Sunday, 11 October 2015

Comic Musing: The SECRET WARS Retrospective Post (Updated)

Doom's signalling for the Cosmic RKO!

So!  Secret Wars, then.  Since I finally wrapped up my exhaustive preview blog, Marvel's big summer event lurched into life...and kept lurching, and still is lurching even as summer becomes a hazy memory.  What was once an 8-issue series (not the 12-issue one I somehow thought it was...sorry) has become 9-issues long, and will likely keep rolling through to December at this rate, even as most books reset under the 'All-New All-Different' banner and go back to a non-Battleworld reality.

That said, most of the SW tie-in books have either wrapped up or will do so over the course of October, and given how much time and money I've sunk into them, I feel obliged to share some final thoughts on those I've read.  This post should be considered a work-in-progress, and will be expanded as more series conclude. (Updated on 26/10/15)

 Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders
by Al Ewing, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and Will Quintana

I was expecting to be impressed by Captain Britain, given that it's hard to think of a more 'excellence guaranteed' core pairing than Ewing on words and Davis on pictures, but I didn't quite know what shape the story would take.  As it turns out, that shape was Marvel vs. Judge Dredd, or at least the closest to it we'll ever see.  The villainous Bosses of Mondo City are an affectionate homage to the Judges of Mega-City One - just barely different enough to avoid legal issues, but treated with a practiced eye for detail by Ewing, who's no stranger to 2000AD properties himself.  Unsurprisingly, I loved this one to bits, and am only going to complain that 2 issues wasn't nearly enough for such a terrific idea to be fully explored.
Even so, there's plenty of great moments, including the all-too-familiar words of the Boss' Handbook, a sentient torture chair feeling good about itself, the War Machine up in the pic there...not that it's all about Mondo City, though.  The starting flashback that explains how we wound up with Yinsen City is fantastic, and while the core heroes may be lacking name value, they're treated with respect and warmth that shines through.  And the art is glorious, because of course it is.

 Korvac Saga
by Dan Abnett, Otto Schmidt and Cris Peter

Korvac has felt like one of the more overlooked SW books, with a non-A-list creative team, old-school characters (even the ones with modern relevance are treated like their 80s incarnations) and frequently elaborate, wordy explanations for things.  But, it's also one of the few books that truly explored the issues with Battleworld's unnatural existence, as the generally tranquil Forest Hills domain is rocked by a 'weaponized meme' (god I love these stupid technical terms) that causes anyone questioning reality to mutate into monsters.
Abnett has always been something of a 'safe hand' writer - a workhorse to be given the tasks that are necessary but too low-key or menial for the superstars.  But he is consistently solid in his work, and he's got great memory recall for Marvel arcana, so a nostalgia tour with a crazy metaphysical villain like Korvac Saga is perfect for him, and it shows.  Everyone among the rather large cast sounds and behaves correctly, the pace mounts smoothly, and the ending keeps things bottled, not spoiling the status quo yet still feeling like a bit of a win for the 'goodies'.  Schmidt's spiky-angled pencils won't be to everyone's liking, but his action beats have a real sense of dynamic movement, and his characters emote very well.  Worth a go even if you're not enough of a classic Avengers buff to remember the original.

 The Red Skull
by Joshua Williamson, Luca Pizzari and Rainier Beredo

This one annoyed me for a little while since it pulled a hell of a bait-&-switch.  The inital premise - backed up by what writer Williamson was saying in pre-release interviews - was a 'Dirty Dozen' style villain team-up heading into the Deadlands to find and possibly assassinate the titular Nazi.  Instead, basically everyone bar Magneto bites it in #1, and then it becomes a two-hander between Magneto and Skull as they plot to break through the Shield.  That's not to say it's bad per se, just that I don't like being promised something cool (i.e. psychiatrist and snark queen Moonstone ragging on everyone's issues) then feeling cheated of that.
Still, taking a step back from that, I kind of dig this one.  Magneto and Skull have a naturally antagonistic dynamic that makes them a good, tense partnership to anchor the story around.  It helps that this version of Skull has his deviousness max'd out; you never doubt for a moment he's got a secret plan up his sleeve, but you're never quite sure how it's going to unfold until it does.  Williamson writes dialogue with a more florid, melodramatic tone than has been the norm for Marvel books ever since Bendis joined the fold, but it works for this context and these characters, and he paces the reveals out well over the course of all 3 issues.  Pizzari's pencils/inks are quite messy and murky, but that really helps to convey the grim nature of the Deadlands above and beyond it just being full of zombies, and Beredo's colours keep things muted, which just makes the vivid head of the Red Skull stand out that much more.  Also a special tip of the hat to Riley Rossmo's covers for the series, which are some of my favourite conceptual pieces across all of Secret Wars.

