, DOOMSDAY BONERS.

The plot moves steadily, despite the frequency of splash pages that minimize captions, and Daniel's art generally impresses.  He's doing what seems to be DC's house style at the moment, which is very reminiscent of Jim Lee, but he has a good eye for detail and makes the big moments feel big.  That said, some of his layout choices are puzzling, in particular the first page of issue 4, which is split between two close-ups of Clark and Diana's faces with no background or context, and their expressions are so blank it's distracting.  Moments like that are in the minority, though.  What does let the series down, though, it's...well.

Isn't being together supposed to make you two HAPPY?

It's this relationship.  It's just not working.  Like I said, Soule knows how to write both characters individually, but putting them together and making their interactions smoulder like a (relatively) young couple should is beyond him.  On the occasions when they're together and not doing superhero stuff, the whole book grinds into a much lower gear while they stiltily talk about how they can both lift heavy things and wear tights, and they need to keep everything a secret because Superman is letting Batman's paranoia rub off on him or something and ugh.  It's not like Soule can't make two characters interact in an interesting way.  I've just been saying how much I love all the Diana/Hessia moments, and the Clark/Zod scene in issue 4 is great, with Zod playing innocent to the suspicious Superman before revealing his true colours and getting one over on Clark in a legitimately clever way, which then leads into Faora's arrival, and despite being a villain Zod's dialogue conveys more genuine love and concern for his subordinate/main squeeze than we've seen from the stars of the book over all the issues so far combined.  That probably isn't supposed to be happening, unless this is all actually a long game plot to have Clark and Diana split up but still be friends, and reset the series to just being a team-up book like Superman/Batman.

And, y'know, I'd totally read that, because Soule and Daniel, for the most part, know how to do superhero books.  They know these characters.  They know how to make interesting villains, and when they can just do that this book feels great.  But the maddening need to divert back to super-sexytimes at least once per issue drags everything down, and I'm starting to wish we could just throw these creators onto a different series with either (or both!) characters, and let someone else take a stab at making the 'power couple' schtick work.

...which would have been a great way to leave this discussion behind, except that issue 5 came along and further dampened my mood.  Which is funny, because on paper, this one should be great; there's almost zero relationship talk, plenty of action, and Faora.  And yet, somehow, it's a big ol' disappointment.  The whole thing feels like 30 pages of wheelspinning, with Daniel going seriously overboard on the splashes and Zod putting his plan on hold so he can just sort of float around a bit.  There's some nice Zod/Faora moments, but beyond that the whole issue boils down to "baddies run away from goodies, goodies catch up, they fight a little, baddies run away again, goodies let them go".  Diana gets more space to herself, and fights a big red thing, but there's no real reason for it.  And in case you were thinking that a Wonder Woman vs. Faora throwdown would save the whole thing, they barely touch each other.  Ugh.  There's probably only one more issue left for the Zod/Faora story and I really have no idea how Soule can organically end it there without the whole endeavour feeling insanely rushed.

Ignore the watermark, focus on the kewl spy stuff.

Black Widow:  The Widow is one of those Marvel characters who seems to turn up everywhere, even before she had movie credits attached to her, but never quite makes the leap to being a leading lady in her own right, and I honestly don't know why.  She's got the looks, she's got enough vaguely-defined skills to handwave almost any feat of acrobatic ingenuity, her history is darker and twistier than a hall of mirrors with all the lights broken and you can easily put her up against Marvel's insanely huge back catalogue of Russian villains.  She's had a few turns at her own solo series in the past - I loved Richard K. Morgan's grim, revisionist, vaguely Bourne Identity-ish take, and though I haven't read quite all of it Marjorie Liu's sophisticated and (dare I say it?) sexy run from only a few years back was very enjoyable too, but neither of them lasted all that long.  Maybe it's just pure sexism, or maybe typical comic buyers being iffy about putting money down on a series that's more spy fiction than superheroics, I don't know, but at least Marvel aren't willing to give up on Natasha without a fight.  So now she's back again, with Nathan Edmondson writing and Phil Noto arting it up.

