We try to stay up on what’s going on at Marvel, but we can’t always dig deep into every issue. The solution? Our weekly round-up of titles coming out of Marvel Comics. Today, we’re discussing Amazing Spider-Man 20, Astonishing Ant-Man 13, Black Panther 7, Black Widow 7, Captain America Sam Wilson 14, Death of X 2, Doctor Strange 13, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat 11, Silk 13, Spider-Woman 12, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 13, and Uncanny Inhumans 14 — and come back on Friday for our discussion of Infamous Iron Man 1, on Monday for our discussion of Mockingbird 8, and on Wednesday for our discussion of Mighty Thor 9! As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Amazing Spider-Man 20
If I was giving one piece of advice to writers starting a new series? Have a second think about doing the “here is unexpected scene, then skipping back in timeline to show how you got there” opening. Obviously it can work brilliantly. We all know the work we’re aspiring to when we do it… but it feels that 50% of books use it. I think there’s a fun analysis of why writers like it so much. I think it’s partially about insecurity in our own material. As in “Honestly — this gets really interesting. See how wild this gets? Now stick with me, and we’ll get there.” And there’s a “I want to really strike people in the face” part of it to the opening of a new work. But there’s obvious big problems… Primarily removing tension from the book and almost certainly blowing your best idea on the first page, meaning the rest risks being flat.
Drew: I’ve seen the cold-open flash-forward critiqued a lot over the years, but Kieron Gillen sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter last month when he tweeted those statements, prompting dozens of creators to weigh in on the issue. That conversation — and especially Gillen’s opening volley of tweets on the subject — were on my mind as I read Amazing Spider-Man 20, an issue that so suffers from that flatness Gillen describes, it’s a wonder anyone thought its story was even worth telling.
The issue opens with Spider-Man in the grips of a resurrected Otto Octavius, but quickly flashes back to just after the destruction of the Living Brain, with Otto’s consciousness now inside a Superior Spider-Man gantlet/octobot. These are all details we already know — the location of Otto’s consciousness was explained in Amazing Spider-Man 18, and his corporeal return was revealed at the end of Clone Conspiracy 1, meaning this story is really about filling in gaps to a story we already can more-or-less guess. Indeed, the line from Otto-as-octobot to Otto-as-clone is so direct, it might have been just as satisfactorily explained in a couple of lines of dialogue.
That’s not to say writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage don’t come up with a few surprises, just that those surprises ultimately don’t matter. Take, for example, the metaphysical face-off between Otto and Peter’s consciousnesses inside Otto’s clone brain. There’s not a lot of tension to be mined from that scene, since we already know Otto will be menacing Peter in just a few days, but the bigger problem is that Slott and Gage don’t invest in the stakes, either.
This sequence is frustratingly unclear. At first reading, I thought Otto was simply banishing Peter with a thought. On closer inspection, I can see that Otto used his dismembered robot arms to impale Peter, but then it’s less clear why he asserts the importance of it being his body. Would he have been able to do that otherwise (and if so, why hasn’t he)? If not, and he has godlike powers over this fight, why bother fighting at all?
But like I said, these questions are mostly irrelevant, and only fall out of a question nobody asked. I still have faith the Clone Conspiracy will turn out to be a fun event, but this issue is its “Jack’s Tattoos,” spinning wheels to bring us the origins of details none of us bothered to even question.
Astonishing Ant-Man 13
Spencer: To call Scott Lang a screw-up would be an understatement. Writer Nick Spencer points out in Astonishing Ant-Man 13 — the finale of his run with Ramon Rosanas and Brett Schoonover — that Scott’s greatest strength as a hero is that he never stops trying, but within the very same issue we see that Scott’s instincts are frequently wrong. Scott nearly makes an ill-advised, illegal deal with Beetle (who just wants to shrink too, bless her crooked little heart), and Cassie herself points out how misguided his attempt to take the fall for her is; sure, Scott never stops trying to do right, but he almost always misjudges what right is.
That’s why the grand climax of this series comes when Scott is forced to reevaluate his relationship with Cassie. Actually, that goes for both her parents: Cassie’s mother, Peggy, finally accepts that she’ll never be able to stop Cassie from being a hero, while Scott realizes that she’s always been a better hero than he’ll ever be.
Cassie is the reason Scott became a hero in the first place and, even now, she’s still his motivation, but the context behind that has changed. Scott’s no longer trying to “protect” Cassie by lying to her, vanishing from her life, or even going to jail for her. Instead, he wants to live up to her expectations and example by being the best hero, father, and partner he can be. That partnership — Ant-Man and Stinger, Scott and Cassie — is such a beautiful thing; both have so much to learn from each other. The Lang family is finally healthy, and it looks like Scott is finally making some smart decisions. I guess all it took for Scott to grow up was accepting that Cassie had grown up as well.
Black Panther 7
Ryan D: Black Panther 7 starts us off with a bang, offering a very nice respite from the openings of past issues which often began with an internal monologue from the titular character; this time, however, we get a tussle resulting from Ezekiel Stane’s bunch of baddies throwing hands with the arriving cavalry consisting on Ororo Munroe, Misty Knight, Luke Cage, and Manifold — “the Crew”. This fight, while entertaining in a superhero-y kind of way, also showcases some very interesting dialogue.
