Thursday, September 22, 2011

Best In Show: This Week's Comics Reviewed

For the past month or so, the traditional reading-of-the-new-comics that occurs every Wednesday on my couch at around 5:30pm, a glass of something alcoholic on the nearby table and a Glenn Miller Band CD playing softly in the corner, has been pretty much a crapshoot. Sometimes the issues I look forward to have more fizzle than bang. Often the title I wasn't sure about buying, but did anyway due to minor interest and lack of willpower, proves to be entirely disappointing.

Regardless, the tradition continues unabated, being a nigh holy ritual suffused with the potential to kindle great joy in my weary, humpday breast. Because I know there will be times, unexpected or not, when the writers and the artists and the colorers all step up at the same time and give me a comic that is truly fantastic; fun, beautiful, emotional, woven into the giant continuity tapestry of their universe, eloquent, intelligent and completely memorable.

This was one of those weeks. (Spoilers Ahead.)

It's a bit difficult even to choose which comic released yesterday, Wednesday September 21st, 2011, was the best of the bunch. In fact, I have no desire to try, and that's why there's a tie.

Best In ShowAvengers: Children's Crusade #7 and Daredevil #4

The truth is, these are very different comics, and thus difficult to compare. Yes, they both are obviously superhero comics, but they approach that genre in nearly opposite ways.  In the Avengers maxi-series that has been going on for a very long time, spaced out more than any other title but still powerful with momentum and the inevitable status quo change that the climax will bring, you can barely find an inch of a panel that is free of a superhero.

In one corner, we've got the recently returned Scarlet Witch, hanging with her sons and the Young Avengers, plus Jessica Jones, the Beast, and another new product of resurrection, Scott Lang/Ant-Man. Oh, right, and also Jamie Madrox and his X-Factor Investigations, particularly the recently repowered Rictor. In the next, a defensive, powerful roster of the Avengers, led by the moral and fierce Captain America.  And then joining us in an intimidating stance on the front lawn of the Avengers' Central Park mansion, we get the statuesque and righteously pissed off X-Men, particularly a line-up of their most famous, powerful, and senior mutants. Eventually, even Doctor Doom shows up to play a large role. Pretty much a Who's Who of A-list Marvel characters.

In Daredevil #4, we get, well, Daredevil. Also a lion, one panel showing two purple-costumed thieves, and an unseen sniper brigade. And that's it. There are more pages of Matt Murdock in a suit and tie being a lawyer and uber-mensch than there are of him in his red bodysuit, kicking ass and taking names.

In Avengers we get the conflicting emotions surrounding Wanda Maximoff, a character who has affected the last eight years of the Marvel Universe more than anyone else. She is reunited not only with her natural born family, who whisper their support, but her adopted family the Avengers and then the X-Men, representatives of the race of she all but destroyed.

Inevitably, the Avengers and the X-Men come to blows, mostly due to the one-note assholery of Cyclops, which is the only part of the issue I take umbrage with. Granted, the X-Men see Wanda as a genocidal maniac who needs punishment and perhaps, under their own control, the opportunity to reverse what she did with her "No. More. Mutants." spell. Yet Cyclops takes the hard line and, without any solid strategy or big picture thinking, starts trying to beat up freaking Captain America and Magneto at the same time. It's a bit ridiculous, though it facilitates the necessary good-guys-going-at-each-other's-throats scene, which is impressively and scarily resolved by Wanda, who uses her still massive reality altering powers to put them all to sleep (though in retrospect perhaps she could have transported them elsewhere or calmed them down enough to negotiate rationally.)

Seeing Wanda put down every single superhero in the area with just a touch is rather chilling, especially considering the horrible things they've had her do with her powers in the past. It's really no wonder that when she transports herself and the Young Avengers to the side of Victor Von Doom, some of the Young'uns are having serious doubts about her emotional stability and her place in the whole Good vs. Evil fight.

Then we get one of those semi-rare but important comic writing devices, the retcon. (An especially unexpected one, considering the amount of retconning and past-revisiting done in Avengers Disassembled to make Wanda the most dangerous Marvel character ever.) We're told that after the loss of her semi-real twin sons, Wanda went to Doom for his magical expertise and aid in getting them back, and they dangerously enacted a spell calling on the all-powerful Life Force. Predictably, a thing called the Life Force is too powerful to be controlled, and while it seems the restoration of Wanda's sons was successful, at the time she became imbued with said Force, increasing her powers from probability tweaking to full-on reality shaping. Hence, her crazy power, her mental instability, and some suspect morality due to missing memories and a close association with Doom. These are really pretty substantial rewrites to a recent epic story, and not only are they believable, but they tidily fill some previous gaps (like why she reappeared with no memories in Latveria) and offer great new plot opportunities involving Doom in particular.

