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, Spencer, Drew, and Patrick discuss Justice League United 7, Batman Eternal 36, Harley Quinn Holiday Special 1, East of West: The World, Guardians of the Galaxy Annual 1, Spider-Verse Team-Up 2, Rocket Raccoon 6, Uncanny X-Men Annual 1, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1, and Avengers World 16.
Spencer: Jeff Lemire’s Justice League United has always been a rather straightforward title, and that often proves to be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Issue 7 finds the various League and Legion groups fully assembled and focused on stopping Byth from using Ultra to bring about the end of the universe — there’s a no-nonsense urgency to their meeting that’s refreshing, and Stargirl’s quick smack-down of anyone looking to mercy-kill Ultra (“We do what the Justice League does and find a better way”) is again refreshing both for its bluntness and its unyielding sense of morality. That said, that same straightforwardness robs the story of any real surprises or complexity — for better or for worse, things play out exactly as you’d expect them to. Much of the fun comes from the various interactions between these disparate characters that Lemire packs into practically every panel, but outside of a few established relationships (J’onn and Equinox’s connection to Ultra, Ollie and Buddy’s pseudo-rivalry) none of those moments have any lasting impact on the characters. Ultimately, Justice League United is a book that’s a lot of fun in the moment, but doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression on the reader.
Meanwhile, Batman Eternal 36 digs into the events of Jason Bard’s past that left a lasting impression on him — turns out he lost a partner due to a meddling Batman-fanboy back in Detroit, and now thinks it his duty to rid Gotham of Batman’s corrupting influence. Of course, the fact that Bard is willing to allow, and even indirectly cause the death of civilians to fulfill his goal is what pushes him past sympathetic and straight into the “deranged” category. Bard’s been thoroughly defeated, but still remains Commissioner of Police, and that’s a status quo that should be interesting to explore.
Of course, this issue also touches on some themes that have been tossed around Batman Eternal for a while now: Batman’s legacy. Bard’s story raises the question of how much responsibility, if any, Batman bears for the actions others take in his name, and while writer James Tynion IV never comes to a clear conclusion, he does provide a counterpoint in the form of Batman’s various allies. Barbara, Jason, and Tim are an example of the good that can come from Batman’s inspiration, and Julia, Harper, and Steph show how Batman is still continuing to inspire others to better themselves. Can they prove Bard’s philosophies wrong, or will Batman’s protégés just be turned into pawns in our newest big bad’s game?
We’re used to Harley Quinn setting a bad example, and that’s what makes Harley Quinn Holiday Special 1 such a surprise. Harley’s still up to her old antics, but those antics are quickly overtaken by a surprising amount of heart. The first story actually finds Harley putting her therapist-skills to good use as she helps a family work through some recent trauma (albeit by threatening to maim them with an ax), and while she’s much more destructive in the final story, her actions are motivated by surprisingly real human frailties. For all the year-end anxiety that final tale brings out, though, I actually relate the most to the second story; who hasn’t gotten a holiday song stuck in their head that they’d do anything to get rid of? Drew, I know it’s been a while since you’ve checked-in with Harley — did this book fill you with holiday cheer, or just make you say “Bah, humbug!”?
Drew: I’m actually a bit of a sucker for “Holiday Special” stories, and Palmiotti and Conner manage to touch on all the big themes: giving, family, and the annoyingness of hearing the same Christmas songs over and over again. That last theme injects just the right amount of cynicism to keep things from getting too saccarine, but the sweetness keeps the zaniness from getting too out of hand. The violence of this series — cartoony as it may be — has been a pretty big turn-off for me, but the Holiday focus of this issue works to curb those tendencies pretty strongly. Like most Holiday Specials, the issue ends up being more about the holidays than it is about the characters, but that only makes the issue more approachable for folks like me who haven’t been following the series proper.
East of West: The World is similarly divorced from its characters, but that actually works to make it significantly less approachable than the series (which is already about as mythology-dense as they come). Acting as an almanac of sorts for the seven nations of East of West, it details their current political situations, as well as laying out the big turning points of Jonathan Hickman’s alternate history. It’s perfect for completists out there who might enjoy poring over each issue with a better sense of the geography, but stat-sheets and timelines aren’t exactly the most thrilling narrative devices. Hickman’s attention to detail is admirable, but this feels more like an exercise in showing off — any details pertinent to the story have already been established or hinted at, and that haven’t must necessarily be irrelevant to the story. Or maybe I’m just an impatient history student. I think that means I something something repeat it?