The hook this time around is that Natasha's conscience is bothering her, and so she's using the money from freelance jobs to pay reparations to a network (her 'web') of persons and parties hurt by the bad things she's done in the past.  It's an idea previously explored in an Avengers Assemble arc by Kelly Sue DeConnick, though the handling feels different enough here to not create feelings of deja vu.  The three issues released so far (over a very short window) have been very self-contained, so don't worry if you're looking for print copies and can't find number one, you're not missing some vital chunk of backstory or whatever.

Fancy taking the dip into this series?  Then prepare to see a lot of the above.

Edmondson's writing on Widow is...alright.  Which sounds just awful when I say it like that, but I really don't know quite how to explain it further.  There's nothing glaringly wrong with how the book is written - there are no beats that feel out of sequence, no plotting that's too confusing to follow, no inexplicable shifts in character and so on.  And it all moves along at a fair clip, so each issue's story feels very satisfying in its length.  But it's all so very mechanical...granted, it's early days yet, but I'm already feeling fatigued of the fixed routine established here.  Natasha says she's done bad things, then talks to her agent, then does a cool spy job, then goes back to her apartment and talks to a cat, then stares at a spider making a web because symbolism.  Eat, sleep, assassinate, repeat.  The jobs themselves are interesting enough, though Natasha is presented as so hyper-competent and the villains are such no-name schlubs that her success is a foregone conclusion.  What really lets the side down is the dialogue, which is just lifeless.  No, I don't mean it's not funny.  It doesn't need to be.  It just needs to feel natural and real and apt for the story, and in a book that carries itself with the sophistication that Widow does, the uncultured bluntness of the words Edmondson's putting in these characters' mouths seems out of place.  My breaking point came in issue three, where after repeatedly telling us in her narration monologue that she's 'cold-blooded', Natasha says "I'm cold-blooded" out loud at some guy she's only just met.  Who says that?  Ever?  It's not noirish or playing off some stylistic trope, it's just weird.

And yet, I still like the book, which is an indicator of just how much Noto's art adds to the story.  Gorgeous.  Haunting.  Majestic.  There aren't enough hyperbolic adjectives to express just how much I love what Noto's been doing on this book.  He's got a very photo-realistic eye for his linework, but the way said lines are inked softens things to a more impressionist point that, coupled with the sepia-tone colouring, gives these panels an Autumnal glow that's somehow both warm and cold.  In a further nice touch, his action beats are highlighted in a blood red wash, with the inking becoming more clearly-defined while also leaving sketchy lines of jagged motion that accentuate the severity of the violence without requiring anything OTT or gruesome.  And his layout choices are basically perfect.

I'm not even gonna joke about this.
Just sit there and admire.

Is that enough?  Can you justify dropping cash on a comic with weak scripts just because it looks great?  Well, I don't know about you, but I sure can.  And I live in hope that Edmondson's holding back some great ideas that'll kick the narrative into overdrive from issue four onwards.  But even if not, Noto's tour de force makes Widow a rare treat.

In X-Men Legacy #23, Si Spurrier bemoaned how so many superhero tales boil down to who punches hardest.
In X-Force #1, Si Spurrier says 'to hell with it' and joins the party.

X-Force:  I have written before of my love for all things Simon Spurrier (which reminds me, I really need to do another of these posts for Numbercruncher and/or Six-Gun Gorilla...), so the conclusion of his wonderful, thought-provoking, heart-breaking ugly duckling of a mutabook, X-Men Legacy, left me in dire straits...orrrrr it would have done if his next X-book hadn't hit shelves on the very same day.  Yay convenient scheduling!

