Look, there are a lot of comics out there. Too many. We can never hope to have in-depth conversations about all of them. But, we sure can round up some of the more noteworthy titles we didn’t get around to from the week. Today, Drew and Ethan discuss Thunderbolts 18, A+X 14, Superior Spider-Man Annual 1, Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe 2, Young Avengers 12, Uncanny X-Men 14, X-Men 7, and X-Men: Legacy 20.
Drew: Our Infinity-fatigue is pretty well catalogued at this point, but Charles Soule continues to find a fresh angle in Thunderbolts 18. Where other series are preoccupied with piecing together a monolithic narrative by retracing the same steps, Soule has stayed very street-level, keeping his team focused on the mission at hand, even as New York crumbles around them. They manage to succeed in that mission in spite of each of them being focused on their own problems. Indeed, with a significant portion of the resolution arriving via the coincidental overlap of those problems, this series feels all the world like the superhero version of Seinfeld.
Of course, Thunderbolts isn’t the only series with a great sense of humor: A+X 14 makes another strong case for irreverence in comics. It’s a bit weird to see Captain America and Cyclops trading quips in the style writer Gerry Duggan has perfected on Deadpool, but that kind of irreverent tone is right at home on the proudly continuity-free A+X (even if this is the second part of a six-chapter story). The other team-up from issue 14 — The Superior Spider-Man and Magneto — is decidedly unexpected, but writer Max Bemis finds plenty to mine in a conversation between two former supervillains. Actually, Magneto doesn’t consider himself a supervillain, and has some choice words for the kind of flamboyant scenery chewing of folks like Otto Octavius. It’s a great study in upping the conflict, reflected beautifully in the absurd fight going on around them, which artist David Lafuente helpfully lays out as levels in a video game.
It’s silly fun, but Magneto finally gets through to Spidey when he quickly dispatches M.O.D.O.K. after cutting short his entirely predictable “diatribe,” forcing Otto to come to terms with his own villainy.
Speaking of Otto’s villainy, The Superior Spider-Man Annual 1 finds him between a rock and a hard place, and defaulting to his least-merciful ways to resolve it. Blackout takes Aunt May hostage (as a way of getting to Peter Parker as a way of getting to Spider-Man), but Otto delivers some swift (and gruesome) justice, breaking Blackout’s limbs before defanging and declawing him with a pair of pliers. Otto comes up just short of killing him, but writer Christos Gague and artist Javier Rodriguez make it crystal clear that this straight-up torture is not a step in the right direction. Perhaps more importantly, they allow May to see the torture, solidifying her opinion that Spider-Man is just as bad as the criminals he fights. I thought this was a fantastic annual — a self-contained story that emphasizes (and adds ugency to) plot elements of the series proper — and I can’t wait to see those elements boil over.
Ethan: Maybe it’s just me, but while Spider-Man’s treatment of Blackout was barbaric, it wasn’t quite as shocking as I felt like the issue was trying to make it out to be. Perhaps that’s a function of desensitization to violence, but the issue did a pretty good job setting up Blackout as a clear menace who killed Ghost Rider’s sister and has an M.O. of hunting and torturing people’s loved ones to get at them. Not tomention that Otto — as Spider-Man — has done worse than defanging and sizzling his enemies: he fatally shot the murderous criminal Massacre in the head. Weirdly, the bit that did actually strike me as a gruesome was they way Otto crushed Blackout’s elbows and knees. The relativism of what seems brutal these days and what doesn’t is amazing to me. Whatever I thought about his actions, it’s clear that Aunt May was completely horrified — I’m curious too as to what impact that will have on Otto’s life moving forward.
Swift, merciless justice was also a theme of Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe 2. As some people predicted, the creature who’s now heading up S.H.I.E.L.D. and killing all magic users is in fact the In-Betweener (props to comment poster Centipede Damascus). Christopher Hastings does a great job juggling humor, danger, and a continued re-introduction of Longshot’s character — the pacing of this issue was still breakneck, but more coherent than the first issue. Even the humor feels like it’s finding solid footing: Hastings and artist Jacopo Camagni’s playful versions of Marvel’s best and brightest continue to be a major source of the laughs, like Doctor Strange using a top hat to teleport out of laziness, and the reminder that Longshot and Dazzler have something of a history:
Apparently, when an unstoppable hunk meets an immovable pop starlet, sparks may fly. The issue ends with the appearance of the chaos-half of the In-Betweener fwoosh-ing onto the scene, just as Longshot’s about to test the limits of his luck powers against the untold number of tons of helicarrier falling out of the sky. I had reservations about this title after a bumpy first issue, but after a neat recovery in the second, I’m officially on-board to see what happens next.
