Here we have a somewhat belated entry into the semi-weekly No Context Comics! I’ve been busy outside of Urbane Turtle dot com, lately. You can find my spotlight review for this week’s thrilling new series, ALL AGAINST ALL, over at The Comics Beat. I also had the chance to interview TMNT writer Tom Waltz and editor Charles Beacham about the super fun event series, THE ARMAGEDDON GAME.
I also had a couple days off from the day job, but spent them doing nothing productive whatsoever other than watching a few movies and the Rise of the TMNT series on Netflix. You see, I am teetering on the brink of ~*~ burn out ~*~ and some days of total vegging were paramount.
This week we’ve got a new superhero, fantasy misfits, and a longtime pro hero. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Gene Yuen Lang has written some of my favorite superhero stories of the last few years, and DC has seen a dearth of new superhero creations in the last ten years. So I should be excited by the prospect of the Monkey King, which draws from Chinese mythology to introduce a new player into the fold! Yang’s authentic voice deserves to be heard above the din of the corporate cape books. And yet I have been remiss in even looking twice at Monkey Prince, Yang’s latest mainstream series.
Despite Marvel’s reputation as being more “grounded” or “street level,” it has no shortage of characters pulled right out of mythic pantheons. In that way, Monkey Prince as an idea feels more at home in the Marvel U. DC has plenty of godly beings but most of them are DC originals, not pantheons or public domain heroes. Marvel is much more willing to do that kind of thing, historically.
There’s a LOT going on in this issue, and it feels very disorienting as a new reader. There are general ideas that feel familiar–Metropolis, Lexcorp, Bizarro Clones, and even the “Journey to the West” iconography (thanks, Dragonball!), but a lot that took a bit to put together. But everything needed to get caught up is here on the page.
Marcus, the main character’s, parents are two-bit henchpeople, and Marcus has to deal with that while juggling being a normal kid and also learning how to be a hero. His encounter with Supergirl here gives the reader a firm idea of his character, impetuous, petulant, and frankly, kind of unlikable!
There’s a big twist on the last page that gave me a big laugh. The villain of this piece is genuinely creepy and his attack that starts the issue is unsettling.
I get the point of making a young male hero kind of a jerk but it does make it hard to root for him, even if he is trying to learn. I’m certainly willing to give Yang the benefit of the doubt that Marcus is growign and learning, after all, his parents are crooks. It’s not like he’s had a strong role model.
Crossovers can get exhausting but I did get a little bit of a thrill to see this tie-in to the Devil Nezha and Mark Waid’s work over on World’ Finest/Batman vs. Robin/Lazarus Planet. It’s not ridiculously intrusive (yet, anyway; the next issue seems to be a full tie-in) but it makes all of these new elements feel important and tied into the larger DCU. Something a lot of new ideas in superhero universes fail to do authentically.
The art is serviceable if unremarkable all around. There are flashes of inventiveness and humor, particularly toward the end when the hero is transformed, that play into the Monkey Prince’s irreverent personality. I also really liked to see that most of the creative team is of Asian descent and their names credited in script as well as English.
Overall–this felt like a standard issue of a monthly comic book. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad. A perfectly serviceable diversion, with the bonus of introducing new representation.
A caveat that I think is important here: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons or other tabletop RPGs. I have passing familiarity with some of the concepts, which let me generally understand some of the ideas here. I don’t know that the extreme number of word balloons here are specifically referencing Tabletop games but they certainyl seem to be. And boyoboy are there so many words here. And references to concepts that are not explained. And explaining powers and how powers work like it’s a gosh darn encyclopedia.
I found this book so hard to get through that it was a wonder to me that it exists? There is no compelling character within these pages, or even a plot that I can decipher. These characters seem to exist to talk about going on quests and to research magic we mostly do not see. It’s a real slog.
The art is mostly okay with a few truly standout moments. There is a page in here where a character stops time and speeds past other characters that displayed the idea of superspeed or time manipulation better than almost anything else I’ve seen in comics. The first panel is a shot of three characters. That is then cut through by a second panel with another caracter’s face in profile. In the third panel, the one who interrupted is suddenly standing behind the others, far in the distance. The way Romboli depicts the character slicing through the gutter where we usually read the passage of time is shockingly effective. The fight scene on the train toward issue’s end is well-staged and easy to follow (a trait not to be undervalued in comics!) with a dynamic sense of movement.
But beyond that there was nothing much here to draw me in. Romboli does the best she can with some exhausting exposition, giving the characters plenty of emotion as they shout about things I didn’t understand.
By issue’s end I just can’t help but wonder who this is for. I would like to see more of Romboli with something more to work with, though.
Captain Marvel #44
Marvel. Kelly Thompson, Writer. Sergio Dávila, Artist. Arif Prianto, Colors. Clayton Cowles, Letters.
