Book Of The Week – AVENGERS ACADEMY #14.1
Long time readers of this column might wonder if this title has replaced NOVA in that every issue seems to get a review, and many issues are at the top of the week’s heap. Given that this book appeared on the scene after NOVA was canceled, something certainly had to fill the vacuum. This is the latest of Marvel’s “Point One Initiative” in which the intention was to supply a “jumping on” issue for an ongoing series, or hype a new series about to launch, but in practice is just an annual under another name (or an extra issue). Unlike some of the .1 issues, this one has the series’ regular writer, Christos Gage, penning the story. In fact, Sean Chen, who has become the semi-regular artist on the regular title next to Tom Raney, handles the art chores here. While the cadets are introduced and the series’ premise is used as a foundation for the story, for all intents and purposes this is an extra issue of the ongoing series (same as Gage’s two issue run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN recently was). Scott Hanna and Jeromy Cox handle the inks and colors, respectively, as they have done for most of the Avengers Academy issues here.
The cadets of the Academy (Reptil, Veil, Mettle, Finesse, Striker, and Hazmat) are once again trying to apprehend some escaped super-villain with the assistance of one of their instructors (Giant-Man, as it often is). They decide to look into some of the super-powered teenagers who, like them, were experimented on by Norman Osborn, but unlike them, weren’t recruited into the Academy. While the kids are not miserable at the Avengers Academy, many of them long for normal lives once more, or at least less eventful ones with a optimistic endpoint. They soon meet one, Jeremy Briggs, who has used his powers as well as smarts to become an 18 year old billionaire, who helps them on their quest to find the others. Along the way, the cadets learn some insight as well as gain some alternatives in their future besides relying on the Avengers or the super-hero game. As with most things, however, it turns out to be too good to be true. While all of the cadets share the issue, Finesse seems to get a big moment at the end. This story takes place after issue #14 (http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-5-18-11-the-kids-the-brawl-review), but stands on it’s own as well.
While it is easy to disregard this a bit as a “bonus” issue in Marvel’s attempt to entice more readers to purchase it, this would be a foolhardy assumption. In a way, this is the last “regular” issue of the series before it begins a five issue tie-in with FEAR ITSELF. While AVENGERS ACADEMY was selling above the cancellation mark as of April (and is one of Marvel’s few new launches featuring new characters to be assured of a 20th issue), it is still in that “danger zone” and Marvel would like to see more readers hop aboard. While Gage has often done well with crossover tie-in stories in his AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE run, they are a different beast in terms of stories. Often it means having one’s characters run around the outskirts and background of a story someone else is telling, in which they must be somehow impacted by it but not derail that other writer’s story. Given the nature of FEAR ITSELF, this means the kids may end up fighting someone with a demonic hammer or fighting robotic Neo-Nazis. At any rate, this issue is an issue that deals with the cadets directly, without influence from a line wide crossover event or a web-slinging lead character. The ending also leaves things in which the cadets have a character who could prove to be an interesting antagonist for the future who has ties to them, not the adult Avengers. That would be an important thing to have should the title survive into a second year.
The issue has a bit of action but a lot of imagination and above all, a writer who has a feel for his characters and can write stories that challenge them as heroes and characters. It has become, and remains, the “can’t miss” series of the Avengers franchise that offers more than the standard tropes and characters. As part of the .1 Initiative, this issue cements why this series is as good as it is and Gage’s talents as a writer, as well as Chen’s as an artist with all the changing locations. Marvel pushing a series that happens to feature new characters and actually be good is admirable, and hopefully it has a tangible benefit in the coming months. If not, FEAR ITSELF should provide some minimal spike.
