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, Patrick, and Spencer discuss Batwoman 29, Batman and Aquaman 29, Thunderbolts 23, Avengers World 4, New Avengers 15, Nova 15, Uncanny X-Men 19, Wolverine and the X-Men 2, Superior Spider-Man Annual 2, Superior Foes of Spider-Man 10, Harley Quinn 4, Unwritten Apocalypse 3, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Utrom Empire 3.
Drew: I’ve never seen a writing credit on it, but I’ve always been a big fan of this quasi-famous example script from UPenn’s linguistics department. I know I’ve seen the joke used elsewhere, but there’s something so simple and satisfying about seeing a story where the feeling is expressed at the expense of any other meaning. Or, perhaps I should say: it’s funny because it defies all of our expectations of stories. Unfortunately, Batwoman 29 illustrates exactly why that kind of steamrolling of details doesn’t work in practice.
Writer Marc Andreyko seems to have so little trust in his audience to pick up on any subtlety that he saddles his characters with saying exactly what they’re thinking at all times (the issue features first-person narration from three separate characters). Like the UPenn example, it’s overwritten to the point of absurdity, somehow folding back on itself to making its meaning less clear. That is: while this tendency makes his dialogue too on-the-nose during the talking head portions of the issue, it actually renders the action sequences nearly unreadable, muddying whatever telepathic action Nocturna is taking against the Wolf Spider.
Meanwhile, Batman is as single-minded as ever. Batman and Aquaman 29 finds Bruce attempting to track down Ra’s al Ghul (who, as you may remember, stole Damian and Talia’s corpses at the end of Batman Incorporated 13). I’ve personally always been impressed at writer Peter Tomasi’s commitment to the details Grant Morrison introduced in his run (which it seems other writers would rather ignore), and a MacGuffin hunt could be exactly what this series needed in order to recenter itself. It looks like it’s poised to cycle Bruce though his Justice League peers, which is actually kind of an exciting prospect. We don’t get quite enough time with Aquaman here to mine the buddy cop absurdity of their pairing, but I’m pumped to see this chase illuminate Bruce via the Justice League roster. It’s not quite the heights that this issue reached earlier in its run, but it’s very much a step in the right direction.
Patrick: I mean, if nothing else, I appreciate having the story refocused on Batman. One of the weirdest things about the last story arc was that it felt like it was a Two-Face story featuring Batman. In fact, I’m not even sure we really need this title to be re-naming itself with every issue anymore. While Bruce is teaming up with various members of the League — by all accounts Diana is next — the thrust of the series is back on Batman’s relationship with Robin. That’s always when the stories were the strongest anyway. And I may just be a sap, and miss Damian something awful, but the image of those half-developed heretics was genuinely upsetting and actually left me feeling uneasy about this whole crusade. If these creatures really are the same genetic make-up as Damian, but haven’t been given time to properly develop, that makes them more victims than anything else. Bruce says as much when he commands Aquaman not to kill any of them. I don’t know — does it bother anyone else that Bruce seems cool letting his horribly mutated off-spring rot in an Atlantian jail?
It’s pick-a-new-mission day on Thunderbolts 23! Just when we think we’re going to be treated to Deadpool bringing the full force of the Thunderbolts against Ryan Reynolds (more in-jokes about the shittiness of non-Marvel Studios Marvel movies), Flash gently requests that the team destroy the symbiote. Deadpool — ever the gentleman — agrees to cede his turn to his friend. It’s an interesting issue, and one that mostly involves the symbiote getting the drop on everyone one at a time and revealing Flash’s true feelings for them. In the end, our anti-heroes are able to work together to subdue the beast, and that’s when Flash reveals what he was really up to. He just wants to know that there’s a group out there capable of killing him should he be unable to control the thing. Charles Soule manages to find just the right mix of nobility and selfishness in Flash’ motivations to hang on to the symbiote, and his walking-off-into-the-sunset farewell is well earned. Still, would have been fun to see what torture Wade had in mind for Ryan Reynolds…
Spencer: Ryan Reynolds has appeared on Family Guy. That’s torture enough.
I’m sad to see Flash go, as he fulfilled the essential role of being the only “normal” person on the team, but it was an appropriately touching exit. In his final moments Flash finally got the Thunderbolts to work together as a team, which is a nice legacy to leave behind. I appreciated the little character moments, such as Punisher admitting he trusts Elektra and Ross’s disappointment about Flash’s real feelings towards him, but the comedic moments are even better; Deadpool’s plane trap is comedic gold and his Spider-Man disguise is a fun call-back to all those times he’s been mistaken for Spider-Man, but my favorite moment has to be Red Leader’s Wiki-Mishap — my beloved Wikipedia misleading me has to be one of my biggest nightmares. Combine all this with Carlo Barberi’s legitimately frightening rendition of Venom, and we’ve got something strange and special on our hands.
