Secret Wars Round-Up: Issues released 8/19/15

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Retcon Punch is on Summer Hours, which means we’re going to be writing fewer in-depth pieces for the month of August. But we’re addicts at this point, so we need a place for our thoughts on all those comics we can’t stop reading. Today, we’re discussing House of M 1, Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows 4, Spider-Verse 4, Secret Wars Secret Love 1, 1872 2, Weirdworld 3, Runaways 3, Howard the Human 1, and Loki Agent of Asgard 17.

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House of M 1

House of M 1Patrick: Here’s an interesting case of a Secret Wars tie-in that I can best describe as a cross between two other Secret Wars tie-ins that I’m enjoying — Civil War and E for Extinction — but totally lacking in the charms of either. Near-future versions of Mutants have taken over the Battleworld territory of Genosha, subjugating the human population in what is no doubt meant to be a reversal of the human / mutant dynamic. Leading the charge in this reversed power dynamic are Magneto’s Sentinels (which are decked out with baroque armor details for some reason) as they hunt humans to the point of extinction. Naturally, there’s a human resistance populated by heroes/anti-heroes/villains like Black Cat, Bullseye, Iron Fist, Shang Chi, Hawkeye, Elektra, Misty Knight, Moonknight and the Gladiator (who is, y’know, actually not human). That’s a fairly compelling backdrop for storytelling, but I start to feel that writer Denis Hopeless is a little too tied up in establishing this neat-o world to start telling an effective story in it. The issue starts with the reader’s perspective synched up pretty well with Magneto’s – even letting us in on Magneto’s memories of how this world came to be. From there, it becomes much harder to identify a single perspective-character in the cast. What’s more is that the remaining issue-space splits its focus between two stories: 1) Pietro’s subterfuge with Namor against his father and 2) Black Cat, Misty Knight and Hawkeye being chased from one group of human refugees to the next.

This may simply be the price of telling stories on Battleworld, but the whole thing feels remarkably unimportant. Without getting a chance to understand Pietro and Magneto’s relationship, Pietro’s betrayal is totally hallow. And if we’re supposed to side with the resistance, starting with them being reasonably well-organized and plotting to overthrow Magneto might not be the most sympathetic portrait to paint of them. When the Mutants burst through the ceiling on the next page, it’s almost hard to tell the difference between these two factions.

Mutants Vs. Humans

Artist Marco Failla fills the page with familiar characters, many of whom are sporting more classic versions of their designs — Hawkeye doesn’t take off that purple, pointy Hawkeye mask — but some of whom are radically changed — does Storm have extra Venom arms? That all just adds to the conceptual chaos that makes this issue so incoherent.

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Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows 4

Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows 4Spencer: Sometimes, when he’s putting together the initial draft for these Round-Ups, Patrick will leave a little quip describing what he thinks each piece will be about. I got a hearty laugh out of the joke he left for this piece: “musings on power, responsibility, and the relationship between the two.” It wasn’t the funniest contribution, but it hit me funny anyway because, without even having read this issue at the time, I knew how accurate it was. There’s no way I can talk about Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows and not address power and responsibility — while they’ve always been a central theme of the Spider-Man mythos, they’ve taken on an even grander significance throughout this series.

Perhaps the most radical concept explored in issue 4, though, is that the “responsible” choice isn’t always clear. Peter’s decision not to stop the mugger who killed Uncle Ben was a pretty cut-and-dry case, but Peter’s decision to stop Venom from killing his family instead of trying to save the Avengers’ lives is more morally ambiguous. It’s a decision that’s presented by writer Dan Slott (along with artists Adam Kubert and Scott Hanna) as the lesser of two evils, but that doesn’t give Hawkeye much comfort. But that decision is far in the past, and whatever consequences Peter’s choice may have reaped at the time, in the present it’s finally brought about some true good.

secret weapon

Even moments when Peter hasn’t fully seen to every responsibility he’d like to can bring about favorable results, and that’s a smart lesson to keep in mind: even our failures can eventually lead to success.