Kelly Thompson is a writer I have heard a lot of good things about that I always intend to look more into. But there’s always more books to read and I never get to it. She’s maintained an impressive run on this Captain Marvel series, which I am sure speaks to the quality of her work.
At 44 issues of a character older than me, I don’t expect to know all the ins-and-outs of what is going on. Particularly when it seems to be a spiritual sequel to an old Claremont X-Men story. I am sure X-Men fans are happy to see this (or maybe not, X-Men fans are never happy). Ever since becoming Captain Marvel it has seemed like Marvel has tried to distance her from the mutants, despite her having had significant relationships with them during Claremont’s tenure.
I’m not an X-Men aficionado, but I am familiar enough with the broad strokes to appreciate Carol’s opening monologue here, about enjoying getting to bust on Rogue and the Brood simultaneously, in another life. I’m also able to appreciate how Thompson effectively builds this grand space drama around decades of publishing history to effectively tell a story of growth and empowerment over past trauma.
In many ways, this issue is a stellar example of how to tell superhero comics in a long-running shared universe. Just enough mentions of the past to orient newer readers while spurring interest in the old stories. It doesn’t spend pages explaining those events in detail, boring die-hards. And it moves Carol forward as a character forward and illustrates how she has grown and changed since she was Binary and Ms. Marvel. She’s no longer the B-List side character in a team book. Now she’s a blockbuster headliner, and how does that change how she approaches the things that have harmed her?
I really enjoyed this, despite being years behind on Captain Marvel. Thompson has a clear vision for who Carol Danvers is and where she has come from. The art from Sergio Dávila is standard superhero fare. I particularly like how he illustrates Carol’s powers and the almost Super Saiyan way it blows her hair around.
Perhaps I need to stop overlooking Captain Marvel, and get down to finally reading more of Thompson’s work in full.
Iron Man is at his most compelling when Tony Stark hates himself. It is his most important character trait. After his near death experience, Tony Stark looked at the life he led, the things he accomplished, and hated what he saw. Deeply and fully. That is what compelled him to become Iron Man. The best Iron Man stories, on the comics page and on screen, recognize and build from that place.
Everything else: the arrogance, the smart remarks, the attempts to control everything, it stems from this foundational hatred.
Tony Stark is not, fundamentally, an altruistic man, though he knows he should be. He hates that it does not come naturally to him.
Writer Christopher Cantwell beautifully explores this self-loathing and in doing so, tells one of the most compelling and human Iron Man stories of all time. In the Books of Korvac, the epic nearly 2-year story that accounts for the bulk of his run, Cantwell crafts a definitive Iron Man story without aping the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Robert Downey, Jr’s performance.
Instead, Cantwell’s Iron Man is an unabashedly broad, high concept superhero tale where Iron Man merges with cosmic power that gives him near omnipotent power. It uses superhero iconagraphy and cosmic scope to dramatize Tony’s inner turmoil in the way the best superhero stories reflect the human condition through grandiose action.
Like the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov Extremis storyline that defined much of what makes modern Iron Man, Cantwell is joined for most of the run by an artist who renders with a humanist depth and realism. Spanish artist Cafu is of a similar mold to Granov, imbuing depth and realism to the technology and architecture of Tony Stark’s world. But where Extremis was concerned with putting Iron Man in a realistic 21st Century context, Cafu takes that same verisimilitude and propels Iron Man far beyond Earth. Cafu’s artistic sensibility, his precision use of light and shadow, is critical to keep Tony Stark’s all-too-human concerns front and center. Frank D’Armata’s colors complement Cafu’s pencils and rendering, giving the Iron Man suit a sleek but whethered sheen.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Tony spends the early portion of this run in a subconscious slide toward his death. Being Iron Man has become his addictive escape. He is dealing with the emotional fallout of Dan Slott’s run on the book, which saw Tony’s body rebuilt through cloning and his mind restored through a computer backup. He’s left to ponder existential questions of life and death.
Tony looks inside for an answer and sees nothing within himself, as made literal in his hallucination aboard Galactus the World Eater’s worldship, Taa II, where he absorbs the all-powerful Power Cosmic. As his body absorbs and merges with the Power Cosmic, he sees visions of himself. Alone. Unnoticed. Crying in an opulent house, his father and family nowhere to be found. This is ultimately what Tony sees when he looks in the mirror. Not a hero. Not a friend. Just a boy, desperate to be noticed and without love.
The perception of people, frustrated with his failures and ungrateful for his heroism, becomes Tony’s only metric to measure himself.
In response, Tony castigates himself in a self-humbling journey to “reconnect” with the common man. An egotistical bravado that he can somehow learn through performative actions the secrets of lesser men.
