“This may have been one time too many” – Bendis ends his soulless summer blockbuster with Age of Ultron #10

angela3Age of Ultron was controversial from the very beginning. People seem sick of Brian Michael Bendis and event comics in general, particularly ones that feel as if they’re already out of continuity in some way. In his defense, Bendis always understood this and kept pushing the series further and further into alternate universes and timelines and away from reader expectations and he’s one of the best dialogue writers Marvel has.

I mentioned two weeks ago that it didn’t seem possible that Bendis could make a coherent payoff for Age of Ultron and in a way, he did and he didn’t. This week’s Age of Ultron #10 is a comic that ends with promise and little else. Yes, we finally get scenes of the Avengers battling the robot who enslaved the Earth and Hank Pym at long last gets a moment to be a hero but it’s a book that ends with about 20 pages of advertisements for what’s coming. And that’s the frustrating part.

Age-of-Ultron-10-FEATThe arrival of a hungry Galactus in the Ultimate Universe, Image’s former heavenly femme fatale Angela’s sudden appearance in deep space and Tony Stark and Hank Pym discussing the implications to the seemingly cracked timeline all surprise and are moderately exciting developments but what does it mean to Age of Ultron? The ending feels less for Age of Ultron than a prelude to what’s coming, namely the announced Infinity, Hunger and Battle of the Atom.

This isn’t terribly new development for event comics. Crisis on Infinite Earths was an event which existed solely to reset DC’s universe, Age of Apocalypse tried to capture the sales Spider-Man’s Clone Saga had made and Avengers vs. X-Men was written mostly to set up the soft relaunch and conclude years of Uncanny X-Men stories.

House-of-M-04-07The problem is that event comics can do much more than that. Bendis’ own House of M set up a similarly compelling alternate reality but ground the story in characters, namely Wolverine and Scarlet Witch and offered a payoff which promised a new direction for the Marvel Universe and completed the story in a compelling way. It’s a wonderfully compelling story with real emotional and universal stakes.

DC similarly created an event comic with stakes, character and a world demanding to be explored with Flashpoint. Another alternate reality event series meant to lead into a relaunch, Flashpoint succeeded because of a world which felt exciting and necessary. The various tie-in stories of Flashpoint fleshed out an exciting new world that felt like it had history and relationships between characters. It was a world I wanted to explore beyond the main issues.

ultimate-spidey-galactusFor me, the problem with Age of Ultron was the event offered little more than promise. For every compelling alternate reality or bit of characterization, Bendis stoically refused to explore histories or character in favor of pushing forward the event. We don’t know how Pym’s death led to the fall of the Avengers, how The Owl was dealing with Ultron or how Galactus broke universal barriers and no one involved with the book seems to care. It’s not an issue of explaining things for the fans but giving characters the motivation or sense of place needed to give Age of Ultron the heart it needed to be more than a plot delivery vehicle.

Bendis has surely weathered complaints about the series and he’s taken to Tumblr to defend his work. He’s reiterated that Age of Ultron works better as a total package than as single issues and I think he’s right. Age of Ultron shines as a blockbuster event, full of apocalyptic violence, tough decisions and real consequences but that’s about it. It could have been so much better, so much more meaningful and more focused on the characters and worlds that bring readers to comics every week. The problems once again point to editorial demand for bigger more serialized comics and that artificial demands lead to artificial stakes, forced drama and inauthentic characters.

Random Notesanimal_man_21_7oxecq3ipo_

  • Animal Man #21 shows how creative Jeff Lemire can be when he’s not bound by tie-ins. The combination of social media and media attention with Buddy’s super heroics gives the book a sense of urgency it hasn’t had since it began.
  • Justin Jordan’s Green Lantern New Guardians #21 might have the strongest start of the Green Lantern relaunch. It’s clear he’s carving out his own place in the universe and I’m excited to see where it goes.
  • I’ve made no secret of my love for The X-Files and the new Season 10 #1 issue seems like it could be fun. I’m also happy IDW is eschewing their house art style for something more minimalistic and iconic.
  • Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman has been criticized for not focusing on the title character but this week’s #21 shows the power Diana’s team has in a massive, exciting battle with the First Born.
  • Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers #7 keeps showing the kind of withering pessimism and simpering tension that makes this one of the can’t miss series of Marvel Now. It may be one of my favorite single issues of the year.