TEARS OF THE DRAGON: VOLUME 1 – This is an “indie” comic by Tyler James and artist Koko Amboro, with colors by Paul Little and Miguel Marques. This series seems to have begun as a webcomic (http://www.totdcomic.com/) that has now been collected as one 56 page trade paperback for sale on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Tears-Dragon-1-Tyler-James/dp/0983068917/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1306546145&sr=8-1); it also is sold as a digital comic by Graphic.ly and is published by Comix Tribe. This is the second Comix Tribe production to have a review copy sent to this humbled reviewer (the first being THE STANDARD #1: http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-5-11-11-youth-revolt-the-standard-review), and as such warrants a full review. The story takes place in a world of dragons, armored knights, swords and sorcery. The backdrop is that most of the action is revealed by an old grandfather who is taking his two grandkids on a pilgrimage; his stories are treated as being history of the past of their realm, but his involvement is unknown. The artwork by Amboro is fine; neither explosive or difficult to follow – he an artist with a strong grasp of the fundamentals who likely needs more experience before he truly erupts as a talent. He does, at least, draw some solid dragons and battle armor. The color work is quite capable, and of professional quality. As the tale is told as a literal camp fire story, there is a heavy emphasis on narration and aside for one key action sequence with a dragon, most of the on-panel action is brief. As the series is originally a webcomic, it will be easy to read digitally as well as in print. I am not the biggest fan of “sword and sorcery” stories; I can occasionally enjoy them enough for a film now and again, but it is not a genre that I am heavily invested in. As such, it is possible my review could be a bit harder than it warrants. This story has a lot of classical elements to fantasy stories that fans of the genre should find comforting, and the tale is told well. The difficulty with a tale told in flashback, as this series is, is that it can make a reader struggle to find a point to it unless it’s relevance to present events is displayed quickly. The ending of the volume does tease that, with the key characters winding up in some real-life danger. To a degree it is similar to “THE PRINCESS BRIDE”, although it has little of the humor and self-mocking references, and is instead played fairly straight. On the whole, the volume is executed quite well, but seems to lack a “spark” that makes it seem more than a decently written and told fantasy yarn. However, if fantasy yarns are the things one seeks, it is worth checking out. The second volume has a solid foundation to work from and may end up being superior for it, as this first volume does pick up steam as it goes along, as all stories should. The cliffhanger will be followed up on and the characters in “the grandfather’s story” should develop as well, as James clearly has bigger things in mind for his saga. There is a gap in the market for fantasy comic books that aren’t parodies or genre deconstructions, and TEARS OF THE DRAGON should fill it for fan of dungeons and dragons. The trade can be had for $15, although the official website offers free shipping within the U.S. and Canada, so that might be more appealing than Amazon. Despite not being a big fan of the genre, I was disappointed that the story ended where it did, wanting to see what happened next; that is what matters most in a story.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #663 – Writer Dan Slott returns to solo story duty for the first time in quite a few issues (at least five off the top of my head), and with him is artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, with Klaus Janson on inks and Matt Hollingsworth on colors. While the era of ASM being 30 pages for $3.99 may be coming to an end, at the very least several issues lately have clocked in with higher page counts; the last issue was 32 pages and this one adds up to 35, which includes a 25 page lead story and two back-up strips. Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort whined when asked about page cuts for $2.99 comics that Marvel doesn’t get any credit when some issues run “over” instead, so here it is. Happy? At any rate, this issue begins the next arc in the “Before Spider-Island” era, which is “The Ghost Of Jean DeWolfe”. Not only does it feature what the title suggests, but Mr. Negative and Anti-Venom (Eddie Brock’s new symbiote-less vigilante identity) also are critical to the plot. Anti-Venom has declared to end the criminal career of Mr. Negative, who has a double identity as philanthropist Martin Li – who funds the soup kitchen that May Parker often works at, among other things. Mr. Negative is a newer villain created by Slott in earlier ASM stories back in 2008, and not all of his origins have been revealed. In a way he harkens back to the original “multiple identity” angle of Green Goblin, in that Li himself is unaware that he transforms into Mr. Negative, and Mr. Negative sees Li as a “powerless” form. At any rate, this issue shows that Slott has a wide knowledge of Spider-Man lore and knows how to not only reference it, but utilize it for new stories. Jean DeWolfe was the last lady employed by the NYPD that Spider-Man was involved with (at least for romantic tension), until she was killed by the Sin-Eater in the 1980’s in a particularly dark story. Trying to reveal who Sin-Eater was turned out to be the story that cost journalist Eddie Brock his career and resulted in him becoming Venom in the first place. Jean’s brother Brian was also active as the psychically powered vigilante Wraith, both under the will of their father Philip and his own motivations; he was ultimately killed by the vigilante Scourge. Thus, the DeWolfe family has been associated with death about as often as the Stacy’s in Spider-Man’s universe. The real riddle is whether this is Jean resurrected, Jean as a real “ghost of vengeance”, or even a ruse by Mysterio. Camuncoli’s artwork is also exceptional. Slott also writes another INFESTED two page strip alongside Emma Rios, who will be drawing the SPIDER-ISLAND: CLOAK AND DAGGER mini series this summer; coincidentally, the strip also features that duo. While the two are technically spin-offs of the Spider-Man universe, an attempt to rekindle that to try to drive up interest in them which has waned with them solo is admirable. On the other hand, it can be seen as a publicity stunt. Finally, there is an 8 page strip by Todd Dezago and Todd Nauck (who has become a master of an 8 page run), with color by Chris Sotomayor. It is a simple but effective story in which Spider-Man goes on a patrol, seems to screw everything up and wonder why he bothers, only for the reader at least to realize that his efforts weren’t all worthless. On the whole, this issue cements Slott’s status as a top Spider-Man writer and already seems stronger than the FF arc. For those unused to Brock’s new identity, the name can seem blunt; an “anti-venom” is a real thing, but it comes off sounding cheesier than it should. Will the day when villains named Anti-Freeze, Anti-Histamine or Anti-Pasto soon arise?