In walks Patsy Walker, the superhero known as Hellcat. Patsy points out early on that Tony is newly obsessed with how people perceive him and his actions.
“This new humility you’ve got going on? It’s still your ego in different clothes.”
The inclusion of Patsy, one of Marvel’s most human characters, pulls Tony down to Earth. Her openness to talking about her frailties and mental health issues draws Tony to be honest with his own.
By the time they face the threat of old Avengers foe Michael Korvac, Iron Man is at a crossroads. He sees his only value as dying in battle to save others. Patsy warns him that this deathwish is not altruism but an escape from self-loathing. She knows that temptation all-too-well.
God is a Verb
Iron Man’s foil and the primary antagonist throughout this run is Michael Korvac. Originally from a future where an alien race known as the Badoon conquered humanity, Korvac sold out his human allies for a position in the alien’s military. The Badoon quickly turned on Korvac and eventually punished and tortured him. They removed his lower half and converted him into a cyborg. He later traveled to the past and absorbed the Power Cosmic, making him nearly omnipotent. His abuse of that power in his misguided attempt to save humanity put him at odds with the Avengers. During their battle, he killed all of the heroes before returning them to life and destroying himself in grief.
At the start of Cantwell’s run, Korvac is revived in an android body by a mysterious group of scientists. He quickly escapes and seeks out the power to regain his former godly status. As a first act, Korvac poses as a scientist to garner funding from Stark for his research into harvesting the energy from lightning.
Korvac introduces himself to Tony as Teilhard Fuller, a mashup of two 20th century science-minded philosophers. The first, Teilhard De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist nearly excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of his scientific research and rejected by scientists because of his spiritual conception of physics. De Chardin believed the cosmos were working not toward a destructive entropy but to a full spiritual unity. In his book, The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote,
However convergent it be, evolution cannot attain to fulfilment on earth except through a point of dissociation. With this we are introduced to a fantastic and inevitable event which now begins to take shape in our perspective, the event which comes nearer with every day that passes: the end of all life on our globe, the death of the planet, the ultimate phase of the phenomenon of man.
In his Catholic thinking, this implies a turning toward a higher power. Evolution was a movement toward fulfillment of God and creation.
The second name in Korvac’s alias references R. Buckminster Fuller, who, like De Chardin, believed society was marching toward a utopic fulfillment. He believed that society had reached a point where the accumulation of knowledge and resources extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level. He posited that competition for necessities had become unnecessary and cooperation was the optimum survival strategy. He declared: “selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable … War is obsolete.” Though Fuller’s futurist bent was more in the area of sociology, both philosophers envisioned a utopia of equality.
The names are no coincidence. Korvac seeks to attain godhood to enact his utopian ideals. Individual consciousness would be eradicated, physical differences eliminated. It is, for the Neon Genesis Evangelion fans out there, a version of its Human Instrumentality. Utopia via the death of the individual. Cosmic, universal peace. Under one man’s vision. Without self.
Naturally, Tony Stark rejects this idea outright. Cease to be Tony Stark? Out of the question. Even for all his faults and self-loathing, Tony believes himself to be among humanity’s greatest.
The Drink or the Dream?
One of Tony’s great faults is his addictive proclitivities, which manifests in both substance abuse and obsessive behavior. He has become addicted to self sacrifice and risky behavior. His obsessive need to take Korvac alone results in being severely beaten and nearly killed.
It is enough to make him realize he cannot go it alone. Iron Man gathers a ragtag group of heroes who dub themselves his “Space Friends.” Gargoyle, Misty Knight, Scarlet Spider, Frog-Man, Hellcat, and War Machine, travel through space with Iron Man to stop Korvac.
After his first disastrous encounter with Korvac, Tony’s allies, under his direction, fuse Tony with his armor to keep him alive. To deal with the pain he has a controlled morphine drip installed into his armor. Tony knows it is a desperate measure that could prove disastrous. But his need to prevail over Korvac, to prove his heroism, drives him beyond anything else.
It is a compromise of one of his most sacred vows.
The drink … or the dream? In this moment, I remember that question. Something I asked myself a long time ago. Something I still have to ask myself time and again. I am an addict. I know that. I know what these drugs could do to me. But I’ll die right now without them. My blood-brain barrier has been damaged… The drink…or the dream? The drink…for the dream?
As he is fused to his technology he compromises his sobriety and thus his humanity. It is a step that draws him even closer to Korvac, himself a fusion of man and machine.
Tony awakes from his cyborg operation newly convicted. The fear and doubt replaced with resolute, obsessive purpose that closes him off from his allies.
“I am alive. I am angry. I am no longer apologizing for anything. Not my machines. Not my decisions. Not my deeds. I am going to win this fight.”
The clarity of mission drives him to view his new allies not as friends but tools. While they joined Iron Man to save the universe, they had no intention of being his soldiers.