 Secret Wars 2099
by Peter David, Will Sliney, Antonio Fabela and Andres Mossa

I was pretty much planning to buy this since it was the 'replacement' book for Spider-Man 2099 during SW.  A little part of me thought it would fit directly into that book's ongoing story - especially since there was some Secret Wars set-up involving the Maestro in Miguel's series - but it turned out being very much its own thing, and possibly better for that.  The Avengers of 2099 are the cover stars, but David clearly wasn't willing to forget that reality's previous characters just to chase movie residuals, as we get a new Defenders team into the bargain, and a new, more sinister Miguel O'Hara as the head of Alchemax.  Even so, the real star of the book is Roberta Mendez, the Captain America of 2099, who has no idea she is Captain America when not suited up.
David is an old hand, and while he's changed with the times he doesn't often stray out of his comfort zone.  So it is here, with most of the characters slotting into the typical standardized roles seen in David's various X-Factor books and the like.  They don't stand out much (apart from the aforementioned Cap, and Hawkeye, who is just completely useless) but the interactions are sensible and the shorthand makes it easy to establish everyone in a short time-frame.  Sliney is a dependable if unremarkable artist and generally continues the trend of being good-not-great here, though there are a few points (particularly in the first issue) where his fight layouts are less than ideal, making the panel-to-panel geography hard to grasp.  Still, it's a decent little series, and the goodies fight Cthullu at the end, which is always a plus.  And apparently Roberta!Cap will be back post-SW, which is great to hear.

 Armor Wars
by James Robinson, Marcio Takara and Esther Sanz

A tale of shady politics at heart, Armor Wars would be so much better if it were an issue or two shorter.  If you wonder why I seem to bring up 'pacing' a lot, this is exhibit A on the 'how not to do it' table.  A story starting with a mysterious murder in #1...and it takes until #4 for the damn post-mortem to tell anything?  A post-mortem that starts in #2?  This might be excusable if the downtime was used smartly to further some B-plots, but there aren't any of significance, just pointless filler (like the bit with Stingray scanned above) involving snatches of interpersonal beefs that ultimately mean nothing.  There's a good reversal of expectations in #4, but in order for it to work a lot of information has to be kept from the reader, which is then delivered in an overlong "here's how I did it" villain monologue during what's meant to be a tense battle in #5.
What more can I say?  Robinson has a decent handle on Tony Stark's glib humour, and mostly everyone else sounds acceptably 'right', but when so little of what they say matters it's hard to give him much credit.  I went into the series expecting Takara to wow me, and...well, that rarely occurred.  His art was lovely on Captain Marvel but I don't know what happened to it here; it's very rough-looking and over-inked to the point of being needlessly dark.  A book set in a future city where everyone is essentially Iron Man needed much cleaner linework, for a start.  Call this one a misfire.

 Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Kelly Thompson, David Lopez and Lee Loughridge

Less a stand-alone story and more a wrap-up/victory lap for DeConnick's reinvention of Carol Danvers, CMatCC is an ode to ambition, a song of praise for the go-getters of the world.  A barely-changed Captain Marvel leads a squadron of pilots gently reimagined from an earlier volume of her series on a quest to simply find out what's above the clouds - but it's about more than that, really.  It's about pushing past the boundaries placed on you by others, and damning the consequences.  It's about valuing your heart over your head.  And it's basically everything that made me fall in love with DeConnick's version of this character, which I will now dearly miss.
Obviously, I'm a little biased in my estimation of the writing here.  I wish I had more to say about Kelly Thompson, who's been doing well-received work on Jem and the Holograms and other things I haven't yet read; perhaps the best praise I can give her here is that there's no way to tell where her work ends and DeConnick's begins.  The book's fairly light on plot, but it doesn't tease you with more (then fail to follow up) the way a Bendis tale would, and instead uses the extra time to make the characters stand out more.  Carol and the Banshees are all individual, defined people that feel real, not ciphers, and it can't be overstated just how much that adds to your investment in the story.  On the art front, Lopez does his usual wonders with character design, changing up body types and facial features between the various Banshees that makes them stand apart even when they're all in the same uniform, and his action chops have improved drastically over his time on Captain Marvel so the airborne sequences flow beautifully.  Loughridge has long since gotten over his obsession with yellow, and while there's a fair bit of it in Hala Field's dusty surrounds it's balanced by vivid blue skies and sunset oranges.  For whatever reason Lopez is absent on #4 but Laura Braga is a worthy replacement.  The only real downside is that this one might not mean so much if you weren't already #CarolCorps4Lyfe but, really, that's your problem, buddy.