Patrick: That sounds right. This is such a strange little volume — literally part story, part stat sheet and part timeline. I think I got a little more out of the stats of the various North American nations, and I loved that opening story with the horsemen cruelly taking a new steed. But that timeline was basically impossible to read digitally. I think the biggest drawback of this thing is that it’s trying to affect the style of an almanac, which is — by design — not meant to be read cover-to-cover. But, like, it’s a 32 page comic book, of course I’m going to try to read it all in one sitting. If it were more detailed, and handsomely bound so it could rest on bookshelf for the times I required a little context for our next discussion of East of West, I’d love this thing. As it is, The World is more of a curiosity than anything else.
If East of West: The World is working extra hard to convince us that what’s going on isn’t as confusing as it appears to be, then Guardians of the Galaxy Annual 1 is the exact opposite of that. When the titular Guardians are set upon by seemingly foreveryoung versions of Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s actually going on. More frequently than not, the guess they register is: “Skrull?” Turns out, our heroes are witness to something much more fundamentally upsetting: Nick Fury sent a space-faring Helicarier, manned by infinitely respawning LMDs of his compatriots, to endlessly pursue the Skrulls in the wake of… you know, one of any number of big fights involving the Skrull. This confusion doesn’t stop the Guardians from teaming up with the Howling Faux-mandos, and killing some Skrulls for funsies. It’s sort of an insubstantial romp until Carol witnesses the death of a pre-Spider-Woman Jessica Drew, and is emotionally rocked back to the reality she’s missing by being out in space with all this crazy bullshit. The whole concept is kind of haunting, suggesting that the endless cycle of war and death that superheroes are on is totally pointless, and effectively endless. Carol’s got a nice monologue at the end of the issue where she laments not seeing her glory years as glory years until they had already passed, but then also speculates that she will someday look back at these days as her glory days. It’s an appropriate, if a little on-the-nose, metaphor for comic fandom’s ceaseless celebration of the past.
As long as I’m transitioning between issues by discussing opposites — Spider-Verse Team-Up 2 has a much healthier appreciation for mining the past for giggles. The first of these two stories is the logical extension of the goofiness we loved in Amazing Spider-Man 11. The conceit, if you’re passing on Spider-Verse, is that Miles Morales (Ultimate Spider-Man) is teamed up with two cartoon versions of Peter Parker — and they’re exploring the world of the crummy 60s Spider-Man cartoon. It’s full of jokes about how poorly rendered the world is (“is that a web or a blanket?”) and is relentlessly irreverent to its source material. I love every inch of this story, from the detail-less drawings of Spider-Man, to the racist-joke-fake-out. The second story features our Spider-Gwen attempting to recruit…let’s call him Spider-Goblin:
This is the whole elseworld concept turned up to heartbreaking levels, as decades of baggage (both real and imaged for these two characters) are confronted in one tight, 10-page story. Drew, I thought both of these stories were great, and further evidence that the Spider-Verse event is one of the smartest Big Two events simply by embracing it’s absurd potential. Did you dig both of these vignettes?
Drew: Absolutely. If we ever need evidence of the emotional range of this event, we can always point at this issue. The first story manages to make a lot of inside jokes feel welcoming, and the second cashes in on implied emotional stakes to bring the sads, but both manage to hit their beats without overstaying their welcome.
The same could be said of Rocket Raccoon 6, which finds a little more emotional ballast for Rocket’s one-and-done adventures. This go-round finds him tracking down four kidnapped peace-loving robots, which is about as goofy as it sounds, but writer Skottie Young and artist Jake Pekar keep it grounded with a fifth robot just trying to bring his friends home. Of course, the inventiveness of the plot is only a small slice of all the imagination going on in this issue, from de-lousing Ego the living planet to a planet of robots using cupcakes to buy protection from a telepathic dog. This issue is pretty well ensconced in Marvel’s galactic mythology — big chunks take place on Knowhere, and we even get an editor’s note directing us to Nova 20 — but it still manages to be a remarkably approachable, delivering a clean one-off that’s truly all-ages.