I’m also fond of how this issue shows that our priorities and responsibilities can evolve — not just at turning points like marriage and becoming a parent, but even moment-to-moment as circumstances change. As much as Peter hates seeing D-Man’s fate, it was probably in both his and his family’s best interests not to come to D-Man’s aid at the time; he’d have been captured by Regent for sure. Now, though, circumstances have changed, and Peter has no choice but to fight back. Likewise, Annie’s parents were right to try to hide her powers as a child, but now she faces a threat that requires her to act, not hide. There’s no permanent rulebook as to what our priorities should be and how to best use our talents; it’s something that requires our gut and intuition, and probably suffers if thought about too closely. Now that the Parker family’s learned these lessons, I’m curious to see what their dynamic will be like in the future — assuming they survive Regent of course, that is.

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Spider-Verse 4

Spider-Verse 4Drew: Big crossover events tend to have some kind of editorial objective, whether it’s reconciling continuity, combining two parallel universes, or simply establishing a new status quo for the characters involved. Spider-Verse was always a little different in that regard — sure, several new series spun out of the event, but it was clear from the start that it was really more about celebrating Spider-Man (and whatever other Spider-things) than anything else. While that could make for stale plotting from time to time, it also kept the proceedings light and energetic, with the amazingness of Spider-Man ever in the back of our minds. That’s exactly the energy that Spider-Verse 4 maintains, even as it caroms into the larger crossover event that is Secret Wars.

This issue finds Gwen and Peter teaming up to draw Norman Osborn out and reveal him for the monster that he is. Their plan is as transparent as it is half-baked, but it distracts Osborn enough for the rest of the spiders to discover his “Caesars Palace Chair,” which Norman was apparently using to channel the web of fate in hopes of challenging Doom. It’s an absurdly over-the-top premise, but it once again keeps the focus on just having fun with the spiders. As always, Spider-Ham is a favorite (his malapropism here may be a little strained, but Mike Costa spends enough time dwelling on its silliness to make it work), and his team-up with equally-out-of-her-element Anya is charming.

The biggest draw for me continues to be André Araujo’s distinctive linework. It’s just cartoony enough to make for some truly expressive facial expressions (and, in the case of Venom, expressive anatomy), but he never loses a sense of gravity — and I mean that literally: his sense of which way is down is an important orienting force in everything from action to talking heads. In short, it’s the perfect match for a book full of Spiders.

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Secret Wars Secret Love 1

Secret Wars Secret Love 1Spencer: This probably goes without saying, but anthology books can be a bit of a mixed bag. It’s both a blessing and a curse — pretty much every reader will find at least one story that appeals to them, but almost none will be pleased by every story. Secret Wars: Secret Love 1 certainly fits that pattern, providing us with five drastically different stories based around the loose concept of “romance” and the even looser concept of “Secret Wars,” and there’s really no way to evaluate these stories besides considering them one-by-one, so let’s dive in.

By far the meatiest story here is Jeremy Whitley and Gurihiru’s “Misty and Danny Forever,” which takes a surprisingly frank look at the “ever after” portion of “happily ever after,” something often ignored in “romance” stories. I’ll admit that the moral threw me a bit, as Misty and Danny’s conflict seemed more based around their being bored by no longer fighting crime than their taking each other for granted, but this seems like one of those situations where the trip is more important than the destination — I’m just happy to see a long-term superhero marriage in a comic book again at all. Felipe Smith’s “Fan of a Fan” and Marguerite Bennett & Kris Anka’s “Squirrel Girl Wins a Date With Thor,” meanwhile, are both more humor-based, and both find great success simply by sticking with the already established oversized personalities of their protagonists — though a few hot-Thor jokes and some rampant crack-shipping help as well.

The panel that broke Tumblr

Seriously, this is the panel that almost broke Tumblr.

Our final two tales seem to take place before the creation of Battleworld. This has no effect on Katie Cook’s charming, pun-filled “Happy Ant-iversary,” but it’s just one of many confusing choices surrounding Michel Fiffe’s Daredevil tale “Guilty Pleasure.” Is the apocalypse Karen hears coming an Incursion, or something to do with Mephisto? Why is Mephisto harassing Matt? Is there some Daredevil lore between the two I’m missing out on, does Mephisto have a vendetta against marriage, or is he just a dick? There’s a lot of lingering questions and arbitrary choices that leaves this one feeling muddled and confusing, which is a shame considering it’s the opening story.