 Ghost Racers
by Felipe Smith, Juan Gedeon and Tamra Bonvillain

Ghost Racers is deranged.  Maybe I expected that after All-New Ghost Rider (wherein a boy bonds with the restless spirit of a mafia hitman and his favourite car to stop Mr. Hyde from turning every LSD addict in Compton into more Mr. Hydes), but it can't be stressed enough just how full-to-bursting with lunacy even a single issue of Ghost Racers is.  Just look at the scan - Robbie Reyes and his flaming muscle car fighting off a M.O.D.O.K, three Venoms, two Sentinels and a Sabretooth one after another...and that's just one page.  There's a narrative in play too, one which carries forward the caring relationship between Robbie and his little brother Gabe while also branching out to deliver a theme not unlike Carol Corps, one of how a fiery soul can never be caged...but really, this one deserves to be read because of the nuttiness, not the plot.
Smith created Robbie Reyes, of course, and here he mostly sticks with what he knows, presenting a familiar if compressed take on the character's origins, skewed to fit in with the gladiatorial set-up that apparently awaits all Riders on Battleworld.  He's also got an eye for the absurd but enough sense to keep it in check, so it doesn't derail what plot there is, and his economic takes on the other Riders are well-crafted (it pleases me to see Alejandra Blaze get some limelight for once).  Gedeon's art is expressive and dynamic and spiky and...maybe a little under-detailed at times, but there's only so many details you can add when you're drawing fire constantly, y'know?  Speaking of fire, Bonvillain likely used up every shade of orange in the known spectrum here, and thankfully did so with a deft enough touch that each Rider is instantly recognizable even when they're forever crashing together.  One final caveat: #4 has a Ghost Rider that's actually a skeleton T-Rex standing on a fighter jet.  Yes.

 E is for Extinction
by Chris Burnham, Dennis Culver, Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring

Feeling less like a real story and more a drunken beerslam of every significant point from Grant Morrison's New X-Men run, E is for E succeeds almost because of how messy it is, and it's probably the one series that works best for a completely fresh reader; there's more than a little joy in turning each page just to see what oddness the creative team will dredge up next.  Of course, the flipside of that is it's perhaps less rewarding on repeated viewings, as the realities of just how flimsy and coincidental some of the connections are hit home, but luckily the art helps out here, with a lot of the layouts and choices demanding a more detailed inspection to discern deeper meaning.  The conclusion regrettably left me feeling deflated, relying on a 'relationship' that never convinced and seemingly homaging the one bit of X-media you'd think no-one would ever acknowledge again, but the preceding 3-and-a-half issues were gonzo brilliance to behold.
Burnham (with Culver on #4) nails the right 'voice' both for Morrison characters and for the early-00's time-frame this book draws from; it's not quite as exaggerated as Claremont-era, but it's still very stagey, and often portentous to the point of pretentious.  And yes, that is a compliment, in a way.  And while I stand by the assertation that his plotting is all over the place, the way he spaces out the reveals of what's actually happening is well-done; there's a certain art in leaving readers hanging for the turn of the page.  Villalobos is channeling the work of Frank Quitely (the original New X-Men penciler) with his work here, though there's an extra layer of off-key physiques that's very much his own; the first appearance of Cyclops and Emma Frost, replete with classic but unflattering outfits, in #1 is something I'll never get out of brain.  Herring's colours support Villalobos perfectly, especially with the trippier scenes involving mind-melds and Phoenix eggs and who knows what else.

 M.O.D.O.K. Assassin
by Chris Yost, Amilcar Pinna, Terry Pallot, Ed Tadeo and Rachelle Rosenberg