So, naturally, when Doom, Wanda, and Wiccan unite to complete the giant spell of restoring all depowered mutants to their former glory, Eli/Patriot, the sometime-leader, general hothead, and ex-Mutant Growth Hormone junkie of the Young Avengers, freaks out about trusting Doom with that kinda power, and violently interrupts the spell. Instantly regretted, his action is still successful and things go haywire. The result? No mutants are restored, Wanda loses her God-like Life Force power (and thus cannot restore them in the future,) and Doctor Doom acquires it. In the final page he descends, shiny and crackling with omnipotence, and without his armor; healed and human and handsome, going by Victor, and with the confidence to match his new skill set.

Surprising, brilliant, beautiful and thrilling, Avengers: Children's Crusade has been, without hiccup or tangent, a perfect example of what an epic superhero story can be. It's better than any summer crossover event, any obligatory death issue, any plot consisting of war spontaneously breaking out. It approached a large, unresolved area of the Marvel universe and didn't hesitate. It has included everyone directly affected by the Scarlet Witch's breakdown, addressed the interpersonal conflicts among these legendary personalities, and even spent time maturing the main protagonists in the Young Avengers. I honestly feel that when this series is over, if Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung don't do a monthly ongoing dealing with these characters, or even becoming one of the major Marvel architects, they will be letting down a lot of people. They are practically obligated to keep writing and drawing when they're capable of creating such exciting, stunning, relevant comics.

As for Daredevil, though the stakes, the cast, and the story are far less prodigious in scope, the joy inducing ability is just as potent. I dare you to read this comic without grinning. After many years of Daredevil being a dark comic, with decades of crap being heaped upon poor Matt Murdock's life, the legendary Mark Waid has restored a lightness and pure excitement to the exploits of Daredevil. It's like reading a Golden Age comic, refined and modern in both the art, layout and writing.

The past few months of this new series have shown an inspired page construction that not only attempts to illustrate the blind hero's enhanced senses, but actually organizes the panels of art in a way that makes you experience it. The movement of the page, the coloring and subject choices, and the actions of the main character give us an extraordinarily refreshing, classic yet inspired, and gleeful superhero comic that could only feature Daredevil. For God's sake, he fights a lion in the Bronx Zoo while pursuing a mobster, a scene so aesthetically pleasing that the perfect, economical and hilariously deadpan dialogue is almost unnecessary, though completely appreciated.

The changes Waid makes to Matt's life are also inspired. In lieu of his no-longer-very-secret identity, Murdock cannot practice law the way he used to, with accusations of him being a vigilante hero taking the attention away from whatever client he is defending. As a result, he's given his firm a new mission statement, transforming it from a standard legal operation into what is basically a crash course in law school, training those clients whom he believes in (and with his radar sense he knows who's telling the truth better than an official lie detector) the ins and outs of how to defend themselves in court. In most cases these are clients and cases no lawyer would touch, such as a storeowner going against the mob, and which Murdock with his new infamy couldn't hope to win. It's an original and crystalline portrayal of Matt's altruism and dedication to justice, and it provides not only humor and affection, but some brilliant legal centric scenes that ordinarily would not be at all interesting.

Waid enhances Matt's relationship to best friend and partner Foggy Nelson nimbly and with heart, shows us Matt's enjoyment of swinging around New York City solving a series of crises, and even explains some of the budgetary secrets of superheroics by showing Matt's tendency to messenger a new suit of clothes to wherever he'll end up post-Daredeviling. (An expensive recourse but as explained, better than fighting with a backpack, and in New York if you leave an expensive suit in an alley it won't be there when you get back. Simple and brilliant.)

This issue ends with Matt consulting with a blind kid whose wrongful termination suit no one will take, and attempting to bolster his confidence and break him out of the depression he can sense in his voice and in the "stale air" and old food of the apartment. As they reach that place in a classic comic where the hero gives support and inspiration to the downtrodden victim, the final panel shows them framed in the window, covered in red marks from unseen snipers. This comic has heart and emotion, it has intelligence and legal intricacies, it has action and a cliffhanger, and it has Daredevil cracking jokes while fighting an enraged lion in the Bronx Zoo. It really doesn't get any better than this.

Honourable Mentions:  Batman #1, Nightwing #1, Schism #4/Generation Hope #11

Though not as spectacular as our Best in Shows, these comics were very good, and helped make it a memorable week.

The DCnU's 52 #1s keep coming out, and for the first real time I find myself enjoying them. Interestingly enough, Batman and Nightwing are both in the Bat-family of books, which is the main franchise to come through the relaunch practically unchanged. Scott Snyder on Detective Comics was fantastic, and he seems to be keeping up the quality with his new, Bruce-centric title.