While things get contentious, Iron Man is abruptly teleported off the ship. He arrives on a mysterious planet, where a group of stranded beings from across the universe have formed a cooperative society. The only catch? They are terrorized by seemingly random attacks from giant Ultimo robots, native biosynthetic organisms. The threat is omnipresent but ultimately seems to bind the disparate beings into a tight-knit community. Tony eventually discovers that this community is led by his old enemy Stilt Man, which naturally leads to the requisit superhero fisticuffs.
Ultimately, Tony is won over. On this stranded planet, Tony is forced to rely not on Iron Man but Tony Stark. He comes to see the world as a chance to restart.
As Stilt Man summarizes:
“Everyone here lost everything. People. Purpose. But also…responsibilities. Not just to others, but also to some…version of ourselves we believed necessary.”
Tony begins to embrace this simple life, even as the morphine drip becomes a crutch. In a psychic conversation with Hellcat (who rediscovered her psychic powers earlier in the run) he explains his new sense of peace. If he has to sacrifice himself on this world, defeating the Ultimos for good and preserving this paradise, it would be a good death. More noble than a great battle to save Earth where the public would always doubt if he acted from altruism or for recognition.
Hellcat is glad Tony has found a kind of peace. Stripped of all of the wealth and celebrity, Iron Man cannot be driven by headlines.
“Before everything else, you have to be Iron Man. Here you’re just the guy I knew was underneath the entire time. The selfless one. A hero. And a friend.”
“A hero and a friend, I like that.”
The stranded planet’s utopian society is revealed to be a lie. The Ultimos are not a force of nature but have been intentionally programmed by Stilt Man to attack the town at regular intervals in order to bind them to common purpose.
Stilt Man’s hubris, like Korvac’s, makes him believe he can create a perfect society if people just operated under his control. He needed to prove that he could be a leader and, more importantly, that he could create something good.
Tony chafes as much at the artificiality of Stilt Man’s world as the human toll. And sees too much of himself in Stilt Man’s delusion.
Stilt Man’s mission is no different than Korvac’s, a picture in microcosm of the greater universal conflict Iron Man has been fighting. The same arrogance and temptation to prove one’s human worth. It is the same conflict within Tony.
Iron Man falls into the same patterns and temptations when he later absorbs the Power Cosmic to stop Korvac’s ascendance. The godly power allows him to reshape the world into his image and set things how he believes they could be.
The Iron God
In the first issue, Iron Man fights an old enemy and destroys one of the last copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence. It is a destruction of an old conception of God.
Cantwell’s Iron Man is awash in spiritual themes, from his refrences to Teilhard de Chardin, to quotes from various gospels. It is not a question of religion versus science. But rather, the danger of a religious view of science. The destructive conception that one man with the right math and a big enough brain can fix everything.
The last few issues see Tony ascend to godhood aboard Taa II along with Korvac. When they emerge on the other side, their battle rages across the universe. Both men utterly convinced of their righteousness and worthiness to wield omnipotent power.
Ultimately, the battle of gods is interrupted by the arrival of The Living Tribunal, creation’s avatar of balance itself, along with every other abstract entity in the cosmos that represents a facet of reality. They capture Korvac for the threat he poses to existence itself. They let Iron Man go free.
The Books of Korvac seemingly closed, Iron Man turns his attention back home.
Believing his purpose just and his ideas infallible, Tony proceeds to reshape the world despite the protestations of his allies in the Avengers and the Space Friends. His first act, to show the promise of his ideas, is to share his genius intellect with all the people of New York.
His alternative to Korvac’s forced unity is to overcome the barriers of small mindedness that stand in the way of his grand solutions.
In effect, he turns everyone else into him, too, because who wouldn’t want to be Tony Stark?
When he gives his intellect to everyone in New York, he doesn’t see it as stripping away choice. It is a gift to grant others a better way of living.
Of course, the irony is that Tony Stark also hates himself. By using his godly powers to extend his mind, he inflicts his own misery upon others.
It is a striking allegory of extreme depressive episodes and the addictive experience. The absence of self-love radiates outward, tearing down those around him.
When the Space Friends confront Tony, the Iron God kills them all in horrific fashion with the wave of his hands. Their deaths do not register on his conscience until he approaches Patsy. Patsy Walker, the tether to his humanity for the last few months, drags the Iron God down to Earth once again.
“I guess it’s my turn huh? At least I’ll go out a hero. And a friend.”
The words break through Tony’s delusions. Reminded of the brief glimpse of the man on the stranded planet, he stops in his tracks and breaks down in tears.
Patsy transports them into Tony’s mindscape where Tony reflects on his misdeeds. He could bring everyone back, make them forget everything. It would be easy to make it like their deaths never happened. But once again, Patsy anchors him. “But it did happen. You did this.” Tony operating under the assumption there were no consequences to his actions, like he was a god even before he ascended, has long been the root of his destructive tendencies.