I expected M.O.D.O.K. to be stupid and exciting.  I was not disappointed.  A comedically violent love story between the titular big-headed computer brain supervillain and a Thor-powered Amazon, there's not a lot in the way of thematic heft or innovative plotting going on here.  But it is very funny, and a lot of people get their heads exploded, and since there isn't likely to be any long-term follow-up you can enjoy all the killing without feeling guilty.  (although having said that, I wouldn't be averse to M.O.D.O.KxAngela becoming a couple in the main universe)
Writer Yost keeps things flowing and gives the book a sense of urgency that prevents you from noticing, after #1, the whole thing takes place within one single city block, more or less.  He's also delirious happy to roll out the fun cameos (Hit-Monkey!!) and does a good job of incorporating the Battleworld mythology into proceedings, which makes the story seem more substantial than it is.  Meanwhile Pinna and his inkers never let a single panel pass without something new happening, whether it be a sudden giant robot, a cool fight beat or just M.O.D.O.K.'s own silly expressions, and Rosenberg keeps things cast in bright rainbow hues that suit the breezy nature of the book down to a tee.  Not a necessary purchase but a nice side attraction.

by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Garron and Chris Sotomayor

For a book set in a version of Manhattan that's being swallowed up by Hell, Inferno often feels pretty light-hearted.  Everything's colourful, there's jokes aplenty, a strong central romance, the villains all take turns doing awesome monologues, and Boom Boom is there using her particular brand of barely-legible valley girl speak.  Which makes it all the more shocking when someone gets a six-inch hole through their gut, or their soul pulled out through their chest, get it.  The last issue in particular pushes things to where they're as bleak as possible, but the series never loses its twisted sense of humour or its surprisingly sweet heart.  Plus it's wonderful to see a powerful, self-motivated Madelyne Pryor on the prowl, rather than the damaged, internally crippled and historically confusing one the 616 books are stuck with.
While Hopeless plainly has a lot of love for the old 'Inferno' story, he does seem to have used this book as a sort of...playground, getting to muck around with favoured characters he's used before (primarily the team from Cable & X-Force), throwing in whatever cameos he wants whether they make sense or no, and generally mucking around with whatever he thinks is cool.  Even so, there's still enough of a story here to keep the ship straight - though it perhaps could've been trimmed to 4 issues instead of 5 - and, well, the things Hopeless likes tend to be the things I like, so you're not gonna hear much bellyaching from me.  Meanwhile, Garrón's work is astounding.  He might just be my favourite 'conventional' (i.e. not counting painted work or crazy style choices) comic artist right now; his eye for detail is insane, his expressions are excellent, his layouts are perfect...and Sotomayor's colour work is luscious, too.  Love this book to bits.

 X-Men '92
by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims, Scott Koblish and Matt Milla

X-Men '92 felt like it had a lot riding on it.  Though there were no shortage of mutant books during SW, this was the only one to feature everyone the typical reader would consider the 'definitive' X-team - Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Jean, Beast, Rogue.  Plus Gambit, because '90s.  Plus of course it was taking us back to the peak of the X-Men's popularity, both in comic and cartoon forms.  The result wasn't quite what anyone expected - in equal halves a faithful restoration of the era and a gentle satire of the same, built around the frankly ingenious hook of a Morrison-era (and thus post-'90s) villain attempting to 'improve' the X-Men by gentrifying them, sanding off the edges and extremes that made the '90s so very...'90s.
Again, Bowers and Sims are channeling a very specific era, not to mention the verbosity of Peak Claremont, and the dialogue reflects that.  There's some great callbacks, but virtually everything said by the X-Men here sounds apt for these characters at their most exaggerated and primal, and will likely match the voices in your head if you were raised on the same Saturday morning shows as me.  The psychological dissections of the team are well-handled, too, and then...and then Cable shows up, and oh man, he is amazing.  Koblish and Milla keep things deceptively simple on the art front; the character appearances may seem a tad basic, but the layouts are incredibly clever, and the way in which panel transitions are handled in digital format adds so much to the book.  There are print issues available, but do yourself a favour and buy digital for this one.  It deserves that much.

 1602: Witch Hunter Angela
by Marguerite Bennett, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

This one...this one is maddening to me.  I want to like it more than I do.  1602: Angela is a breathtakingly beautiful book, and when it calms down enough to let its story flow on its own strengths it's frightening and tragic and moving...then you turn the page and there's a block of overly arch dialogue that breaks the fourth wall and/or renders the preceding dramatic beat as nothing but comedy.  I'm sure there's an audience for that sort of thing, but it just nags at me.  I don't regret purchasing all 4 issues, because they really do look that good and I needed an Enchantress fix from somewhere, but sometimes...sometimes less is more.  It's okay to just be good at one thing, y'know?  Not every book has to be all of the things.
Bennett handles most of the writing work, which actually surprised me; the smarmy tone that turns me off so much is something I've come to expect from Gillen, so I figured he was more of a factor than he was.  To give Bennett credit, on a plot level this is a well-crafted tale, the Ye Olde dialogue is handled smartly, and the 1602 versions of familiar characters are imaginative.  Gillen, meanwhile, is restricted to side stories (drawn by a selection of different guest artists) that interrupt each issue; these are more singularly humourous, so I find I appreciate their jokes a little better.  And just so we're clear, Hans is a friggin' maestro and her importance to this series' worth can't be overstated.  Every damn panel is gold.  It's not unusual for this sort of painted work to have a wispy, ethereal quality to it, but Hans has that and has smart storytelling chops, with layouts that make sense and action beats that look exciting.  That's a far rarer thing to see.