Compared to David Haller's confused wanderings and byzantine scheming, X-Force - in its 7th or 8th rebranding - has a very specific mission statement and wastes little time getting into more conventional spandex scrapes, but this is still a Spurrier book so of course it's by no means simple.  Starting with the premise that all nations on Earth use metahuman operatives for black-ops wetwork shenanigans (e.g. Secret Avengers, MI-13, Omega Flight), Spurrier further posits that mutants, despite living all over the world and having no governing body, are still viewed as a nationality in their own right, which means they're part of this shadowy game whether they want to be or not.  And given that the usual bigotry makes them such easy scapegoats, it's perhaps high time they returned fire.  Enter the all-new X-Force of Cable (robo-armed one-eyed gruffster with the mutant power to kill anyone at 20 paces just by trying to explain his backstory), Psylocke (English-Japanese telepath ninja who can create pink glowy swords with her mind yet still carries a normal sword because who the hell knows), Fantomex (he's French and his brain is a flying saucer or something) and Marrow (punk-rocker adrenaline junkie who shares Doomsday's boner powers) to forge a peaceful tomorrow by murdering everyone today.  Or maybe something a little less drastic.

"I am through with killing!  And that's why I'm waving a sword around!
Because irony!"

While X-Force's relative lack of twisty-turniness makes it feel a little less like a full-on Spurrier project than Legacy did right from the start, the demands of a team book let the man stretch a few more sets of literary muscles.  In particular, even from this one issue each character has a very distinct 'voice' - oh, sure, it's easy to just drop some random French into Fantomex's speech balloons and call it a day, but the clipped, measured phrases uttered by Cable sell the nature of this giant slab of bullet bands and scarred-up meat far more effectively than any number of 'firing a huge gun off the page with mouth open in animalistic shriek' panels could.  I've always been fond of Cable, even considering every stupid development he's been through over the years, and while this is pretty far removed from the arrogant but self-deprecating struggling omnibrained messiah-to-be of Fabian Nicieza's wonderful Cable & Deadpool (my personal favourite take on the man), it's almost certainly the best distillation of the 'pure' grouchy gunslinger Cable.  Meanwhile, Psylocke emerges as 'the sensible one', Marrow is forever chatting and giggling like an excitable child who's just figured out what a flamethrower does, and oh the gods are smiling on us this day for Dr. Nemesis is back in Spurrier's claws, where he's always at his ludicrous, pedantic, snarking best.  The good doctor's only got two panels this issue but he steals them both, to no surprise.

Rock-He Kim (I can't tell if that name sounds more Masters of the Universe or more Thundercats) handles the art duties, and this is my first experience of his work.  It's doubtless been said before, but with the painterly style, relative photo-realism and slate-grey colour palette, there's a definite similarity to Adi Granov's art on Iron Man: Extremis, although Kim draws his characters with a more animated influence to their features which, admittedly, doesn't always look so great.  That said, his action beats are pleasingly brutal, and the muted colours fit the subject matter and the tone (which is still pretty grim despite Spurrier's anarchic humour).

No binoculars?  No camo netting?  No box of Jaffa Cakes in case
it's a long night and you're peckish?  Betsy, you are the worst spotter EVER.

X-Force #1 is successful in every way a debut issue needs to be.  The cast is introduced and firmly established, the 'ground rules' are laid down succinctly, the primary action beat is based around a nice and simple smash-n-grab, and there's enough whiz-bang on display for Kim to show off what he can do.  I'm not much of a fan of the X-Men stable at large - blame Wolverine for that, he ruins everything - but some of its fringe characters are interestingly quirky, and Spurrier is simply the best writer at turning those quirks into full-fledged personalities that you'll give a damn about.  Plus, y'know, it'd probably be best to get on board before this series starts getting helluva weird.

And yes, that is a safe bet.  This is the man who gave the world Lobster Random.  Of course it's going to get weird.  And I'm gonna love it.