Pretense stripped, in the vulnerable space of his own mind, Tony admits that it was fear that drove him and put him at odds with friends and allies. Fear that they were standing in the way, not of heroism, but of his chance to make his life worth something. Being Iron Man allowed his better angels a vehicle for doing good even as the man inside became emptier.
Every grand attempt to make things right ended in disaster because Tony Stark was still there, no matter what good Iron Man accomplished.
Patsy encourages Tony to bring those he killed back, but make them remember what he had done so he could not run away from it and forget. Only by accepting his failures could he move on from them. Tony brings back those he killed and apologizes. As they watch, he relinquishes the power cosmic. An addiction overcome.
Like any addiction, there is consequence and withdrawal. His friends walk away without a word, leaving Tony alone. As he walks through Central Park, no longer all-powerful, the delayed symptoms of his morphine withdrawl hits all at once and he collapses. He knows his death will come.
But as he passes out an escaped Korvac returns. He announces his new plan. Universal balance through universal annihilation.
Expecting a fight, Korvac is thrown off by Tony’s weakness and hallucinatory rambling. Instead of killing his hated enemy, Korvac falters back. A vulnerable Tony asks Korvac, “When was the last time you were a human being?” Korvac explained that in his time humanity was slaughtered. “But not you,” Tony pointed out. What did he do to survive? What deal did he make?
It threw Korvac into a rage. Stark mocked him. “Just know that this is how you had to beat me….This has been your thing since the beginning. You were smart but you always needed more. A security blanket. Protective alien masters. Android body. The world’s electricity. Cosmic power. You always had to have an ace… How long have you been scared to lose?”
The words were pointed at Korvac but they were just as much a curse upon himself. He thought that if he had just one more advantage he would finally fill the emptiness, overcome the fear of his own ignonimous existence. But even control over reality itself didn’t fix anything. He understood Korvac’s temptation now.
Tony challenged Korvac. “Stop hiding. Be a #&%#ing man for once in your life. Try it. Or are you too scared?”
Korvac relinquished the power, just as Tony did. He wanted the satisfaction of killing Stark with his bear hands. As he beat his hated enemy bloody, he demanded to know why Stark wasn’t fighting back. He admitted he was dying even if Korvac didn’t kill him.
Tony beaten and bruised at his feet, Korvac looked at his bloodied hands and up into the night sky, where the remains of his Power Cosmic streaked past. Suddenly, the meaninglessness of his vendetta, the delusions of cosmic mastery, were clear.
The final moments of the Books of Korvac are a powerful emotional payoff to this deceptively deep and introspective look at Tony Stark that uses the full tapestry of the Marvel Universe as allegory for Tony’s demons. Korvac lifts Tony and carries him to a hospital in a series of silent panels. Cafu draws Korvac with a succession of emotions ranging from confusion, to anger, to sorrow, and, ultimately, a crushing emptiness.
After leaving Tony at the hospital, Korvac turns around and climbs a ladder to the top of a building. For a moment he looks out at the horizon. He steps forward, and is gone.
Months later, Tony is driven to a rehab center by Patsy. Because of his relationships, he is able to accept his failures and weaknesses and work to heal them, even as Korvac succumbs.
Everything that Iron Man went through, the reality warping, the super villains and space travel, it all acted to literalize the human struggle of addiction and depression. This has always been the greatest potential for superhero storytelling, to make grand the personal battles we all face. Tony’s inner conflict is reflected in the external battle with Korvac, magnified a thousand fold.
In the story’s final moment, Tony reads a letter of support.
Just thinking of you. You can do this.
Tony smiles and looks out the window. He realizes at last that the world is not the empty, lonely place he remembered it being.
Ultimately, the solution to his self-hatred was not to become a god, or to fix everything to his liking. It was always about being a hero.
The big releases this week were probably the final issue of Chris Cantwell’s Iron Man (which I just started this week), a new Immortal X-Men, World’s Finest, and Nightwing. Of course, I am not talking about any of those. Because I’m reading the latter 3 and I plan to do something more cohesive about Iron Man.
For a look at other books outside the big 2 this week, check out The Beat’s round-up of indie books that came out yesterday, featuring my first contribution to the site.