I should not be surprised that a writer like Ta-Nehisi Coates could give me so much food for thought from a punch-up as the conflict turns from a “good guy vs. bad guy” altercation into a fight of black heroes against a villain perpetuating the Eurocentric racism of White Man’s Burden. Particularly interesting is the use of appropriated language, as the heroes banter about the use of the word “thug”– a word much maligned in recent media coverage of black protests in the US — and “kaffir” — an ethnic slur for black Africans of which I had no knowledge before reading this issue. Both times these controversial words are used, the heroes end up reclaiming them for their own uses, offering a very metaphorical, overarching battle as the fisticuffs take place.
Coates splits his narrative again between three different lines: firstly, T’Challa and his struggle against Stane, then the scholar Birnin Azzaria as he meets with the super-powered leaders of The People’s resistance movement, and also Shuri on the spiritual plane. While it can always be risky for an author to shift focus so much during a story, I found that it worked well in this issue. I love especially how the use of folk tales runs parallel with the main plot, and illustrates the deeper knowledge which it seems all of the other characters talk about but never really achieve. On the other side of the coin, we see the the resistance fighters who, until now, always kept a shade of ambiguity about them in the sense that they were never really condemned as villains from the artistic team. Coates wrote this splinter cell without judgement, leaving the audience to make up their own mind; at this point, though, the ideological lines in the sand have been drawn, proving that this student-mentor conversation might actually have been a notable volta for Zenzi and Tetu’s philosophical standpoint.
Issue 7 comes across as a very focused, deliberately written, and thoughtful comic. If you are still interested in the fight for the heart and mind of a nation on a micro and macro level with some fun cameos, dig on in. It seems like things will be ramping up in a big way soon.
Black Widow 7
Patrick: There are a precious few comic book artists that are as good at using traditional paneling as meaningfully or as effectively as Chris Samnee. A lot of the more acrobatic visual storytelling in comics will play with the shape and definition of panels to sell motion or atmosphere or tone, but for Black Widow 7, Samnee adheres to a maniacally strict set of standards for his layouts — all right angles, black gutters for the real-time pages, white gutters for the flashback pages. This all serves to express Natasha’s character, which similarly insists on precision. My favorite line from this issue — and I’d love to know whether to credit it to Samnee or his co-writer Mark Waid — sums this up perfectly: “never use a chainsaw when a scalpel will do.”
The precision of this surgical storytelling is also established so thoroughly so the reader will inherently panic when Samnee pulls the rug out from under us. There’s this bravura sequence where the Weeping Lion is trying to psychically extract memories from the Headmistress, only to have the whole thing interrupted when the Headmistress shoots herself in the head.
This is a sole moment of visual chaos, suggesting all sorts of tantalizing secrets and plans, and it’s the only time that Samnee breaks all of his own rules, even taking the abstraction far enough to make the Headmistresses’ head the gunshot itself. It’s such a cool way of turning a terrible moment into a totally catastrophic one.
Captain America Sam Wilson 14
Drew: I don’t make a habit of watching Comedy Central’s roasts, but let me describe one thing that I’m fairly certain has never happened: as soon as the first joke is told, the target of said joke leaps up to decry how unfair it is that only they are being picked on. This doesn’t happen because 1) everyone understands that making fun of people is precisely the point of roasts and 2) everyone also understands that everyone will get theirs, even if only one person can be targeted at a time. As unreasonable as that fictional roastee is, I’d like to suggest that this is exactly how certain readers responded to the opening arc of Captain America: Sam Wilson, where Sam confronted a group of vigilante border patrollers. If only they’d bothered to hang around to issue 14, they’d see that writer Nick Spencer is just as happy to target wingnuts on the left as he is those on the right.
This month’s wingnut is Flag-Smasher, a terrorist with a plan borrowed from Project Mayhem: blow up whatever institutions he feels are “enslaving” humanity. Flag-Smasher’s goals aren’t entirely unappealing — Rick Jones has to remind himself whose side he’s on — but his methods are not something Captain America can stand for.
Literally holding (members of) the government hostage to achieve his goals may sound more like the Tea Party than anyone we associate with the left, but I’ve seen enough leftist ideologues wonder if we wouldn’t be better motivated to fix things if Trump wins to see the parallels. Those ideologues and Flag-Smasher both want only exactly what they want, democracy be damned.
To drive home how counterproductive that attitude is, Spencer reveals that Flag-Smasher is actually working for Hyrda (or, rather, that the Flag-Smasher we see in this issue is actually a LMD puppet used by Hydra to enact its own agenda). I’m sure anyone on the left refusing to vote for Hillary would balk at the claim that they’re effectively supporting fascism, but if the end result is the promotion of a fascist ideology, do the words that justify it even matter? It reads as a rather harsh criticism of third party voters/conscientious objectors to this election, but also plants Sam as firmly in the middle of the Marvel Universe’s political spectrum. He may be left of Steve, sure, but you guys heard that Steve’s a member of Hydra now, right?