“This is what I wanted to show you” – Astro City #1 brings us back to the most important city in comics

astro3I never thought I would get to read new Astro City.

Let’s go back to 2009. I hadn’t kept up with any comics outside of mainstream books in a long time, mostly sticking with Batman and the major DC and Marvel events. I was also at one of the lowest points of my life. I was incredibly depressed, drinking to the point of oblivion most days of the week  and helpless to try to find happiness.

I never wanted to make this blog about me or about my life because my experiences aren’t unique and the narrative is less important than who we are and what we take away from the things we experience. It just so happens that Astro City helped to let me take an important, critical look at the things I cared about.

astrocitypanoramaI discovered Astro City in trade at the university library and I devoured the first volume before going onto the rest of the series and collecting as many issues and trades as I could get a hold of before I had the whole series. I went back and explored writer Kurt Busiek’s other works and it got me back into independent, artistic, challenging comic books.

I celebrated the news that Astro City was coming back and holding the first new issue in years in my hands, I felt a wave of excitement, nostalgia and care that comics rarely give me. And of course, opening tbe book brought all of those feelings back. Busiek is simultaneously as challenging, welcoming and whip smart as usual and penciller Brent Anderson leaps back into the sharp, retro design style he nailed in the series first outing.

AstroCity01_zpsd605d2f7Putting new characters such as the paranoid, insane watchdog, The Broken Man, alongside the optimistic powerhouse, American Chibi front and center highlights the inventive spirit the new volume and the return of well loved members of the Honor Guard  and independent characters such as the Confessor makes this world feel as fully realized as ever.

The focus of Astro City has always been on the city’s civilian residents and the way they’re drawn into the super-heroics of the city. Ben Pullman is our guy this time, a seemingly satisfied but ultimately bored programmer who volunteers to be a representative of a whole new world. It’s something of a throwback to the very first issue of the series, where the heroes have to deal with forces beyond their power but that’s not by any means a problem. History is one of the most important parts of a series that succeeds by swimming in the passage of time.

10Busiek is quick to remind us what this series is about, the history of the medium and the way our lives can change and be reflected in the culture we consume. A wonderfully inventive, bleak and cutting final two pages remind readers that much like the heroes, our world can seem irresistibly small when we’re confronted with change. The wonderful thing is that we’re allowed to independently pick up the book, volunteer and choose to be satisfied.

Stray Observations

3083946-gl21Lots of really good books this week. Let’s check out some of the more interesting ones.

  • Jonathan Hickman had two great books this week, East of West #3 and Avengers #13. Both show off his mastery of character specific dialogue. Mao’s honorable but fruitless bluster in the face of Death’s coming attack is a great moment fitting a character we just met and Hyperion’s revelations in Avengers feels like the kind of character moment a lesser author would have handled with less subtlety. Hickman makes both feel masterful.
  • James Robinson’s Earth 2 has weirdly been something of a minor hit for DC and it always surprised me. Earth 2 has felt like a bit of a disservice to the company’s Golden Age characters but the way he played with the Green Lantern mythos is this week’s #13 is really promising.
  • Kierron Gillen’s new issue of Iron Man really showed how to do a retcon well. The revelation about Tony Stark’s past is organic to the character, doesn’t undo his past actions and offers a wealth of storytelling opportunities.
  • Age of Ultron #9 finally had the characters realize what every reader thought of 8 issues ago. I’m curious to see how and if Brian Michael Bendis is going to make all this build up pay off.
  • Bendis is, however, nailing All New X-Men. The way he’s turned Jean Grey into a wild card was such an initially unexpected but perfectly realized characterization and I love seeing how the character deals with recent events like Decimation.
  • Robert Venditti really did a great job on Green Lantern #21, his first issue since Geoff Johns’ departure. I’m not crazy about how young and soft Billy Tan is making Hal Jordan look but I’m super ready to see what these guys can do.