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer’s Avengers World 4 rotates its focus to Starbrand as he faces the ghosts of his past — literally! This issue has actually done more than the previous ones by presenting and explaining the threat — Morgan Le Fay has taken over a city of ghosts! — but the focus is squarely on Starbrand. I gotta say, I feel for the kid. He often comes across like a doofy kid thrilled just to be on the Avengers, but this issue also makes it clear that he’s using his new responsibilities to run not only from his old role as a nobody, but from the guilt he faces for his part in destroying his high school. Even on the Avengers, though, he’s the low man on the totem pole — when he hears the voices of the ghosts, Hawkeye and Spider-Woman are quick to assume he’s losing his mind and wonder if he’d be better off back on his satellite — and the ghosts of the students from his school aren’t ready to let him forget what he did to them.
So far, each one of these issues has left the featured Avenger at a low point, making me wonder if we’re in for another round of issues featuring the same characters coming back to redeem themselves. That would be awfully cool, but there’s also so many more Avengers we need to see highlighted, and this issue reminds me of that in the form of Nightmask, who continues his role as Starbrand’s advisor/only friend. It’s a nice use of the character, but I still know nothing about his actual personality or power set, and I’m starting to wonder if even the artist does — Stefano Caselli does great work, but every time he draws Nightmask in action he obscures the way he fights. Bruce Banner mentions that the team needs some magic based characters for just this type of situation (and seems characteristically wounded that he wasn’t included in the picking of the roster), but I say that first we need to better define the people we’ve got on the roster. Fortunately, Avengers World seems to be here to do just that!
Meanwhile, on the other side of Hickman’s Avengersverse, New Avengers 15 finally offers an explanation for the bizarre repetition of the last few issues by using the Illuminati’s viewings of the constant deaths of universes to bring them to a simple truth: Black Swan is playing them like a fiddle. Well, maybe not playing them exactly — she told the alternate Reed Richards that there was no saving his world, just the wheel, and she’s been just as up front with our Illuminati that she doesn’t think they can save their Earth — but her vicious killing of an alternate Illuminati (and, as we saw in New Avengers 1, she goes on to kill that Manifold as well) certainly demonstrates that she’s not to be trusted out in the open. Black Swan’s long been one of the most mysterious and fascinating characters in New Avengers, and while every new piece of information we get about her only seems to raise more questions, it’s always a blast learning about her. I’m sure some are frustrated by the slow burn of this title, but I find the mystery and the interplay between this group of geniuses to be fascinating — and it certainly feels more likely that we’ll get resolution on the Incursions than we will the Origin Bombs over in Avengers proper.
Drew: I’m not sure I share your faith that Hickman will deliver answers anytime soon, but I think I’m okay with that. I’ve long felt that Hickman’s work tends to suffer the most when the point of it is the plot (largely because it will be a year before any given plot point will be addressed), but I usually stick around for the character-centered issues that I almost always enjoy. This issue is pretty clearly more plot-focused, but I think there are enough superfluous, insane comic ideas that I was entertained in spite of the slow trickle of information. Time decay? Doppler-shifted time? Sign me up. Hank hangs a lantern on how over-used the concept of infinite universes is, but that actually frees Hickman up to do something totally new with it. Are they seeing the future? The past? A past that predicts their future? It’s a weird, infinite can of worms, and I can’t think of a better writer to explore it than Hickman. I’m sure it’s going to get in the way of solving the Incursions (in the name of solving them), but like I said, I’m okay with waiting on those answers.
Unfortunately, not every plot detour can be so engaging. Nova 15 finds Sam still on the hunt for Skaarn, this time taking him in contact with a telepathic astronaut test dog, who is basically exactly Dug from Up. That kind of open cribbing of cultural touchstones has always been a part of this series (remember how Sam’s principal looks and acts EXACTLY like Back to the Future‘s Mr. Strickland?), but is also maybe my least favorite part of it. It serves writer Gerry Duggan well in Deadpool, where Wade’s Daffy Duck-isms allow him to comment on the tropes he’s placed against, but feels a bit tired here. I was more pleased with Sam popping out of the action to keep up his attendance at school, but even there, the issue is mostly riffing on well-worn territory. The end of the issue puts Sam and Beta Ray Bill back up against Skaarn, but the issue largely feels like an exercise in wheel-spinning.