The biggest news in the comics-related world this week was probably the death of Kevin Conroy, the iconic voice of Batman for more than 30 years. I have toyed with eulogizing Mr. Conroy here on the site but ultimately, I find myself with a lack of words to describe his impact on me, his contributions to the world of animation. Here is what I posted on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter:
Heartbreaking to hear the news about Kevin Conroy’s passing. Because he was most connected to a superhero cartoon, the immensity of his talent as an actor is undervalued and underestimated. Conroy’s performance as Batman is immortal not because of Batman as a concept but because he made Batman so profoundly, painfully human. Kevin tapped into the loss and rage and sorrow that propels Batman. He became the indelible voice of Batman because he recontextualized the character into a complex man with emotional range. Conroy’s Batman could be frightening and intense. He could be soft and compassionate. He could be vulnerable and colder than ice. I have no doubt that Batman has become a cultural icon because of his seminal work. To understand the depth of that humanity I invite you to read Kevin Conroy’s short memoir and reflection on finding Batman in DC’s 2022 Pride Special. A painful, uplifting, and honest reflection. RIP, Batman.
If you’ve not read his contribution to the DC Pride special, DC made it free to read in his memory here.
Kevin’s death, from an aggressive and rapid cancer, hits especially hard given the recent loss in my own family under similar circumstances.
Obviously, my love for Batman and the Animated Series (and the DCAU it spawned) is well-documented. Kevin Conroy is to thank for so much of that. You can read my series of Batman essays from earlier this year at this link. And if you are interested in revisiting the DCAU, you can journey along with my watch-through from about ten years ago on my old tumblr (Which may become a replacement for my Twitter if that place keeps sinking).
Well, let’s get to the funny books.
Star Wars: Han Solo & Chewbacca #7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Paul Fry, Artist. Alex Sinclair, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J Basso, Danny Khazen, Mark Paniccia, Editors.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book. But there’s also nothing particularly compelling to sink your teeth into. It does very little to justify its existence and fails to leverage the iconic characters at its center in any meaningful or interesting way. Oh there’s plenty of Easter eggs, we’ve got Ponda Baba and Greedo and Maz Kanata. But none of them do anything that gives us more information about them that fills out this universe.
It’s the worst type of Star Wars publishing. Playing with the old toys and adding nothing new.
This is a prison break issue, which can be a fun trope for a sci-fi story. There have been lots of good ones. God knows I loved the scenes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the prisonbreak is one of my favorite Outlaw Star episodes. But to make it compelling there needs to be some investment in the stakes. What are the characters going through in this jail? How is the Imperial system degrading the people it incarcerates?
We are set firmly in the darkest moment of the Galaxy’s history, a period being explored brilliantly by the television show Andor, but Han Solo and Chewbacca fails to grapple with any themes at all.
October has been a whirlwind of a month with some intense emotional highs and lows and incredibly heavy workloads and alas, once again, this little website fell to the wayside. The Phillies made an improbable push to a mere 2 games from winning the World Series, which was tremendously exciting and soul crushingly disappointing. We lost my aunt, and spent time with family. The day-job has never been more demanding. It’s all I’ve been able to do to stay afloat!
Outside of this week’s comics I’ve been continuing my reading of early 80s Spider-Man, though I switched over to Spectacular and that is markedly less good than Stern and DeFalco’s top-notch work on Amazing. Black Cat just doesn’t work in these early years, too desperately clingy to Spider-Man as a defining character feature. I’ve also been catching up on the world of Batman, particularly Meghan Fitzmartin’s work on Tim Drake. Belen Ortega, who did the art on the Urban Legends Robin story? Superstar! Need to see more of them stat.
I’ve also gotten all caught up on IDW’s TMNT to prep for an upcoming interview, after being quite behind. The Mutant Towm story and status quo I find, frankly, to be dreadfully boring. But the last few arcs leading up to Armageddon Game have been excellent, particularly the story that introduced Venus. Shout out to letterer Shawn Lee, whose work on TMNT has been nothing short of incredible. Every issue he does something that stops me in my tracks. If there are “superstar letterers”, Lee is definitely one of them.
The Armageddon Game is shaping up to be an extremely fun event, too. The art on the event series is fantastic and they brought in CUDDLY THE COWLICK. What’s not to love?
Enough rambling…Onto the main event: The comic books I’m not reading! I somehow accidentally made this week’s column for MATURE READERS ONLY, so no kids allowed.
The hard part about trying to run a website with no monetary incentive is how often things like a “real job,” or “making sure a child doesn’t starve,” interfere with lofty goals and scheduling plans. So, generally, my brain is mush from a major crunch in the office and various illnesses and a virus parade, courtesy of my wife’s class of first-graders, and my son’s daycare. Essentially all I’ve had the energy to do is catch up on classic issues of Amazing & Spectacular Spider-Man. Where I have discovered that Denny O’Neil’s tenure is among his worst work, and Roger Stern is an all-time great. I’ll be back soon with more breaking news from the late 70s and early 80s.
All that to say–after a missed week last week, and a delayed tie-in to the new Tim Drake series (which I have still not had the chance to read) No Context Comics is back. It’s a fun week with many different feelings.