by Kieron Gillen, Filipe Andrade and Rachelle Rosenberg

Possibly the only tie-in book to really matter toward Secret Wars' core story, Siege is a claustrophobic character drama starring an assortment of deeply ludicrous freaks (Kang the Conqueror, blue-faced time-travelling enemy of the Avengers, is probably the most sensible of the lot) trusted to defend Battleworld's perimeter wall from every threat imaginable - and a fair few unimaginable - until death.  Of course, the very fact that there is a massive wall keeping most of Battleworld safe from zombies, Ultrons and the like is a Chekhov's Gun scenario writ large, and the book wastes little time in telling you that these people are doomed to fail even before they start.  But of course, it's not the success of failure that matters - it's how these people choose to go out that defines them.
I mentioned with 1602: Angela that Gillen has a tendency to rub me the wrong way with the aloofness of his tone.  That tone's still present in Siege but the oppressive air of oncoming (God) doom triumphs over it, so everything stays in line, relatively speaking.  There's moments of fun and charm amid the gloom - like the relationship between Ms. America and 1602 Kate Bishop - and the characters get to grow just enough that you really hope they somehow escape...but no.  Andrade's art is full of odd body shapes and impressionistic blurs - it's not quite as lovely as it was on Captain Marvel 2 years back, but then this isn't so lovely a story either.  Each issue also features double-page splashes handled by an eclectic pick of guest artists, most of them excellent.  #4 is essential as a sort of 'deleted scene' from the main SW book, but the whole series is really worth your time.

 Master of Kung Fu
by Haden Blackman, Dalibor Talajić and Goran Sudžuka

A time capsule sending the reader back to the glory days of the '70s, Master is focused on Shang-Chi and shapes a corner of the universe into a form he's especially suited to - one where every named hero is a martial arts master and rule of the domain is determined in MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAT~ *techno music begins*  Well, actually very few of the entrants die, so it's more like Fatal Fury or somesuch.  Iron Fist is totally using a Power Geyser up there.  Anyway, Shang-Chi has a familial relationship gone sour with the end boss, Emperor Zu Zhang, so of course he's going to the finals, but there's some interesting hurdles for him to clear along the way...although they could've had more, or at least let Shang take longer to get past them.  As it stands, things go a little too easily for the hero in #3, and at only 4 issues the series doesn't have much room to make the finals as epic as it wants them to be.  There's also the matter of Shang's cast-off students, all Morlocks and disfigured X-Men, who are introduced well but ultimately serve no purpose beyond a stone for Shang to step on en route to punching his dad.
I recall being fairly unimpressed with Blackman's scripting on the visually-glorious Elektra, but he's swayed me here.  There's still a certain stiff formality to how everyone talks, but it works within the context of anachronistic martial-arts movie speak.  Plus there's a charm and slight sense of humour that was entirely absent from Elektra.  Perhaps it's just a matter of Shang-Chi being a more outwardly wounded, imperfect presence than the Greek assassin, who knows.  Talajić and Sudžuka combine for some clean and solid art that's nice without being remarkable, plus a double-page spread per issue done in the style of very old painting which is lovely.  I liked this one a lot, but it should've been 5 issues.

