Book Of The Week – AVENGERS ACADEMY #15
This is the second issue to ship this month, after the .1 issue at the top of June (http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-6-1-11-decimal-issues-can-be-fun-and-educational-review), and the first in a lengthy stretch that ties into Marvel’s latest event, FEAR ITSELF. It will be a five issue crossover, one of the longest durations for many Marvel ongoing titles. While sales have been steady for this title for the past 3-4 months at over 23,500 copies, Marvel likely does hope for a boost for some of these issues. This may be possible, but such a sales boost will likely be modest – the days when a crossover could boost an ongoing title by notable means for more than a single month likely ended with SECRET INVASION in 2008. Which actually is a shame in this case, because AVENGERS ACADEMY remains the best Avengers title Marvel publishes. Christos Gage has hit a stride with this title that has proven superior to even his best work on AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE – which was exceptional in itself by the end. In that title, Gage had to ride with the waves of one crossover tie-in after the next, whether with co-writer Dan Slott or alone. Every time, he managed to wrangle a good if not great story out of it, and this issue is no exception. He uses the event as a backdrop to continue telling stories with his characters, and develop long-term themes and subplots. Thus, the reader who may only be reading this does not feel lost, or cheated. After several issues of Sean Chen’s artwork, Tom Raney returns for this issue and likely the next few, alongside Jeromy Cox on colors and two inkers.
The key information is that the Raft, a prison full of super-villains, has been smashed open at the same time as attacks by superhumans across the globe are sowing fear and chaos. They are all slaves of “evil Norse hammers” that have been sent by “The Serpent”, who grows stronger with the chaos. One of them, Sin, the daughter of Red Skull, has attacked Washington, D.C. with an army of Neo-Nazi in giant mechanical exoskeletons. Overwhelmed by the siege, Steve Rogers asks Giant-Man if he and his cadets are ready for a war zone. Begrudgingly, he says yes. While prior encounters with the demigod Korvac or the Sinister Six have tested the skills and integrity of the young cadets, this proves to be unlike anything they have trained for. Their instructors, particularly Pym and Tigra, hate to have to be the ones who lead them into battle, and perhaps their deaths, but have no choice but to do so. The events naturally cause the characters to relive some of their most painful moments, from Tigra losing her husband to Striker’s fear of death, and Mettle’s fear of causing death. Pym is eager to quickly defeat Absorbing Man, who has also been empowered by a hammer, but his rush to do so (to save his cadets) may spell his own doom.
The problem with FEAR ITSELF as a story is that it has very little of one – it merely offers a lot of combat and explosions with very little actual meat to encourage people to care. This is a problem that this tie-in deftly avoids. Gage tells the reader all they need to know about the event for context and scene building, but makes it about his characters. He does an equally terrific job of selling the danger of the event, and the threat they are facing. The cadets, in Washington D.C. are being thrown into something akin to 9/11, while the sheer power of “The Worthy” is stressed heavily. It is a struggle that not only won’t be easy to survive, much less win, but clearly will be one with casualties. The point that people as young as the cadets have been sent to wars both currently and throughout history is also stressed as an unpleasant reality. While Pym and Tigra clearly get the lion’s share of focus out of the adult mentors in most issues, Gage is able to utilize them in ways many writers haven’t in years, or ever. He also is not afraid to break his own original cadet characters down and show us what they are made of, or not made of. While Tom Raney is not a “house hold name” artist like some are – even Sean Chen was best known on IRON MAN in the 90’s – he handles the combat scenes and facial expressions very well. It has to be a challenge drawing a character with a skull for a head having an emotional reaction to something, but Raney pulls it off.
While this entire series has had subplots, this five issue stretch will actually be one of the longest arcs the series has yet had. This issue provides an exceptional story to kick off that stretch. Gage is a writer who can turn virtually any editorial backdrop into at least a readable story, if not a great one. AVENGERS ACADEMY #15 accomplishes the latter and looks to continue being a “must read” book for Marvel fans of good taste despite tying into the Crossover Du Jour. If Marvel were serious about newer, younger readers, they’d make sure back issues of this series were at their digital shop, pronto. With as intense an issue as this, it is difficult to imagine where the next will lead – as it should be.