That Texas Blood #18
Chris Condon & Jacob Phillips, Creators. Pip Martin, Color assists
My favorite part of this column is reading books that are deep into a run. I have much less fun reading a number 2 or 3. Early in the runs books are usually trying to tackle heavy exposition to set up their concept or moving past the initial introductions of their number one. So it’s too soon to subtly catch people up but you don’t have enough information to understand what is going on. That’s not a rule but it is something I’ve already gotten a sense of. First arcs in particular have a rhythm that makes it extremely difficult to understand anything midstream. Many writers are also still feeling out their characters and vision.
But at 18 issues, a series has found its footing and a level of confidence in its storytelling and characters. After the first year, the world begins to feel authentic and lived in, even without heavy or explicit narrations. Even a new reader gets a sense of the creative team’s voice and point of view.
That confidence is evident all over this issue of That Texas Blood which sees what I assume to be a climactic and series-defining moment. Even without the context of everything that has happened to the two pairs of characters at the center of this issue’s murder mystery story, the weight of these events and relationships are excellently crafted. Writer Condon fills the scenes between the two seniors with unspoken emotion and relationship. Jacob Phillips gives the two a tender and subtly intimate physical relationship that speaks volumes about how these two relate to one another. They have both lived a life and, perhaps, are on the cusp of coming together to move beyond past pains to move forward together.
I’m not sure why there is a blizzard in Texas, but the discordant weather provides an unsettling and eerie atmosphere, accentuated by the cool and muted colors. The warmth surrounding our apparent leads for this issue as they relax within the warmth of their home is a flickering thing, marred by tragedy and the crimson of bloodshed.
This is the kind of issue that gives you just enough information through its storytelling–both in script and art–to make the events engrossing while inviting readers to go back to understand more about its characters to fully appreciate.
On its own, though, this is a great example of serialized comic book storytelling. It stands alone while no doubt being even more affecting with full context. It doesn’t punish someone who leafs through it on a whim by rattling off character names or summaries. It presents an intimate portrait of its characters and an emotional fallout. Another to add to my list of books to go back and read.
Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty # 5
Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, Writers. Carmen Carnero, Lines. Nolan Woodard, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Kaitlyn Lindtvedt & Alanna Smith, Editors.
This issue really doesn’t work for me but it has very little to do with the structure of the story or the storytelling. I think Lanzing and Kelly do a strong job of presenting the stakes–both emotional and global–within the text of the issue itself. Carnero’s art is gorgeous and expressive. I just don’t like this plot. That’s not usually what this column is about, but I am going to go ahead and complain anyway. I think it is silly and undermines Bucky Barnes to have him not a product of Cold War Russian espionage but actually a product of a centuries-old mystery war between a shadowy ur-government controlling world events.
Furthermore, it just contradicts years of Marvel continuity beyond just Winter Soldier’s elegantly simple story.
I don’t think that we add anything by giving Bucky a physical manifestation of his brainwashing to shoot. But we lose plenty–Bucky being warped by the realities of war and violence. It removes an allegory for real world veteran trauma and pain. Men come back from war twisted and broken, unrecognizable to themselves and loved ones.
Perhaps it is an attempt to keep Bucky and Steve on opposite moral ends as Winter Soldier’s rough edges have been shaved off a bit over time. But it just seems tone deaf to what made Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky compelling. “Secret cabal controlling world conflict” is also a bit tired as far as Marvel plots go. It is also extremely silly to say Captain America’s shield is actually a symbol for a secret cabal…It’s just the American flag.
Plot aside–and it’s a big aside–Lanzing and Kelly’s storytelling mechanics work well here. The Marvel recap page is always appreciated by this writer, and the conflict between our heroes is both logical and seeded naturally from the very first page to make the final moment of the issue feel both inevitable and dramatic.
Carnero gives the whole thing a cinematic flair with harsh lighting and dramatic lens flares. The final conflict, taking place in a hologram projection of a winter landscape, effectively reflects the motif of artificiality and gamesmanship that permeates the issue and, I assume, the whole arc.
I don’t know. If this “Five Points” plot works for you, great. It falls apart completely for me.
Poison Ivy #5
G. Willow Wilson, Writer. Marcio Takara & Brian Level, Pencils. Stefano Gaudiano, Inks. Arif Prianto, Colors. Hassan Otsmane-Elhauo, Letters. Arianna Turturro & Ben Abernathy, Editors.
I find myself tiring of the idea of villains becoming good guys. Not because I don’t believe in the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. No, I just think it diminishes the line because over time it seems like every supervillain slowly becomes a hero, thus dwindling down the hero’s rogues gallery and reducing the potential stories to be told with those characters as villains. It seems to happen any time a bad guy hits a certain threshold of popularity.