 Age of Apocalypse
by Fabian Nicieza, Gerardo Sandoval and Iban Coello

The Age of Apocalypse universe had already been returned to after its initial conclusion, in a story spilling out of Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force.  It was...not great, and not terribly faithful to the tone or themes of the original either.  For Secret Wars, original AoA scribe Nicieza got to reset the clock and start afresh, with art that looks right out of the mid-'90s, and while the story is new it feels 'right' for this particular universe, and manages to work within the Battleworld rules without being constrained by them.  That plus a surprise starring role for personal favourite of the blog Doctor Nemesis should make this a must-buy, and until #5 came out, it was...but #5 does a thing, a very bad thing, on its last page that sours the experience.  I don't want to get into spoilers, but suffice to say it demonstrates an alarming tone-deafness to the common themes of all X-books, and if you're the sort who cottoned onto Marvel's merry mutants out of familiarity for the sense of stigmatizing 'otherness', you'll probably be hurt by this.
That stumbling block aside, Nicieza hasn't lost his feel for X-Men, and his writing has a comfortingly familiar sensation of melodramatic angst and haughty pomp and circumstance that's just right for a universe where everyone's either a king or a slave with no points in-between.  His plotting is a bit messy at times - he's determined to acknowledge as much of the classic AoA mythology as possible, which sometimes swamps the main narrative - and he puts a lot of emphasis on Doug Ramsey a.k.a Cypher without ever making his presence matter, but there's a solid enough backbone to the whole thing that it still sticks the course.  Art duties on #1-3 are handled by Sandoval, who has a wildly kinetic, exaggerated style where everyone's got huge muscles and shark teeth that's laughable...but also very much in-synch with AoA art of yesteryear, and his designs for the new cast additions fit in with the existing lot perfectly.  #4-5 are drawn by Coello, who has a far calmer style that's technically 'better' - he uses negative space more smartly, his expressions are more comprehensible, etc. - but it does cost the series some of its crazy charm.  Ah well.  Maybe still worth a purchase, but again, take care with the ending.

by G. Willow Wilson, Marguerite Bennett and Jorge Molina

Standard-bearer for the sea change on the stands and behind the scenes at New Marvel, A-Force had a lot riding on it, and I remember after reading #1 being left with the deflated sensation of "that's it?".  It was inoffensive and very pretty to look at, but there wasn't a whole lot to talk about, nor was there any clear direction beyond 'female heroes in a team'.  Thankfully, from there it course-corrected, centering around new character Singularity and the lessons she learns through bonding with the women around her.  It's still a bit average narratively - the 'traitor' plot has the most obvious resolution possible - but it's got charm to spare and the whole thing looks great, so consider me on-board for the post-SW series to come.
There's a slightly stiff formality to a lot of the dialogue in the book that reminds me of Bennett's other work on 1602: Angela, and while it feels out of place for a lot of these characters individually, applied to all of them it does lend the domain of Arcadia a little more depth, presenting it as a somewhat anachronistic, perhaps medieval kingdom.  It's hard to find direct traces of Wilson's work here, but the interactions between Singularity and Nico Minoru have the same sweetness and sense of wonder I've come to expect from Ms. Marvel.  And Molina...Molina is really the key that makes this book work.  His characters are near-perfect - vibrant and dynamic and expressive and beautiful - and the minimalist look of Singularity is inspired.  His layouts are exciting yet still easy to follow.  I really don't have a bad word to say about his work, and as mentioned in the preview post, it's great to see him getting treated as a star worker now.

 Civil War
by Charles Soule and Leinil Yu

I wound up giving Civil War a shot despite my VERY conflicting feelings - mostly stemming from the original series with that name - and after #1 I seriously considered dropping it.  Less a chapter in the story and more an excerpt from a guidebook included for the continuity-dependent, it accomplished in 22 pages what could've been stated in 1, namely that Cap and Iron Man still don't like each other and they're on opposite sides of a big hole in the ground.  That said, since I plainly have more money than sense, I stuck with the series and it did improve drastically from #2 onwards.  It's interesting to see how the status quo has changed for both leaders in this prolonged conflict: whereas before Stark was basically an asshole and Rogers a paragon of virtue, the reality of a long campaign has dragged Cap down into the dirt - he's the perfect soldier, and so he can't see any way out except victory.  Meanwhile, Iron Man is the planner, always trying to think outside the box, and it's that mentality that ultimately leads to the warzone's salvation.
Soule is a very dependable writer, albeit not necessarily an exciting one.  You can see why he's been given so much work by Marvel over the last year or so - he can put together a decent premise and deliver on it without disappointing, but he doesn't take crazy risks or make oddball decisions.  That's admittedly backhanded praise but, to be fair, with Civil War he's at least trying to make something new out of the situation, and he's got a good head for all the voices involved.  Yu has been one of Marvel's more trusted artistic hands for ages, to the point where there is no single book that's recognizably his 'calling card' - he's worked on just about everything significant you could name, and done a damn good job of it.  The murky look of his inking does wonders for the intrinsic gloom of the warzone, and there's a certain sadness to the new costume designs he rolls out, all tech'd up and grim'd out, like everyone's tired of flying their colours so proudly.  I may be reading too much into that.  It'll probably make a good read in trade, but for singles you'd be as well skipping #1.