HEROES FOR HIRE #8 – This is the conclusion of “cosmic” writers Dan Abnnet and Andy Lanning’s revival of this “urban heroes” franchise, and it is quite satisfying. Brad Walker (their old rotating regular artist on GUARDIANS OF THE GLOBE) also returns, alongside Jay David Ramos on colors and two inkers in tow. Picking up from last issue (http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-5-18-11-the-kids-the-brawl-review), this finale has Batroc the Leaper, the Scorpion, modern-day ninja, demonic assault weapons, AND dinosaurs. If one thinks there is no way a comic could include all these things and be less than exciting, one would be right. Unlike with GUARDIANS OF THE GLOBE, Abnett and Lanning have kept their cast very loose and flexible in this series; Misty Knight and Paladin remain the only regular stars, with Spider-Man finishing his three issue guest stint (a cameo from another does at least tie into previous issues). This is a risk as this suggests that this is MARVEL TEAM-UP under another name, which readers haven’t flocked to since the 1980’s in large numbers; as we type, this series inches closer to the cancellation mark (more so than AVENGERS ACADEMY has). This issue has a lot of action as well as a steady stream of one-liners, with Misty Knight showing she can match Spider-Man not only blow-for-blow, but quip for quip in a fight. The only blemish is the aforementioned cameo character literally spoon feeding the romantic subplot to Misty, and the reader, in a manner as subtle as a brick when no such thing was needed except for the most clueless of readers (who wouldn’t like this series anyway). In the future, it might do this series some good to come up with a stable cast of characters, especially since there are no end of characters willing to work “for hire” in the Marvel universe – the fact that Paladin is working for something genuine this time (love) would make it all the more interesting. Future issues should follow up on the “mastermind” introduced in this one, even if his identity has been revealed in solicitations already. At any rate, this first ongoing series set on Earth for these two at Marvel continues to move along at a great pace, and is even outdoing their ANNIHILATORS mini series. It is certainly not one to miss, especially for those who live by the credo that there are no “lame” characters, only lame writers.
OBLIGATORY REVIEW: FEAR ITSELF #3
Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen (as well as their dedicated inkers anc colorists) continue their drum beat of an event mini series, and things continue to be underwhelming. This series ties in awkwardly with Ed Brubaker’s CAPTAIN AMERICA, as the same “Bucky” Barnes who is stuck in a Russian gulag for several months is somehow leading a squad of Avengers into Washington, D.C. to fight Sin/Skadi’s Neo-Nazi robots, AS Captain America. Marvel cannot, simply CANNOT, boast about their cohesive universe that rewards dedicated readers (i.e. their only readers) who buy 10-25 titles or more a month if the events of a Top 35 seller aren’t even hinted at in a line wide crossover. At any rate, Bucky has been rumored to die in this issue online for months, and this issue does not wander from that speculation. This issue easily has the most action of the entire series thus far, although that isn’t saying a whole lot. Like many a crossover mini series, it exists to sell other comics, not tell a story; some of “the Worthy” (villains possessed by magic Norse hammers thrown out by “the Serpent”) got their hammers in other comics and need a scorecard recap page, and others do nothing once they claim it. This issue is literally called, “The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street”, suggesting the fact that the Thing becomes one of “the Worthy” would be the focus of the issue; in reality it is the focus of a mere 4 pages (including a double page splash). The downside of the action and explosions is that it makes the issue a rapid read, and for $4 that can become irritating. The reason why internet piracy is on the rise isn’t because we live in a generation of thievery, it is because people do not want to pay increasingly difficult to obtain and deflated dollars for crap, or even for what is merely average. The entire plot of this series can be summarized like this: an ancient Norse god has been freed and is throwing evil hammers at other characters so that they can in turn smash things in different locations, and heroes respond. It has