Hey! Speaking of wheel-spinning, Uncanny X-Men 19 ends with literally the exact same reveal as issue 11, right down to the Frazier Irving-esque art. So, after 8 issues, do we have any better idea who the mysterious masked man is behind all of these sentinel attacks? Not even a little, but as with New Avengers, I’m largely willing to overlook the retread-heavy plotting in favor of this series’ other charms — mostly, seeing the kids bounce off of one another in the field. Heck, even Emma and Magick get in on the action, trading barbs about their ridiculous shirts. It’s not without it’s lip-service to plotting (here manifested as reminding us that both Hijack and Mystique exist), but this series is always best when it can cut loose and spend some time with its characters. Patrick, it would be easy to call this a return to form (this series has been co-opted by both Battle of the Atom and Inhumanity since we first got the Sentinel reveal in issue 11), but frankly, it’s already nailed the adventure-of-the-month pacing I was looking for in issue 17. Has the circuitous route we’ve taken back to these plot points built up any anticipation for you, or were you as ready to forget them as I was?
Patrick: Oh, I’m perfectly content with the mystery of it. There’s so much happening just in the wings of the recurring sentinel attacks that I can’t really be bothered to come up with my own theories about who’s behind any of this. Let’s take the example of poor, poor Agent Dazzler: tied up to a bed, eyes and ear holes “pretty clogged up” and drugged to high heaven. Mystique’s plan to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. as Dazzler has always been one of those plotty takeovers — a “lip-service to plotting” as Drew so eloquently put it — but Bendis and Bacchalo are letting us in on the emotional consequences of doing something like this. Not only is Mystique doing these horrible things, but she’s comfortable doing so, even sorta proud. It’s a consistent character trait that reveals more about her as time passes. The same is true of Magik using… uh, magic. We know that she’s been to the past to visit pre-A v. V Dr. Strange, but now we know that she’s been taking their meetings seriously and has mastered some pretty intimidating spells. All these details and character flourishes make everyone seem that much realer and Uncanny is so much stronger for it.
After such an approachable All-New Marvel Now number one, I’m kinda bummed to report that I felt lost and overwhelmed in Wolverine and the X-Men 2. That “RISE” message that flashed up on all the screens two weeks ago was sent out by The Phoenix Corporation, an organization that popped up overnight and seeks to gain power by harnessing the Phoenix Energy. Quentin Quire and Wolverine may be totally different people in many regards, but they both charge headlong into danger, and independently take the fight right to the Phoenix Corporation’s doorstep. But that’s when they encounter… this guy…
This is one of those uber-powerful dudes that can read minds, knows the future and is confident that the future will play out according to his vision NO MATTER WHAT. That’s narratively overwhelming, and just when I was starting to get a handle on how Quentin’s relationship with his future self was going to shape the lives of the X-Men around him. Maybe it’s telling that both Quentin and Wolverine just make jokes about this guys identity: it’s just such a story-breaking concept. And then there’s the final page reveal that he’s planning to kill Evan? It’s just too much, you know? I’d like to hear from fans of the previous series to see if they’re also feeling like there’s too much going on here, of if I’m just suffering from too-many-faces syndrome.
As we round the final corner on the Otter Parktopus saga, Superior Spider-Man Annual 2 goes about filling in the gaps where Goblin Nation is concerned. There’s obviously a lot of narrative heavy-lifting that has to go on in the final two issues of the series, what with the immanent return of the one true Peter Parker, so the annual touches base with Ben Urich in the first story and the reunited team of Wraith and Carlie Cooper in the second story. These two stories are gorgeously illustrated by Javier Rodriguez and Philipe Briones, and written by frequent-Slott-understudy Christos Gage. The first story is quite a bit more stylish and detached, visually approximating the objective emotional distance Ben has to keep when working to turn in his nephew — Phil Urich, a.k.a. Hobgoblin, a.k.a. Goblin Knight — to Spider-Man. Rodiguez draws some absolutely stunning confrontations in this story, but the most striking is the warning / touching goodbye that Phil delivers to his uncle.
Check it out: they can never face each other. How cool is that? Also, how cool is a flaming sword? Spencer, I’ll let you discuss the second story which… doesn’t appear to have any Spider-Man in it?
Spencer: Well, Superior Spider-Man has often been just as much about the supporting cast as it has been Otto, so it seems appropriate. I actually prefer the first story here; not only are Ben and Phil Urich rich characters, but their relationship and the parallels it draws to parents forced to cut off their children (perhaps because they’re unrepentant criminals or drug addicts — hi, Jesse Pinkman) provide a strong emotional through-line for the story, while the second story seems like it exists solely to advance Wraith and Carlie’s plot. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’m fond enough of Carlie to enjoy seeing her possibly be cured, but I haven’t quite latched onto Wraith yet, who, from her earliest appearances in this series up until the very last page of this issue, has been frustratingly out of the loop, chasing down false leads and attacking the wrong people with a devotion that would be admirable if it wasn’t so misguided. At least she has a super rad costume.
I’m in love with the way Philipe Briones depicts those ribbons as lethal weapons, elaborate accessories, and appendages with a mind of their own all at the same time. I want to see “Wraith’s Ribbons” get their own mini-series.