 Marvel Zombies
by Simon Spurrier and Kev Walker

Marvel Zombies is still a shallow, stupid concept that never should've lasted as long as it did, but at least here it created a hell of a book.  Not an examination of the Deadlands of Battleworld or life on the Shield, this is instead a morbid character study of Elsa Bloodstone, monster hunter and tea connoisseur, taking notes from Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's legendary Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E but treating what were offhanded joke interludes as moments of genuine pathos, and of course full of zombies.  It's dark, it's verbose, it's bloody hilarious and its heart is full of cigarette ashes and bile.  It is, to no surprise, my absolute favourite SW tie-in.
I believe I've rambled about the genius of Spurrier at least twice before, and my feelings haven't changed.  Zombies is perhaps one of his less-tricksy works, as he's not aiming for a big thematic statement like he was on X-Men Legacy, X-Force or his creator-owned works (speaking of which, he's got a series called The Spire currently on stands, with Jeff Stokely, that's well worth your time), maybe just because 4 issues isn't enough space to allow it.  Nevertheless, his particular brand of wordy snark fits Elsa like a glove, and the idea of her personal ghosts haunting her in a series based around undeath is perfect.  Meanwhile, Walker's art is terrific.  He's got enough of an idiosyncratic 'messiness' to his drawings to compliment Spurrier's brand of oddness, but he's also clear enough in his layouts to still appeal to a wide audience, his facial expressions are spot-on, and he gives great zombie.  Seriously, his zombies are excellent.

by Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo

Weirdworld is...well, weird.  What else is there to say?  It's a swords-and-sorcery fantasy tale with a lost king hacking his way through a floating island full of seemingly random nonsense that absolutely hates him.  A fair part of the joy, like in E is for E, comes from turning each page and not knowing what obscure piece of old Marvel arcana will be dredged up next.  All the other parts of joy are down to the art.
Aaron has been one of Marvel's core writers for years before this, and if he has a signature, it's breathless insanity.  There's never just one crazy thing happening in an Aaron book, there's at least six bits of oddness all colliding together, and Weirdworld - wherein there is nothing except oddness - feels like the natural endpoint of his evolution as a writer.  I'd still say his Ghost Rider run is his best work, but this is maybe his magnum opus, in a way.  And then there's Del Mundo, who is a genius.  I'd love him forever if all he'd ever done were those X-Men Legacy covers, but then he did Elektra and proved his brilliance extended beyond just pin-ups.  His Weirdworld work, if I'm totally honest, isn't quite as impressive as Elektra - there's not as much tricksy panel transitions and the splash pages don't share the same double-clever layouts - but his painted work is still stunning to behold, and it's delightful seeing him tackle so many different characters, monsters and places.  This one is a visual feast well worth partaking.

 House of M
by Dennis Hopeless, Cullen Bunn, Marco Failla, Ario Anindito and Matt Wilson

The original House of M is one of the very few Marvel 'event' series of the past 10 years that I consider to be actually quite good, even if its reputation tends to be tarnished by its subsequent creation of the 'Decimation' era of X-Men.  The SW House of M wisely ignores all No More Mutant nonsense and focuses solely on the intrinsically interesting concept of a world where Magneto's ideal of mutant superiority has come to pass.  Without a war to wage, Magneto finds himself stifled and stagnating in his ivory tower, darkly wishing things hadn't gone his way quite so easily - only for fate to inevitably leave him cast off his throne and down into the gutter with the humans he's trod upon for years.  Speaking personally, I've never cared for Magneto's descent from supervillain to anti-hero in recent years, but HoM successfully balances him to the point where he's sympathetic but still kind of an asshole.  That we also get some fun asides with his extended family - especially the oft-forgotten Lorna Dane a.k.a Polaris - is just icing on the cake.
It's perhaps unsurprising that Bunn - who previously worked on the Magneto solo book - wound up scripting the latter 2 issues, but even so, this book carries Hopeless' particular brand of offhand wit and of-the-moment teen chatter.  It also features Deathlocket, another pet character of his, because Inferno alone wasn't quite enough space for Hopeless to have his cake and eat it too.  Nevertheless, it's a well-paced tale that manages to highlight a fair few of the interesting players from the original series without falling into the trap of simply provoking recent nostalgia at the expense of story.  Art-wise, Marco Failla's pencils (seen in the scan) compare well to the covers by Kris Anka, with very clean lines and...minimalist faces that either work or don't depending on what panel it is.  Most of the time his storytelling chops carry him through, though.  The latter issues' pencils by Ario Anindito are a little messier but don't have the weird faces, so it's a fair trade-off, and thankfully Wilson's bright pastel colours keep everything in synch.  HoM isn't quite good enough to be a must-read, but it's a pretty solid second tier option.