taken 66 pages to expand on that premise. The crossover tie-in’s will consist of a guest Worthy entering another book, like THUNDERBOLTS or AVENGERS ACADEMY, and hit them with a hammer – the fact that this makes it a Loony Tune played straight is lost on the humorless Fraction and Marvel editorial. This is a story that would have benefited from 2009-2010’s objective, when Marvel editorial felt that making an event last longer than five or six months was “too long”; there is no reason for a story as crude as this to be more than half as long as WATCHMEN. The highlight of this series continues to be Immonen’s artwork, which is quite stunning and comes to life even more when things are exploding; the color and ink work are also exceptional. The story, however, is a dog. It is a “SUPERFRIENDS” episode stretched seven times it’s length and lacking even unintentional humor. This is even disregarding outright story flaws such as why Mr. Fantastic asks Thing to try moving the hammer when he already has had experience with Norse hammers and their risks (such as when Dr. Doom sought Mjolnir back when he was seemingly dead), or why Steve Rogers has dispatched heroes to fight giant robots in D.C. who in no way can quickly destroy giant robots, like Shang Chi and Falcon.
The death of Bucky, if it is not a cheat – Robert Kirkman has gotten out of far gorier death scenes in INVINCIBLE lately – seems to be an incredible waste. He is a character who Stan Lee killed off panel in the 60’s that every Marvel writer since has seen as unmovable canon. Yet not only did Ed Brubaker revive him within the first year of his run on CAPTAIN AMERICA, he did so in a genuinely well accepted way, grooming him to become the star of the book. As star, Bucky held onto sales gains from 2006 for years of time. Even if he was no longer to be Captain America, he still had value as a character. Killing him for something as cheap as a summer event, especially one as crudely simple and poorly written as this, is something of a travesty. The one time Marvel editorial allows something truly great and unique to change the status quo of an “older than dirt” comic book series, almost by accident, and they have to squander it for, what? A film and a crossover? How do they think those last issues of Brubaker’s CAPTAIN AMERICA run before the relaunch will sell now, since the readers know Barnes is dead? Marvel controls half of a multi-million dollar industry yet they often have less sense than a teenager who spends 8 hours a day asking, “would you like fries with that?” And this doesn’t even get into Fraction ruining another writer’s efforts, Jeff Parker’s, with the Juggernaut. If FEAR ITSELF reveals anything, it is that there is at least one writer who can tell a worse event story than Brian M. Bendis. He at least wastes his “pointless death scene to make this heap of donkey feces seem important” moment for the final act. At any rate, FEAR ITSELF is inspiring another four letter word that begins with F, but it isn’t “fear”. The fact that Matt Fraction has gone from writing Eisner worthy Iron Man stories to this drivel is so stunning that an investigation into lead paint at the Marvel bullpen might be legitimate. With another four issues to go, and with Marvel spoiling every detail in promotions for a story that wouldn’t know a twist if you tied it in knots, people who read spoilers in advance or download illegally are the lucky ones. April sales figures reveal that FEAR ITSELF #1 had a lower sales debut than SIEGE #1, especially if the first few issues are returnable like SIEGE was, and it deserves far less. Only if DC’s FLASHPOINT mops the floor with “Hammer-Time” will Marvel get serious about their quality of line wide crossovers again. There’s a great metaphor for this series; it seems as if someone was hammered when writing it. One could continue with the nit-picks and judgments all day, but I would not wish to invest more effort in criticizing FEAR ITSELF than Fraction has in writing it. Less than 50% complete and already a contestant for the “worst story of 2011” award. When a story as crude as WRESTLEMANIA can’t even be executed properly, it is time to seriously re-evaluate things. Hopefully some of the tie-in’s will continue to be better.
Also Good Reads: Batman Beyond #6 (DC Comics); Haunt #16 (Image Comics); Herc #4 & Thunderbolts #158 (Marvel Comics)
Last Week’s Reviews – http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-5-25-11-spider-man-his-amazing-class-review