There are some unfortunate hokey moments that keep it from being a perfect comic; the strange art that shows the relative heights of Bruce and his three sons (is Dick Grayson a teenager again?), the long winded and cliched speech Bruce gives to his potential donors (particularly the awkward repetition of him calling them "Friends"), and the complete unflappability of Harvey Bullock. In the end though, these were relatively tiny, and the high points (Dick hiding in Arkham disguised as Joker, splash page of the BatCave--though the Penny is WAY too small--the rogues gallery fight, and the description of Alfred that shows his access as the Highest in the family) were high enough to make it a very enjoyable read. The twist is obviously a red herring, but it will be fun to see what Snyder does with this story.

As for Nightwing, I was pleasantly surprised. Right off the bat we acknowledge that Dick WAS in fact Batman for at least a year, so fortunately that history is intact. As a logical result, he is at the peak of his athletic and martial abilities, having spent so long as Batman, and Batman can never lose. Thus it's to be expected that this new Nightwing is less vulnerable than the old Nightwing, that villains who pushed him in the past or even brought him down, don't stand a chance now against his honed skills and enormous confidence. The return of Haly's Circus was much less boring than I expected, and the issue of his past coming back while his present finally feels new and refreshing introduces an interesting tension to Dick's story. I'm still not crazy about the red of his outfit and his new symbol, but the fact is it's Dick Grayson and Kyle Higgins seems to have a handle on things. I only wish Tim Drake had his own #1, but hopefully he'll get a good amount of guest-starring in both Nightwing and Batman.

With Schism, things have finally reached a head, and as the story ends we're in the midst of the Cyclops vs. Wolverine showdown that has been teased before the event even started. Tightly plotted and well executed, there still felt like something was missing in this latest installment after an exciting first three issues. Perhaps it's the fact Cyclops and Wolverine not only have most of the screentime, but their argument dominates the dialogue as well. The only other X-Men we see are Hope's Five Lights team and some of the underused Young X-Men. Don't get me wrong, I like the new generation, I like what's been going on with Idie as a symbol of Scott and Logan's fight, but in a series where we opened seeing multiple teams of X-Men fighting Sentinels all over the world, I could've used more mutants, or at least a few panels thrown in to show the trouble the disparate teams are in.

The Schism-inducing argument itself stands revealed, and is a bit disappointing. The main point of the fight is the use of young mutants in the fight for survival the X-Men are enduring. Historically, it rather seems a reverse for Wolverine, who never had much compunction about fighting alongside younger generations of mutants, and even training youngsters like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee to be highly advanced fighters capable of killing. So while the rationale feels a bit thin, and thus takes me out of the story a bit, it's still a divisive topic, and Aaron increases the stakes by bringing personal history into the fight. Once Scott brings up Jean, it fully explains why they begin fighting each other viciously, engrossed in their private battle despite the Genosha-size sentinel bearing down on Utopia. Generation Hope was a bit flat, but served its purpose in showing us the debate among the Five Lights and the younger generation in terms of joining the fight, and enhanced the rebelliousness felt by Laurie and Kenji. In the end, this chapter of Schism feels a bit like a dip in the high quality of the series, but it sets up a return to glory and excitement for the ultimate issue.

Disappointments: Uncanny X-Men # 543, Red Hood and the Outlaws #1

After an exciting Uncanny arc that tied into Fear Itself, showing the various mutant powers at Cyclops disposal and his talents at strategy, the conclusion to the crisis leaves me a bit cold. Basically, Colossus becomes the new Juggernaut and thus has the power to stop the old, powered-up Juggernaut. However, the mystic/demonic possession that goes along with being the new Juggernaut changes Colossus, and I found the philosophical and emotional distress of it to be flat and upsetting. Piotr was always the heart of the team, the artist, and the dichotomy of turning him into a violent, merciless killer (a development that echoes his sister's life) is not one I enjoy. Nor the fact that Kitty Pryde breaks up with him, or how Cyclops acts like a total ruthless dick (are we seeing a theme here yet?) and physically threatens the Mayor of San Francisco, his alleged buddy and ally, with death because she has other interests besides the mutants' at heart. In my opinion, not Gillen's finest moment.

As for Red Hood and the Outlaws, here's one I won't be picking up again. Jason Todd is still a trigger happy psychopath, but he's also ridiculously goofy, cracking jokes left and right, which was never his MO. Arsenal is even more of a pathetic screw up than he was pre-Relaunch, and Starfire, who was a noble warrior with a long history of struggle and passion among the Teen Titans, is now an emotionless sex machine and superior alien who doesn't even retain memories of the puny humans she used to fight alongside and love as family. Horrible character development.

In the end, despite the occasional stinker or continuity let-down, this was a terrific week for comics. With Children's Crusade and Daredevil, we've been given examples of the best that superhero comics can be, and God willing, we'll be getting more of the same in the near future.

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