 Where Monsters Dwell
by Garth Ennis, Russ Braun and Dono Almara

I don't think anyone at Marvel knew what they were getting when Garth Ennis agreed to do a new miniseries for them.  While the covers of Where Monsters Dwell promised a boy's-own pulp adventure, like an old Commando comic crossed with One Million Years B.C., but in reality it's...I don't honestly know what to call it.  The first word that comes to mind is 'feminist', and that's not a slur - nor should that word ever be, and it's a damn shame I feel compelled to make that point explicit here - it's simply to point out that the main overriding theme of Monsters is condemning and rejecting outdated male attitudes toward women which we (meaning people like me, albeit not necessarily like you) continue to fall back on long after the point where we should know better.  Naturally, that's a hard thing to get some people to accept, so easing the pill down the throat via a madcap dash through a jungle world where Karl Kaufmann, the most impossibly stupid man you could ever imagine, is continually dragged through the wringer, was a pretty wise choice.  And if you don't care about such a theme, well, it's still bloody hilarious and gorgeous to boot.
Ennis shouldn't need an introduction at this stage.  He's funny, he's smart, he's unafraid to push everyone's buttons, and usually, he's decidedly not the guy I'd go to for a comforting portrayal of characters either female or homosexual...yet here we are.  Clemmie is one of his best creations, personally speaking, and it's a shame she'll likely be never seen again.  Russ Braun has been one of Ennis' preferred collaborators for years and it's easy to see why; he's not a show-off kinda artist, but he's technically flawless.  His layouts are smart, his backgrounds are sumptious, and his characters are designed smartly, with a keen eye for varying physiques, not to mention expressive as hell.  Plus, it takes a pretty special kind of artistic eye to draw something like #3, featuring an entire village full of blonde women in fur bikinis, and avoid making the whole thing feel like cheesecake.  Dono Almara's colouring work is similarly on-point, with a muted pallette that enhances the period setting yet still allows for a certain lively vibrancy.  This is, in a walk, the least 'Marvel Comics' sort of series to emerge from SW, but that doesn't change the fact that it's one of the best to boot.

by Jason Aaron, Chris Sprouse and Goran Sudzuka

One of the central quirks of Battleworld is the role of the Thors - a thousand or more hammer-wielding godlings, seeing Doom as their Allfather, keeping the peace across the patchwork planet.  At first, I figured the Thors book would be pretty essential reading as a result, but instead it's a pretty small-scale drama based on a very simple idea: take the most boilerplate cop-based thriller plot you can imagine...then make every character Thor without changing the rest of it.  So we have Thorlief, whose status as 'Ultimate' Thor leaves his coworkers nursing a grudge against the hotshot new guy, trying to track down the murderer of his veteran partner, then stumbling across a much wider plot involving weird serial killings and corruption on the force.  Also, there is a Groot version of Thor who can only say "I AM THOR!" over and over.
As mentioned with Weirdworld, Jason Aaron's core strength is pure imagination, and what makes Thors so much fun is seeing how he'll reinterpret the clichés that come with the story skeleton he's using.  I don't even want to spoil the majority, save to tell you that Thor Frog is back and now he's a forensics guy.  Why not, right?  If there's a disappointing element it's that the 'real' 616 Thor - Jane Foster, if you're not up to date - only shows up in the last issue, despite actually being quite important to the mystery plot, but it's hard to begrudge the book when it's otherwise so delightful.  Chris Sprouse is an incredibly respected artist, and while I can't call his work my favourite material he's done very well here, particularly on the character expressions - this is a pretty talky book for a story where everyone's got a magic hammer.  The best praise I can perhaps offer Goran Sudzuka's pages is that I can't tell where Sprouse's work ends and his begins, so seamless is the transition.  Overall, Thors is another quiet, latter-released gem in the SW line-up and you'll likely regret it if you miss out.

One final caveat: I won't be going over the anthology books in detail, as they're all so varied it's difficult to acknowledge them in shorthand.  In general, though, I didn't find Secret Wars Battleworld to be particularly impressive; #2 and #5 of Secret Wars Journal are both well worth a purchase; and the Secret Wars: Secret Love one-shot was delightful.

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