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 Patrick discuss Tomb Raider 2, Aquaman 30, Red Lanterns 30, All-Star Western 30, Fables 139, Manhattan Projects 19, George Romero’s Empire of the Dead Act One 3, Superior Spider-Man 30, and Indestructible Hulk 20.
Patrick: It can be sorta tricky to take the story of any modern adventure game seriously. Like, we can all cheer for Nathan Drake and have a hell of a good time watching him trade barbs with Sully and running through the jungle with Elena, but we have to keep some emotional distance as he straight-up murders dudes for treasure. That’s one of the defining flaws of the Tomb Raider narrative: Lara Croft agonizes over her first kill, but her second, third and fourth kills all come minutes later and they’re instantly common place. In issue two of the comic series, Gail Simone tries to retcon the end of the game as something of a murderous fever dream, revealing that Lara encouraged her surviving teammates to take treasure from the Solarii. It’s sorta fucked up, but then Lara’s murderama doesn’t feel right in the game either — I’m interested to see where this is headed and if Simone’s retcon sticks, or if some manipulative forces are continuing to prey on her naiveté.
The theme of treasure being magical but ultimately dangerous continues into Aquaman 30, where Arthur’s Trident has been stolen by some archeologist / theoretical physicist / dude who knows he’s in the DC Universe. The Trident, when properly inserted into a Trident-shaped hole, opens a gateway to a prison for ancient monsters. Those monsters, it turns out, were driven there by Hercules, who evidently didn’t have the foresight to get out of the prison before closing the door on himself. It means Arthur spends most of this issue locked in combat with monsters, giants and eventually Hercules. That might sound like nonsense, but that’s exactly how it sounds when Mera relays the information to the Atlantean council, who’s already pretty sick of Arthur’s shit. What’s super frustrating is the council would like to investigate some of the goings on in Swamp Thing — which would be a surprisingly on-point thematic crossover — but Arthur’s too busy fighting stupid enemies. Writer Jeff Parker has be totally siding with the Atlanteans, unfortunately, that means that I’m annoyed with Aquaman’s inability to focus on the interesting conflicts.
The Red Lanterns have their hands full trying to figure out how best to leverage their new Super asset: Supergirl is proving to be exactly as powerful as you’d expect a Kryptonian Red Lantern to be. Charles Soule continues to astound me with how well he writes all of these characters, and even the moments when they give themselves over to the rage seems nuanced and specific. Further, I never thought someone would get me to feel something at the sight of a beaten-and-left-for-dead Bleez, but holy cow, that was one shocker of an ending. Drew, are you finding the book crowded by the House of El or are they are nice stablizer for a chaotic series?
Drew: Soule is definitely fond of his cameos, but this one is more than oriented, primarily because Supergirl has always been defined by her relationship to Superman. She utterly resents that, as anyone would — but especially as a teenager would — creating exactly the kind compelling, character-driven conflict that Soule manages to find even in the Red Lantern Corps. Every moment works, from Zilius Zox making fun of Superman, to Guy insisting that the Red Lanterns observe US liquor laws. Soule has managed to make me know and care about all of these characters, which gives that closing image all the more oomph.
All-Star Western 29 similarly closes on the image of a scantily-clad woman on the edge of death, but rather pointedly doesn’t lavish much attention on her leading up to that. It would have been easy to guess that Gina’s decision to accompany Hex back to the old west wasn’t going to end well for her, but I’m not sure anyone would have thought she’d be shot within the first few pages. It’s just a flesh wound, but with no medical care, she’s on her last legs by the issue’s end. The entire middle of the issue, though, is devoted to Hex retelling a kind of classic Jonah Hex: Bounty Hunter story, complete with bleak amorality, nightmarish imagery, and on-the-nose social commentary. It feels strangely out of place, which robs it of any real stakes, while simultaneously preventing the main narrative from gathering any steam.
Speaking of gathering steam, Fables 139 drops us into a two-part arc that promises to lead “to the final and inevitable destruction of Fabletown” — a prelude to the end of the series itself, scheduled at issue 150. That this arc is utterly divorced from the previous several issues threatens to turn this explanation into a deus ex machina, but Bill Willingham cleverly lampshades the “skip to the good part” aspect of this story — most hilariously when he cuts the journey out of the epic-journey set-up. It’s a funny idea, one that is so enthusiastically all exposition that it’s hard to really find fault. This arc is clearly just putting the pieces in place for the actual finale, but Willingham has always been the master of moving those pieces with charm.