“The Female and the Male, the one who cast her out”: Phase One of Marvel Now concludes with a bang

X_Men_1_SlideBy all approximations, Marvel NOW! has been one of the House of Ideas’ most economically successful ventures, albeit one with some problems, since the launch of the Ultimate Universe and has challenged and dominated DC’s sales every month since the relaunch. With the first wave of new and relaunched titles wrapping up this week, let’s look at the last book and reevaluate some titles that have developed since I initially reviewed them.

X-Menxmen_1_preview4The all female X-team has been a lightening rod for internet applause since it was announced. The web has been clamoring for more positive and widespread portrayals of female characters for years, with much of the conversation beginning with the 2011 cancellation of the X-23 series and the idea for an all female team that doesn’t draw attention to their femininity is a sound one.

Brian Wood’s interpretation of the team doesn’t really jump off the page and it follows the form of his X-Men book pre-relaunch. Once again, we’re following the old tried and true formula of having bunches of characters doing different things with the assumption that they might all come together by the end. It’s dull and expected at this point but he’s got a hell of a cast. Psylocke has become a fan favorite in recent years and Wood has had plenty of experience writing her and Storm but his Kitty Pryde talks like she just started using Tumblr and Jubilee feels like she could be any other character. Dialogue has never been Wood’s strong suit but penciller Oliver Copiel draws dynamic action sequences and quieter scenes with great attention to body language and facial expressions which more than makes up for scripting flaws. The looming threat of the too-long-missing villain, Sublime and a last page cliffhanger are sure to keep readers interested in the title but as it stands, it isn’t living up to the potential of the premise or team.

The Verdict: Wood’s first issue of the relaunched X-Men feels unfinished but there’s plenty of reasons to pick up the next one.

I never felt bad about how dismissive I was to some of the earlier relaunches of the line and I think, for the most part, the way I felt about early issues of some of these series is still the way I feel now. Still, there are a couple that have evolved or fallen since those first issues. Let’s go back and check in on them.

Iron ManIronMan_06_Preview2Iron Man had one of the roughest starts of the relaunch with writer Kieron Gillen clearly having to balance the upcoming cosmic changes to the character with the mechanical Earth based adventures new readers expected. The first four issues suffered dramatically because of this but as soon as Tony headed to space, everything improved.

While Greg Land’s early issues suffered from overuse of photo reference, sending the protagonist into space and requiring Land to draw aliens, spaceships, robots and planets opened his style up for experimentation. His Tony is still inconsistent from issue to issue but he and Gillen are really crafting something special in the new “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” arc.

The (Revisited) Verdict: Tony’s transition into space has opened up the storytelling possibilities but the art still holds the series back from becoming a must buy.

X-Men Legacyxleg_spitI initially dismissed X-Men Legacy as feeling like an unnecessary niche title in an already loaded X-line and vastly, I still stand by that statement. Legacy is undoubtedly a cult book, focused on David Haller aka Legion, one of probably the most maligned characters in the franchise. The magic of the series is how writer Si Spurrier knows how you feel about David and doesn’t give a shit, writing a book that combines character study, low key adventure and heartfelt romance in equal, unexpected measure.

Legacy is one of the most experimental books of the relaunch, with a protagonist who actively dismisses the “speedos and tights set” of the X-Men, a genuinely respectful, loving relationship between Haller and Blindfold and a timely, thoughtful approach to how the rest of the world would build their lives around a people they believe to be a menace. Each issue treads new territory, goes further and further into the hero’s psyche and ups the ante with each new conflict.