Spidey’s also nowhere to be seen in The Superior Foes of Spider-Man 10, which is an odd issue in many ways: it comes out only a week after issue 9, features none of the regular creative team (instead it’s written by James Asmus; art duties are divided among a myriad of artists), and the main character, Boomerang, doesn’t even put in an appearance. Instead, the issue takes a page from the all-time classic Batman: The Animated Series episode “Almost Got ‘Em” as Beetle, Overdrive, and Speed Demon swap their greatest victories; since this is Superior Foes, none of them are all that impressive. Given its odd status it could be easy to overlook this issue, but fortunately, Asmus makes it well worth reading. He matches regular writer Nick Spencer’s tone and sense of humor well, using both character based jokes and more abstract, meta ones as well:
Ultimately, though, you’ll want to read this issue because it asks the hard questions: namely, can a god get an STD?
Hm, I think I’ll stick with the politically incorrect for a moment; Harley Quinn 4 is, in many ways, just as odd of an issue as Superior Foes. Although the plot technically revolves around Harley kidnapping a family who neglects their grandmother (one of “Harleen’s” patients), this idea often gets pushed aside in order to hit the many beats of Harley’s daily life (her job, roller derby, killing hired thugs), derailing the plot to the point where writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti feel the need to lampshade it. It’s a killer joke, but it doesn’t stop the pacing from feeling jarring.
While this issue never sinks to the comedic lows of issue three, it does make some questionable decisions with Harley. It’s no secret that Harley’s psychotic, and this series usually softens her villainous side by putting her up against people even worse than she is. Here, though, it turns out that the family she kidnaps is innocent (the grandmother who accused them has Alzheimers), and that changes the tone of the entire proceeding; instead of watching Harley punishing awful people, she’s actually terrorizing an innocent family, and it just makes much of the issue uncomfortable to read. Still, the Star Wars parody almost makes up for it (for the record, Harley shot first).
Drew: Indeed she did (well, stabbed first, anyway), but Conner and Palmiotti’s fidelity to the source material comes up short of justifying why the homage is here in the first place. You’re right to suggest that there’s nothing nearly as groan-inducing as the last issue, but there’s also little here to actually sink your teeth into. Palmiotti and Conner have chosen to reflect Harley’s schizophrenic manic-ness by having the issue switch character as often as she does — now it’s a touchingly wacky commentary on her dysfunctional relationship with Joker, now it’s a wacky home invasion story, now it’s a wacky Star Wars parody, now it’s a wacky homicidal rampage. It’s easy enough to spot the “wacky” through-line, but I’m not quite sure that’s enough to build a series (or indeed, an issue) out of.
Actually, Mike Carey puts a name to the problem of too many stories and styles haphazardly occupying the same space in The Unwritten: Apocalypse 3. The literal representations of narrative shortcomings has been a strength of this series from the start, and finally collapses under its own weight, as all of the fictional armies that have ever fought in London somehow become malignant. “London War Stories” is a distinct (and large) enough genre for such a problem to kind of make sense, but the real fun is seeing all of these armies smashing into one another. We’ve got all kinds of Nazi’s and Visigoths and Knights, but also Orcs and dragons and even the tripods from War of the Worlds. Hexam only starts to hint at what it might mean for every character ever devised ever suddenly becoming real, but the point is clear: creativity is a cosmically significant, irreversible act that must be wielded with responsibility. This kind of meta-narrative is like candy to me, and I know you’ve got a soft spot for it too, Patrick, though I wonder if your English major credentials allowed you to recognize more of these armies — seriously, did I see the Black Knight in there?
Patrick: That’s the best part about War Stories — they’re not the specific property of anydiscipline. English major, history buff, sci-fi nerd, classically trained thespian: we all feel a sense of ownership over them. While I might have been most excited to see the War of the Worlds tripods show up — they are acting as the cavalry that inadvertently comes to our heroes’ rescue — I’m mostly enamored with the specificity. Very early on, Carey makes sure we understand that there are both Vanilla Nazis and Zombie Nazis running around, and they’re totally different. But this is a war story, you don’t really want to hear about the action; you wanna see it. Peter Gross is happy to oblige. The amount of detail on every page is stunning, especially as the armies grow in variety and number.
The storytelling in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Utrom Empire 3 takes a turn for the personal, abandoning the ambitious war stories from the previous two issues. It’s a bold movie, and one that casts Krang less as a roving conqueror of peoples and more of a refugee. That explains why he’s so willing to overlook Stockman and Fugitoid’s treachery — Krang’s actually desperate for help, and doesn’t know what it actually means to trust anyone. So these “close enough” alliances look like the real thing to him. Then it’s no surprise that he offers as much to the Foot. I suppose it stands to reason that the Turtles couldn’t be safe and warm in Northampton for ever, but it is heartbreaking to see them returning to a possibly-unified pair of enemies.