INVINCIBLE #80 – Having skipped May (http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-4-20-11-is-t-rex-wednesday-the-new-casual-friday-review), Robert Kirkman’s long running creator owned superhero series reaches another high round number. While the schedule for the supplemental mini series GUARDING THE GLOBE has gone off the rails, this title continues to be on it’s usual pace of shipping 8-10 issues a year (aside for 2009, where it actually shipped monthly). With the Viltrimute War behind us and the title hero, these past few issues have been seeking to play catch-up with the lives of the supporting cast back on earth. This is actually a good and perhaps overdue thing. Mark Grayson’s friend William, for instance, has had more panel time for these past two issues than he’s gotten in almost two years. Ryan Ottley’s pencils continue on their usual pace of excellence, and while Nikos Koutsis’ colors are fine, it takes some getting used to. As the cover suggests, one of Invincible’s newer enemies – Dinosaurus – marks a return here. Much as Kirkman is using this time to dust off Mark’s earth-based cast, he also is addressing the problem of there being few enemies who seem able to challenge Mark anymore unless they are of his alien Viltrimute heritage – or are the dimension hopping Angstrom Levy, who appears infrequently. Between Dinosaurus and SUPER-DINOSAUR, Kirkman is coming close to waring out his welcome with the prehistoric reptiles in a similar manner that some writers over-use the appeal of gorillas, cyborgs, zombies, or ninja. Quite a lot is packed into these 22 pages, due to many of them having as many as 12 panels apiece. Thus, in 22 pages Kirkman is able to pack in quite a few conversations between characters as well as get in a major fight sequence without things feeling rushed. Suffice it to say Dinosaurus proves to be a worthy threat to Invincible and the world, and in a manner that is unexpected – his mind (or at least cunning). The TECH-JACKET back-up strip by Kirkman, Aubrey Sitterson, and artist E.J. Su also wraps up, after having two issues off. The cliffhanger revelation of the previous issue does come up, but it is a very delicate subject which is naturally something to deal with apart from super-action. Plus, Invincible actually TALKS a super-criminal out of a heist! The only negative is a half page sequence where Kirkman has his comic-loving hero talk to a comic shop clerk, which ends with a bit which seems very much like Kirkman once again shaking his finger at the “big two” for recent editorial stunts. While it is probably deserved, and Kirkman does poke some fun at himself, it can come off as hypocritical coming from a writer who cashed paychecks from Marvel for a large chunk of his career and currently earns heftier pay with an AMC TV show. While some readers have felt this title is in a rut, I believe this title is a perfect marriage of the enjoyable tropes of superhero comics with the leeway of a creator owned comic, in which anything can truly happen. While some issues and stretches are better or worse than others, this remains a solid investment for any reader who even remotely enjoys superheroes who doesn’t enjoy having to buy seven titles to enjoy a franchise.
ALPHA FLIGHT #1 – Believe it or not, this is technically the second issue of this latest attempt to relaunch Marvel’s Canadian super-team; ALPHA FLIGHT #0.1 went on sale on May 18th. Not only has “The .1 Initiative” been used to try to drum up interest in long running ongoing series by producing an extra issue of it, it is being used to promote new mini or ongoing series (like GHOST RIDER) before they have official debuted. Thus, it was a “zero” issue, only trendier – everything has a dot in it these days. At any rate, with writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente aboard – the masterminds behind the classic INCREDIBLE HERCULES/FALL OF AN EVENGER/PRINCE OF POWER/CHAOS WAR/HERC run – this is a must buy for anyone curious about reading more great Marvel comics. Along for the ride on this eight issue series is artist Dale Eaglesham, fresh off great runs on FANTASTIC FOUR and STEVE ROGERS: SUPER SOLDIER. He is ably joined by inker Andrew Hennessy and colorist Sonia Oback. A spin off from UNCANNY X-MEN launched in 1983, the first volume lasted 11 years and 130 issues; thus, it seems in Marvel’s vested interest to keep trying to revive it. This will be the third go at it – the fourth if you count the 2005 mini series OMEGA FLIGHT, which was a spiritual successor. For this attempt, however, Pak and Van Lente settled on something which has become extraordinary and rare with a relaunch of a B or C list franchise that once was a mainstay – they have re-assembled the founding characters best known by the franchise’s fans as well as their key interrelationships. If one is thinking, “it would be madness to revive a franchise without such elements”, then one hasn’t paid attention to prior ALPHA FLIGHT relaunches – or, for that matter, the last few NEW WARRIORS or NAMOR relaunches. This proves to be a winning formula as Guardian, Vindicator, Shaman, Sasquatch, Snowbird, Marrina, Northstar and Aurora unite to protect Canada from one of “The Worthy” from FEAR ITSELF. This is a contrasting comic to AVENGERS ACADEMY #15, as the tone of the fight sequence is fairly light hearted despite the incredible danger. Unlike many American heroes, Alpha Flight are generally loved and respected by their country, and get on with what they do best. Unfortunately for them, Northstar seems to only want to be a part-time member, and a shift in their country’s political system may soon make them outlaws of the government. An interesting bit is that the married couple Guardian and Vindicator (Mac and Heather Hudson) are operating together for the first time in a dog’s age; often one or both of them are dead at any given time. The one glaring missing member is Puck, which is an absence alluded to and may have to be addressed once the character escapes Hell in WOLVERINE. The founders all act as one would expect, except for Marrina. She has been redesigned and become a bit of a “punker”, embracing her alien heritage and dressing in a more distinct sea attire. To a degree it is similar to Warren Ellis’ approach to Machine Man in NEXTWAVE, although not taken to such an extreme. It is a bit awkward to see, but given how Marrina has often spent her days as Namor’s bride, dead, or a monster, she probably is entitles a personality shift. At the very least, she always had a nasty temper. While promoting this as a FEAR ITSELF tie in is more pragmatic than spectacular, Pak and Van Lente manage to do a great job with some neglected and dismissed characters. While Christos Gage can wring an impactful story out of FEAR ITSELF, Pak and Van Lente succeed in the opposite – providing a fun, wise-crack laden story with it; at least until the end. The pair can shift tone in their work from slapstick to serious on a dime and make it look easy; such a talent will serve them well here. If one has been burnt out on teams like X-Men or Avengers, this option north of the border is more than worthy. The only drag is the $3.99 cover price. If Marvel wasn’t willing to charge that much for POWER MAN & IRON FIST, why do so for this?
Also Good Reads: FEAR ITSELF: THE HOME FRONT #3 & FEAR ITSELF: YOUTH IN REVOLT #2.
Last Week’s Comic Reviews – http://icedjamb.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-6-8-11-the-best-comics-invite-lawsuits-review