Poison Ivy, though? It’s hard to write her as a villain these days. Though her methods continue to be extreme, it’s hard to argue that the woman consistently trying to save the planet from manmade destruction, even using extremist ends, is somehow “the bad guy,” particularly when the target is often the rich or affluent, as has often been the case for Poison Ivy stories. It kind of sends the wrong message…We are on the precipice of global destruction from our wanton destruction of the environment, so painting the most prominent ecological advocate as purely a terrorist rings as tone deaf.
G Willow Wilson here does a strong job positioning Pamela Isley as conflicted by her more deadly whims and her own desire for personal growth. Using Batman as a physical manifestation of her conscience is a great way to show her own moral development. Batman believed in Ivy’s ability to make positive change, and now she hallucinates him as her better angel.
It also seems both inevitable and brilliant to connect Poison Ivy to DC’s concept of “The Green,” the sentient magic/science of the world’s plant life. It gives Ivy both a “higher calling” to redirect her energies from petty crime to true superheroics. I like how conflicted Ivy seems here between her own selfish desires and her yearning for justice. I must admit to being largely ignorant of Ivy’s current origin story, but tying her into the Floronic Man and Swamp Thing helps to make her transition into a semi-mystical anti-hero feel logical.
Wilson gives a good sense of Ivy’s internal struggle as well as the righteous anger she feels toward the Floronic Man even though I don’t know any of what has led up to this fight. One problem often facing villains-turned-heroes is who do they fight if not the hero they have started to help? Giving Ivy the extended world of nature-monsters to play in helps to solve that conundrum.
Like the other books this week, this story gives just enough information to be engrossing without being confusing or overbearing. With the help of the narration and the nature of this issue’s climactic confrontation, we get a lot of what we need to understand what is at stake and why Ivy is doing what she is doing. It’s a strong and confident script from Wilson, aided by the art from Marcio Takara and Brian Level. Both artists imbue the characters with plenty of personality, and Floronic Man (in both human and monster form) is a positively frightening figure.
I appreciate the clarity of vision in this issue from the creators, which overcame my biases against villain-turned-hero stories to tell a compelling, character-centric story.
What do Flashpoint Beyond, Starhenge, and the Dead Lucky have in common?
Nothing, really. And that’s the beauty of this series for me. The breadth of what I can read and get out of it changes week-to-week. This week’s books cover quite a wide swath of what comics are in today’s market which makes for a fun feature even if I can’t say I enjoyed them all. Well there’s really just one I didn’t enjoy.
A nice mix of characters and ideas I am familiar with but not following and things completely new to me in this week’s picks. Any week where I get to read a book with Phil Noto art is a good week.
I am enjoying the big events at Marvel and DC right now, but it is nice to jump into these one-off issues and free myself from the compulsion to read every chapter to enjoy a comic book.
The Variants #3
Gail Simone, Phil Noto, Cory Petit
I appreciate that Marvel provides the summary pages for their comics. Even when I am reading a book month-to-month I often refer to the summary page as a quick refresher. I think it is a great practice that doesn’t really steal away anything from the issue in total. That said, the intro here doesn’t provide a full picture of just what is going on.
And I think that’s a good thing! Jessica Jones has just encountered alternate universe versions of herself and has reason to believe her mind control by the Purple Man is going to come back to haunt her and hurt her family. Sheis disoriented and confused.
I think Jessica Jones is a great character that hasn’t had a lot of chances to shine within the Marvel Universe proper. Bendis had her as a pretty big supporting player in his Avengers run but after he left she didn’t get as much play as she deserved, despite a Netflix show whose first season was a critical darling. Gail Simone (who we really don’t see enough of anymore) channels what made the character special under Bendis’s pen, making Jess feel both gruff and compassionate. Her reaction to seeing a younger version of herself untouched by the Purple Man’s evil was a particularly powerful moment.
I know we are going all-in on multiverse stuff in pop culture right now for some reason (existential dread of planetary collapse and a desire to imagine a different world maybe?) and it is occasionally groan-worthy when we get, particularly at Marvel, so many “What if this character had another character’s powers?” This book manages to make it work, however, because there is a real desire to explore how different choices color Jessica’s already complicated opinion of herself. How does seeing herself as the hopeful, optimistic hero she envisioned herself to be when she was younger impact her in the present? How does seeing herself as the leader of the Avengers make her feel about her choices to step away from superheroics? All of that is compelling, even if it is not fully dug into in this issue. The threads are there, though, and they work as a character study.
One thing that is often missing in modern superhero stories, particularly with the glut of them in various media, is how they can be used to powerfully grapple with real, personal issues on an exaggerated scale. Creators who do not really get superheroes often reduce them to action smashemups without much under the surface. Really, it’s the source of the “Superman isn’t an interesting character” argument. If you only view superhero stories in terms of power level and who is stronger, then you miss a key element of what made them so enduring and culturally powerful.