Uncanny X-Men Annual 1 takes a decidedly more inside-baseball approach, with its conceit boiling down to “hey, remember how we hinted that something happened 10 months ago, then kind of dropped it? HERE’S THE STORY OF THE THING THAT HAPPENED!” Still, for those of us in the loop, it’s pretty darn exciting to finally find out just where Eva Bell went when she disappeared and returned much older and worse for wear. Unfortunately, in true Brian Michael Bendis fashion, this story doesn’t fit into one issue, so we’ll have to wait for All-New X-Men Annual 1 to drop on December 24th to get a conclusion. Still, we got a few fun cameos, from the Rawhide Kid to Patrick’s favorite year in the Marvel Universe: 2099!
Patrick: Drew, the thing I hate the most about 2099 is the made-up slang: it’s so shocking stupid. But a trip to the time period is totally worth it if it means getting to spend some time with Andrea Sorrentino and Marcello Mialo’s mindblowing artwork. I love the way they apply the same sort of visual mysticism to the pseudo-science of time travel as they do to Illyana’s expressly magical magic.
I think the issue also benefits from a rare tight focus on the character Eva Bell. It’s not necessarily a character study — the most agency she expresses in the issue is when she asserts that she doesn’t want to go back to her own time, and we know full well that she will — but I do look forward to bringing all of this information back with me to the next issue of All-New X-Men, and feeling the uniqueness of her struggle just a little bit more profoundly. I, for one, can’t wait to see this thing concluded in the next annual (also drawn by Sorrentino!), though I do find it ridiculous that we have to follow it from one series to another. Like, I get that fans of All-New are probably also fans of Uncanny, but what the fuck?
You ever wonder if Marvel just has stacks upon stacks of un-used Spider-Man stories sitting around the office? The Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 suggests that a little thing like an ultra-dense cross-over event shouldn’t keep casual fans away from their favorite wall-crawler. There are technically three stories here, but the main event is kind of a classic night-in-the-life narrative. Spider-Man recovers a tourist’s cell phone and spends the rest of the evening trying to get it back to its owner, while foiling various crimes (both super and otherwise) along the way. It’s a charming little tale, leaning on the fundamental goodness of Peter and having tons of fun along the way. The beautiful thing about Spider-Man is that it doesn’t need to be profound to be meaningful, and that’s exactly what this story is. (If those rumors that came out of the Sony hack are true, and Marvel Studios is a) interested in getting Spider-Man back and b) not interested in doing another origin story, I would love to see a film tackle something simple like this. No reason to make a Spider-Man adventure about the death of a city or the loss of an Infinity Gem or anything like that — just a nice guy doing decent things.)
I actually thought the second story might also have served as a commentary about the current state of movie Spider-Man. It’s a two-page feature filled with incredibly short-stories about Aunt May. They’re cute, wordless, joke-driven narratives drawn by Gale Atkinson, and while it’s a delight to encounter them on the page, it does question the feasibility of Sony making an Aunt May solo movie. I mean, sure, this is adorable for like 12 seconds, but two hours?
Spencer: The Annual’s third story, meanwhile, is essentially an eight-page joke, all leading up to the punchline of Peter’s laryngitis, but it still has a few things to say about Spider-Man as a character.
It’s hard not to read this as a jab at Superior Spider-Man, which is a bit of a bummer, but it does reinforce the point that everybody has their own idea of what makes a classic Spider-Man story, and while I feel that “Spider-Verse” has something for every Spider-fan, I’m still glad that stories like this Annual exist alongside it to provide fun standalone, mostly continuity-free stories that anyone can enjoy.
While Spider-Man Annual 1 is a self-contained issue, though, Nick Spencer, Frank Barbiere, and Marco Checchetto’s Avengers World 16 couldn’t be more tethered to current continuity. The bulk of the issue is concerned with the amusing-if-slight antics of Doctor Doom and Valeria’s Z-List fill-in Avengers team, but the real emotional heft comes from exploring how the AXIS-inspired flipping of Doom and Scarlet Witch’s moralities effects them. Turning Scarlet Witch “evil” stopped being interesting ten years ago (how about letting her be good for five minutes? That would be novel), but Doctor Doom as a force of purity and light is a concept worth exploring. His ultimate stab at redemption came as a complete surprise to me, but even it mainly serves as a prologue to Spencer’s upcoming Ant-Man series. As a bridge between various other series this issue certainly serves an important purpose, but as an issue of Avengers World it feels a bit aimless.