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 1872 2

1872 2Patrick: With it’s second issue, 1872 clarifies its mission statement – instead of being “a Western with Marvel characters,” the shtick is reiterated as “Marvel meets Deadwood.” Making full use of the ‘what if?” nature of Secret Wars, writer Gerry Duggan is able to play into that HBO Drama aesthetic and kill whoever he wants. There’s nothing romantic or heroic about the gunplay in this issue, and even the heroism smacks of desperation and seems doomed to fail. We get all of that in the first two pages for a Tony Stark flashback to the Civil War (no, Civil War, the American Civil War). Tony — as a weapons manufacturer — created a weapon that he intended to intimidate the enemy into submission, but the Union soldiers instead used the weapon to murder the enemy into submission. It’s a graphic sequence, with bullets through the head and gore and everything.

Union soliders demonstrate the gun

Artist Nik Virella leans into exactly what’s upsetting about this, clearly articulating every single one of those exit wounds. Lee Loughridge’s ketchup-y red splashes of blood are horrifying, and this sequences perfectly sets the tone for the violence to come in 1872.

It’s a bold move to straight up kill Sheriff Steve Rodgers in the second issue of this series, and it places a lot of responsibility on the backs of weak and damaged men to do the right thing. Of course, if the model really is something like Deadwood, there’s no gaurantee the good guys will win at all. In fact, there’s almost an expectation that power simply begets more power.

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Weirdworld 3

Weirdworld 3Drew: I’ve never understood why people seem to like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so dang much. I like to think I can appreciate psychedelia as much as the next guy, but a world full of arbitrary rules where anything can happen so long as its nonsense makes my eyes glaze over. Importantly, there’s no force driving the action — I suppose Alice is trying to get home, but the backwards rules of Wonderland rob her of any agency, and the vignettes that she encounters never bring her any closer to her goal. Weirdworld is obviously built on a lot of the same ideas of Wonderland, but writer Jason Aaron is careful to keep us keenly aware of how the arbitrary rules frustrate Arkon at every turn.

That’s key, because the ins and outs of each vignette suffer from that arbitrariness — problems spring up and solve themselves with little real effort from Akron. That he is as aggravated by the total lack of forward motion as we are is a big help, and promises to keep Aaron honest about moving things along. That aggravation is manifested when Arkon finally gets the map Warbow promised him, only to discover that Warbow’s map doesn’t share any features with Arkon’s — the arbitrary rules of Weirdworld dictate that the landscape is always changing. That’s almost enough to break Arkon, but for the fact that Morgan Le Fey has now taken a special interest in killing Arkon, successfully driving him into territory that’s actually on his map. It’s not totally clear what will happen next, but with a tangible goal, a strong antagonist, and some breathtaking artwork from Mike Del Mundo, I suspect that this series will overcome its inherent Wonderland-ishness.

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Runaways 3

Runaways 3Spencer: My favorite thing about Noelle Stevenson and Sanford Greene’s Runaways is by far its eclectic cast of lovable characters and the ways they interact. This cast is just so much fun together, but this aspect of Runaways is a stark contrast to the grim realities of God Doom’s Academy and the danger these kids are really in. It’s a fascinating dynamic — the Runaways face life-and-death stakes, but never lose their youthful enthusiasm. Stevenson and Greene have created characters we can root for, characters whom we worry about and care if they live or die — without the comedy, the drama would fall flat.

Baby teeth!

Runaways 3 even reminds us that Valeria — the “bad guy” — is a still a child in her own right. The idea of Doom using and indoctrinating children is a key theme to this issue, as it helps remind us of how horrid Doom’s system really is. We’ve seen that Cloak, Sanna, Cho, Bucky, and no doubt countless others all joined up with the Academy to escape terrible living conditions in their own domain, but these conditions are ones created — or at the least, allowed to continue — by Doom in the first place. He needs these hardships to spawn new recruits. This is only the first step in a long brainwashing scheme that eventually results in loyal warriors fine with murdering their own friends, and it is without an absolutely cruel misuse of power.