The (Revisited) Verdict: Almost undoubtedly the best book of the relaunch.

FFff6-good-for-herI initially dismissed FF as a lesser companion piece to writer Matt Fraction’s excellent Fantastic Four but it’s much more than that. It’s still a companion piece, one very focused on the legacy of the First Family but it has centered primarily on Scott Lang’s hopes to create a new family in the face of tragedy and loss.

When FF clicks, it really works. Lang and Darla Deering’s plans to deal with the Internet addled Yancy Street Gang is exciting, silly and very funny in equal measure. Medusa’s struggle to be a mother for a group of children she doesn’t and doesn’t want to understand is intriguing and offers a fascinating subtext to the issue of family. Mike Allerd’s pop-art inspired pencils make the characters feel like icons in much the same way he brought new millennium style to X-Statix in the ’90s. The problem really is fan service. Tong’s unexpected revelation of his gender identity, The Wizard maniacally hoping for a “heteronormative cissgendered” family and an entire page sequence of Darla trying on hats feel like they were written and designed to be posted to blogs rather than appear in a comic.

The (Revisited) Verdict: Even for a beautifully stylish and well written series, FF needs to decide what it wants to be and stick with it.

Avengersavengers-world-marvel-now-cap-thorAn obscene twice-monthly shipping schedule did wonders to boost the pace of Jonathan Hickman’s universe spanning Avengers team, with early issues not giving much of a look at what the book would become. Revamps of long forgotten characters, introductions of galactic heavy hitters and the looming threat of the White Event have come together to make a great series.

Despite a clear motive and goal for the characters, Hickman has given plenty of room for minor figures and off-beat issues. A recent trip to a Shanghai casino to duel with AIM scientists, an amazing look at a battle for the fate of the Shi’ar Empire and extended ruminations on the nature of creation round out a book that could have been little more than a series of dour battles and down character beats.

The (Revisited) Verdict: Hickman clearly has big plans for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes but readers expecting a classic team book should adjust their expectations and ready themselves for something experimental, intriguing and entirely unexpected.

Superior Spider-ManSuperiorSpiderMan_9_Preview2I was really, really harsh on Superior Spider-Man. I still have a lot of problems with it but I’ll admit, this is the first Spider-Man story I’ve ever really cared about. The Doc Ock swap still feels cheap and ridiculous but the web-head is exciting, interesting and unpredictable for the first time since I’ve been reading comics.

Dan Slott still tends to write very soapy which is par for the course for Spider-Man comics but the pacing is just very off. Plot developments drop off as soon as they are introduced, such as the Avengers questioning Peter’s mental well being, the finally revealed fate of the remnants of Vulture’s gang and Phil Ulrich’s struggles with the Goblin persona, and these give the book a deep sense of worldbuilding with no real story pay off. It’s nothing Slott couldn’t take care of and the book shines when it focuses on Doc Ock and his moments of inner turmoil as he struggles with what it means to be a hero working out childhood trauma on all criminals great and small.

The (Revisited) Verdict: Long live Doctor Otto Octavius.

Stray Notesforce5Hey, at the end of every comic post, I’ll be talking about a couple other releases of the week, just to highlight some of the books I write about less than others. Consider it a conversation starter more than anything else.

  • So, that twist in JLA #4, huh. After Geoff Johns wrote maybe the best single issue of his career in Green Lantern #20, this just felt crazy, unnecessary and a little disgusting.
  • Also, damn it, wasn’t computer lining supposed to help David Finch get his art out faster? Why do we have to keep dealing with Brett Booth?
  • I know I missed it last week, but Fearless Defenders #4 A.U. probably had one of the most fun tie-ins of the event.
  • I can’t really put my finger on it but what’s the problem with the new Uncanny X-Force? I like the story well enough and it’s a great line-up of characters but it just doesn’t add up to anything. The Bishop memory fragments were great and Adrian Alphona killed it on art but the whole book still just feels very, very off.