In Young Avengers 12, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie continue to show off their own cast of bright, young things as the fight against the Mother parasite comes to a head. I really can’t overstate how much I love this run and how sad I am that it’s coming to a close in January. The writing is still the best silliest out there right now — as the countless evil alternate-dimension versions of the Young Avengers attack, the narrator helpfully provides an analogy of what this means for Earth: “A knockoff Converse sneaker stopming on the human face, forever.” Maybe my bias means I’m giving too much benefit of the doubt to Gillen but I can’t help but admire how he seems to nail the balance between drawing on themes from youth culture — past and present — while at the same time making fun of himself for even trying to touch the subject as someone who’s no longer a part of that culture (in age, if not in spirit). And once again, McKelvie manages to dream up the coolest, weirdest, alt-universe twists on the characters — I love the blends we see, like Wiccan wearing Doom’s mask, or Patriot reborn as Prodigy.
Drew: I’m totally with you on how fun those mashups were — actually, I kind of wish we got more of that fight. “The Worst of All Possible Worlds” is ripe for exploration (and Gillen and McKelvie clearly could make that a fight worth seeing), and it would be fun to get some face-time with the reserves Prodigy has called in, but instead, the issue focuses almost exclusively on the fight with mother. I’m generally one for emotional payoff over big, silly spectacle, but since this issue doesn’t really give us of that payoff — and given just how big and silly the spectacle in question is — swapping out another page of fight scenes could have gone a long way towards making this issue feel less like set-up for the conclusion.
Speaking of character focus over spectacle, Uncanny X-Men 14 manages its transition back to episodic explorations of the new X-Men quite well. This time, the focus is on Benjamin Deeds, the quasi-shapeshifter, who Emma Frost is convinced is more powerful than he seems. Sure enough, they discover an uncanny (ha) ability to gain people’s trust, which they take for a spin by having Benjamin unwittingly deliver a threatening note to a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. field office. It’s a fun issue (with a training montage to rival even the best Rocky films), and I love the idea that a mutant’s abilities could be used more tactically than simply knocking over Sentinels. Heck it even got a good Goldballs joke in there.
Ethan: I guess Goldballs isn’t the WORST mutant name ever. I mean, it’s better than “Box” or “Lifeguard.” Or “Wendigo.” I did like the training scenes, specifically the one at the beginning of the issue where the new mutants are falling all over themselves in the mud as they clamber up the hill behind Sergeant Cyclops. The best part about the Old X-Men is also the worst: it’s great to wallow in decades of backstory and find new ways of poking into the ever-changing nooks and crannies of their relationships and histories, but after a while you might start wishing for that fresh feel they had when they were all idiot children. Cue the bunch of idiot children that Cyclops, Magneto and Frost are trying to wrangle into a team. Some of them haven’t picked (or been stuck with) their mutant names yet, they’re barely accustomed to the idea of being more or less permanently apart from their families, and (most importantly) none of them have hooked up with each other yet. Once they start pairing off it’s only a matter of time until one of them turns blue, another one becomes the avatar of the Phoenix force and Goldballs kills Scott. Or something.
X-Men 7 throws another fresh face into the mix, albeit embodying a familiar character, as Lady “Gaga” Deathstrike is digitally reborn into the body of billionaire heiress Ana Cortes. It’s not really clear how Deathstrike takes over Ana’s body – it’s got something to do with “nanites,” which seems to be a fancy way of saying “we wanted to bring Deathstrike back but didn’t want to do it with weird ninja magic or time travel.” I mean, sure, she’s always had close ties to cybernetic stuff, but this is upping the ante by rather a lot – uploaded consciousness, mechanical immortality and all that. The process apparently takes time – even as she’s on her way to a carry out a frontal assault on the Jean Grey School (great idea, by the way), her cybernetically enhanced skill set is still incomplete. Another fuzzy point here is why Ana agreed to serve as Deathstrike’s host. Allegedly, they’ve got a “symbiotic” thing going, but for most of the issue, Lady Deathstrike is in the driver’s seat, and she’s never been one to play nice.
Before we wrap up this round-up, I want to give a shout out to X-Men Legacy 20. This title has been quirky as hell ever since Volume 2 booted up in January this year. For anyone who enjoys reading about bastard anti-heroes (John Constantine fans take note) or seeing telepathic powers get a badass upgrade, I strongly recommend it. This issue picks up with David Haller (aka Legion, aka crazy-haired son of Charles Xavier) strapped to a table on the S.W.O.R.D. station as a pissed-off godlike entity mentally tortures him. Now, before this title, a phrase like “mental torture” would’ve elicited a “meh” or two from me, but Simon Spurrier and Tan Huat have been busy buliding an entire world inside Haller’s head over the past year. Part max-sec prison, part Bartertown from Mad Max 3, Haller’s fragmented consciousness is a wild, weird place to explore, and far from being a gimmicky crutch, the creators have shaped it into a character in its own right. As Haller’s psychic jail crumbles apart under the strain of the interrogation, he finally realizes the truth that’s been staring him in the face this whole time – his mind doesn’t have to be a hell of warring factions. Each schizmed personality running around up there is really just a facet of his own, possibly normal personality – his anxieties, his pride, his joy, his terror, all broken up by the trauma of his rotten childhood. As he picks up the pieces and starts putting the puzzle back together, I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with his new control.