If you asked me to point to the main narrative thread of Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects, I’m not entirely sure what I’d tell you. Threads seem too materialize, dissolve, and reappear regularly, but there has been one consistent, thematic constant: the battle between the brothers Oppenheimer. This issue sees the conclusion of their not-war, ticking back the clock to see Robert win definitively just before he’s shot in the head. Oh, right — it turns out the gunman is the original Albert Einstein. You know, the one from this dimension that we saw stranded way the fuck back in issue 4. That’s one hell of a twist, but nobody can deny that Hickman very firmly planted that seed all those months ago. Oops, I don’t want that ending to steal all of the not-stuff not-happening in Oppenheimer’s head. Quick, Patrick! Were you happy to have one last hurrah in his weird little brain?
Patrick: Hickman certainly knows how to make the world of a conflict and then wipe it out in the blink of an eye. We may have had the stranded Einstein on the books since issue 4, but Oppenheimer was an issue 1 development. It’s a testament to the “everything is the most important thing until it isn’t anymore” pacing of this book, but it also sorta supports all of the negative language Hickman uses to express the conflict in Oppenheimer’s brain. “No-time,” “no-war,” “no-rocks” none of them actually existed, but pointedly, none of them made a difference either. Harsh lessons.
The lessons are a little bit easier in George Romero’s Empire of the Dead Act One 3 (even if that title is a damn mouthful). The realities of the zombie apocalypse come into clearer relief, and it doesn’t seem all that much like the apocalypse. In fact, it looks like the vampires have allowed human existence to continue even in the face of a zombie outbreak. This is how the vampires view themselves, but not necessarily how Romero writes them. In one sequence, Vampire Mayor Chandrake is refining the rhetoric in his vampire-coming-out speech, and in the next sequence, some vampire cops casually enacting violent crimes on both the living and the zombified. It’s noticeably more horrific than the usual zombie gore-fest, with some weird undertones of sexual violence. If this is a continuation of Romero’s commentary on class hyper-stratisfication (as we mentioned last month), then the commentary is starting to show its teeth.
Oof, moving away from that pun: we’re almost done with Superior Spider-Man, so what better way to celebrate Otto’s victory than by erasing him completely? I get that the bigger story here was always going to be Peter Parker returning, and not Otto finally doing something right to stop the Goblins, but it’s still an upsettingly quick turn for the series to make. Otto does make the choice to let Peter take over, but it barely even reads as a sacrifice he’s conscious of making. Instead, it’s another reason to deify Parker once again. If anyone’s got the history to support deification, it’s Peter — and spreads like this are happy to remind us of that history.
In the end, maybe I’m just bummed that the thing I’d grown to love over 30 issues is going to change. Maybe I can harass Dan Slott with my theories about when Doc Ock is going to return and ask him questions like “Why does Marvel hate Doctor Octopus?”
Drew: Hahaha. As funny as it would be for Slott to now be inundated with “when is Doc Oc coming back?” messages, I’m hoping comics fans have learned some kind of lesson from this series (but who am I kidding, right?). I’ll quibble with you a bit about Otto’s self-erasure feeling like a true sacrifice — the scene where his memories crumble to dust while he slowly gets older really got to me — but I totally agree that the thrust of it is that Peter Parker really is the Superior Spider-Man. Ultimately, though, this issue is all about that fist-pumping moment when Peter re-dons the reds and blues, and vows to bring the fight back to the Goblins. It’s a return to the old status quo, but a rousing one.
Basically the opposite is true of Indestructible Hulk 20, which jettisons almost all of its cast to set up a very different beginning for Hulk 1. The issue comes up with a logical enough reason for Bruce to hide his team from S.H.I.E.L.D., but it’s also illogical enough to smack of narrative convenience. That is, Mark Waid clearly needed to get a temporarily de-powered Bruce alone in a room in order to set up the central mystery of the new series, and that need gets in the way of any real emotional traction. The immediate tension of his survival is a bit undercut by the fact that there’s a new series, but there’s enough tension over who shot him (strongly implied to be Maria Hill) to make that first issue a must-read.