Ms. Marvel:  The worst thing about trying to break new ground in comics is the predictable response from naysayers - "You're trying too hard!"  Yeah, sure, because new characters in fiction aren't normally designed, they are simply born, willed into being by some primal universal intelligence which the writers and artists are then just sort of stuck with.  Maybe said intelligence is actually a Nazi, hence the absurd proliferation of Aryan males in comics.  Orrrr maybe that's a load of claptrap I just made up, and comic creators are mostly white guys who create characters that are mostly white guys because they know how white guys think and white guys talk and white guys white guys oh god oh god I'm a white guy I'M a white guy what do I do, how do I get the stink off me ahhh - !

There was a point to that.  It'll come back to me.

Anyway - while much of the media focus on the new Ms. Marvel was (quite rightly) centered around her Muslim status, for me that wasn't really a factor, for good or ill.  Face it, if the pitch starts with, "new legacy character taking Captain Marvel's old name because she's an in-universe fangirl of Captain Marvel" then you could follow it up by making her half-Brazillian and half-jellyfish, and have her worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I'd still buy it because CAROL CORPS 4 LYFE.  The sweet preview art and getting a woman to write it (always a bonus) was just the cherry on top.

Is it a sign that I'm getting old or more sophisticated that
small chatty scenes like this mean more to me than superpunchmageddonthings?

Now, full disclosure, despite what I literally just said about always liking seeing more women in creative roles in comics, I hadn't actually read anything by G. Willow Wilson before, nor had I particularly searched her out.  I am the world's crappiest supporter of female empowerment.  On the plus side, this made her Ms. Marvel work a pleasant surprise.  The first issue doesn't feel like it's in any hurry to get leading lady Kamala Khan into costume, yet it crams in plenty of interesting worldbuilding without feeling overstuffed.  Kamala herself is a brilliant creation, with just the right sort of firecracker wit for a teen without going overboard into the world-weary cynicism of an adult, and her duelling desires to be in with the 'cool kids' and not upset her very traditional-minded parents is framed in a way that (and I stress this is important) you don't have to know a single thing about her religion to understand what she's going through.  The Muslim angle does give Kamala's story a distinct flavour, but it's not the core thread; that's something more universal, the feeling of being pulled between two opposite-polarity parties without wanting to upset either one.  Wilson sells the hell out of that, and establishes Kamala's extended family, her friend/confidante Bruno, and a Jock/Cheerleader couple who ring so embarassingly true of clueless folk trying really hard to be courteous to people they see as 'different', who from the outside react to Kamala and co. like they're a bunch of visiting aliens.  I laughed, albeit with the slightly sobering knowledge that I've been that guy.

As if that wasn't enough, Adrian Alphona is drawing this book and he is drawing the living hell out of it.  Alphona's style is a very curious fusion of ideas; he switches freely between extreme detail and cartoonish simplification, often between individual panels on the page, but he doesn't do so on a whim and the leaps are always timed for when the simpler lines/expressions will work best.  He's also got a good eye for negative space, and despite the comic's fairly domestic setting (not just by lack of underground lairs or space stations - Kamala lives in New Jersey, the much flatter alternative to Manhattan proper) there's near-kaleidoscopic variety of colour on display, and when Alphona gets to bring in some heavy-hitter guest stars during the climactic sequence, he doesn't disappoint.  It's probably one of the most delightfully trippy pages I've seen in years.

Much like Kamala, I also faint in the presence of fog.
Though this is less to do with superpowers and more to do
with being terrified of steam trains.

I've seen a fair few reviews advising their readers to go pick up Ms. Marvel #1 because there simply aren't enough female-led titles being published by the 'big two' right now, or there aren't enough POC-led books, or both.  Which is very true.  But, I think it bears stressing that the main reason you should be giving Ms. Marvel a shot is that it's really, really good and work of this quality should never be ignored.  This feels like the beginning of something major, and in years to come you might regret missing the chance to get in on the ground floor.

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