Molly isn’t wrong when she says that they have to do something about it, but neither is Cho, who admits that there’s nothing they can do. With only one issue left in this series (say it ain’t so!), I highly doubt the Runaways will be the ones to take down Doom, but I appreciate Stevenson and Greene giving these kids a goal other than simply surviving. Maybe they’ll keep trying to take down Doom as long as Battleworld lives, or maybe they’ll try to protect kids like themselves from falling into Doom’s clutches in the first place — either way, they’ve learned and sacrificed too much to do anything less.
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Howard the Human 1

Howard the Human 1Patrick: As you might expect, the slugline for Howard the Human is “what if Howard the Duck was a human being, but everyone else was animals?” Turns out that Howard’s duckiness was never all that essential to the character – he only needs two qualities: 1) to be “other” in some way and 2) to show “common sense in a world gone mad.” Stripping him his animal qualities makes him a little bit like Frank Burly, the hero of John Schwartzwelder’s excellent series of comedic novelas (The Time Machine Did It is a great entry point for these things). Writer Skottie Young uses a pretty standard framing device for a noir adventure – the hero recounting said adventure at gun point, ending with an explanation of how he got into said gun-pointed-mess in the first place. Young goes the extra mile by making that framing device actually mean something. I started to find it mildly annoying as we’d cut away from the fun story to see Howard throwing back drinks in the bar, but luckily, Toomes (as a literal Vulture, because why not?) shares those frustrations, cold-cocking his henchmen when they slow the pace of the story with their inane questions.

The story that Howard tells is Secret Wars at Maximum Silly. Come to think of it, this might be Maximum Silly for Young and artist Jim Mahfood. Young obviously trades in Silly on-the-reg, with series like Rocket Raccoon or the adorable Giant-Sized Little-Marvel AvX, but this issue ping-pongs between semi-realistic crime storytelling (but, y’know with cats, mice and gorillas) and street-clearing brawls with a an army of monkey ninjas. Mahfood’s street art style adds a lot to this sense of chaos – or perhaps it’s just a sense of non-conformity. The storytelling isn’t always clear, and the designs aren’t always pretty (Howard’s fro/mustache combo confuses me), but you’d be hard-pressed to find this kind of energy anywhere else.

Gorilla Fisk and his Monkey Hand Ninjas

Actually, between the heavy inking, Justin Stewart’s high-contrast coloring, the anthropomorphic animals and the presence of the Hand Ninjas, this issue feels an awful lot like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And even though that property has since become one of the more marketable franchises out there, it started as subversive and weirdly dark. Which is about as apt a description as we’re going to get for Howard the Human.

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Loki Agent of Asgard 17

Loki Agent of Asgard 17Drew: It takes a lot for a series to out-meta me, but Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s Loki: Agent of Asgard has long been up to that challenge. This issue in particular piles on the postmodern deconstruction, revealing just how central storytelling is to culture, eventually tilting at the most central idea of creation: did the gods create us, or did we create them? Ever the master storyteller himself, Ewing doesn’t aim to answer that question for us. That may feel frustrating (and Verity definitely wants some answers), but not knowing is a key part of any creation story — the story tells us more about what we believe (or want to believe) than it does about the world itself. Which is to say, this issue is a gorgeous rumination on the power stories have in our lives.

And then Ewing drops the other shoe in the form of King Loki. Suddenly, this issue isn’t just about wrapping up Ewing’s thoughts on storytelling, but about Loki’s journey as a character. That those two goals can coexist so beautifully is exactly what has made this series such a treat over the last 17 issues. Ewing manages to tie up both so neatly, while still pointing ahead for the character (and acknowledging that any of this can change at any time), it’s hard to think of a more perfect ending for this series.

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Did you read some Secret Wars tie-ins that we didn’t? Sure you did! There are holes in our pull list. Holes that you’re encouraged to fill with your comments. Let’s keep talking about Secret Wars.

3 comments on “Secret Wars Round-Up: Issues released 8/19/15

  1. I was wondering how long it was going to be before someone referenced those little placeholder jokes in the round-up. Drew and I used to do joke predictions on twitter, and that “musings on power, responsibility, the relationship between the two” is the exact kind of joke we used to make. I sorta miss that.

  2. I love Loki’s admission that Battleworld is out there, but he’s chossing to skip it in favor of whatever comes next. We know a few readers like that, but I also just like the idea that Loki doesn’t seem to find any of that history precious: he just keep chugging on to whatever comes next. Storytelling is a living thing, and this issue does a great job of reminding us that it’s all temporary, and there will always be a new “next.”

    • I think it also empowers us as readers to pick and chose what stories to pay attention to. We don’t have to read Secret Wars just because it’s being published.

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