Death of X 2
Patrick: I think we tend to give a little too much credit to obviously articulated analogies. The more parallels between fictional characters and current events, the “ballsier” the satire, right? I know I’ve blinked dumbly at the screen while South Park takes a public figure to task using their real name, likeness and actual ideals. And that’s certainly brave — criticizing someone directly means you could be inviting retaliation — it’s not the most artful exploration of those topics. That’s actually been one of the greatest strengths of the X-Men franchise, which has this perfect metaphor for all excluded people in the form of mutants. Are they gay? Racial or religious minorities? Are they guns? An over-militarized police force? The X-Men are flexible enough to be their own, relevant to today’s issues without having to adhere to specific issues. That’s what Charles Soule and Jeff Lemire have channeled in the excellent second issue of Death of X.
The conflict between the Inhumans and the Mutants is demonstrated very early on in the issue, through a one-on-one interaction between Medusa and Storm. Storm’s got some X-Men lackies waiting on the landing pad, and Medusa’s an easy Facetime call away from having the RIV get her back, but essentially, it’s down to just these two women. It’s a delightfully simple interaction – they both hear each other, and they are both willing to accept the best intentions of the other. Artist Aaron Kuder plays up Storm and Medusa’s visual similarities — leaning on their distinct hairstyles — to underline their ideological similarities.
There is a very serious, life-or-death problem at the heart of this, but these two women are appealing directly to each other’s rationality. Cyclops, meanwhile, nukes it all by appealing to everyone’s — and I mean, fucking, everyone in the world — fear and distrust. He uses Emma and the Cuckoos to broadcast a reactionary message of hate and hostility around the world instantaneously, like it’s some kind of hyper-Twitter. I am a long-time Scott Summers backer, but this is the first time I’ve been able to see his revolutionary tendencies weaponized so recklessly. And once again, I’m forced to ask the question of what is the specific metaphor here? Is Cyclops Trump – drumming up support on Twitter? Or is he a Gamer Gate agitator with a large following on Reddit? Perhaps the only message here is that, with a big enough audience, emotional outbursts can be declarations of war.
Doctor Strange 13
Taylor: The thing that’s often forgotten about Doctor Strange is that he’s actually a doctor. Before he dove into the world of magic, Stephen was a promising young MD who saved people with his hands and his mind. Of course, we all know that a horrible accident to his hands quashed these dreams and send Stephen on his well-known path, but it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if things were different.
This “what-if” scenario is exactly the stuff that dreams, or in this case, nightmares, are made of. Stephen has been pulled into a nightmare by, well, Nightmare, his old adversary. There, things seem perfect for Stephen. His hands are healed and he is a world-famous surgeon with enough cash, cars, and sex to satisfy any number of dreams. But this is all too perfect and Stephen quickly realizes he’s in a trap and turns the tables.
This is an unremarkable nightmare story. It’s basically the same plot almost all nightmare stories take on, so in some ways this issue is a bit pedantic. However, the climax of the story, where Stephen realizes how to defeat Nightmare, is actually quite fun. In the clutches of his enemy, Stephen realizes that all he has to do to defeat Nightmare is use the same principles he learned in med school and apply them to magic.
These three panels are essentially a remix of the three panels that open the comic. The only difference is that instead of cutting into a human body, Strange is now cutting into the fabric of magic. This moment comes after we’ve seen Strange living a life of ease and prestige and is therefore more poignant than it would be in isolation. Just like when Stephen rejected Mordo’s offer to fix his hands for giving up magic, once again Stephen chooses a more difficult path all so he can travel the magic path. What makes this especially meaningful is that he’s able to do this while still using the same set of skills he uses in his dreams as a surgeon. Even though this is not an outstanding issue of Doctor Strange, Jason Aaron finds a way to still keep it meaningful.
Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat 11
Ryan M.: Part of what makes Patsy Walker such a refreshing character is her basic goodness. She’s been through challenges, but her natural instincts make her a positive force in the lives of her friends. That’s why Kate Leth’s choice to set up Black Cat as a foil works so well in Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat! 11. Black Cat doesn’t have some deep grudge against Hellcat, just some basic curiosity with a dash of jealousy. For her, that’s enough to recruit a team of trouble-makers to “disappear” Hellcat.
The Black Cats have satin jackets and bad attitudes. They are modern hipster punks, who combine posturing with disregard for others. When you compare them to Patsy’s friends in the city, you see that Leth has given us two sides of the same coin. When Ian and Bailey met Hellcat, they were minor criminals, but all it took was encountering her goodness for them to join her. The Black Cats are what happens when you want adventure but you have no regard for other people.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the usual adorable shenanigans and the introduction of Black Cat and her crew of jerks, we have a very realistic disagreement between Ian and Patsy. She encourages him to use his powers to fight bad guys and doesn’t pick up his discomfort until he abruptly ends their conversation to leave. It’s such a relatable exchange. Patsy didn’t know Ian’s boundary until she tripped over it. It’s also a fairly minor tiff, but both characters are thrown into a funk. Patsy mopes on rooftops in full Hellcat garb while Ian lounges on the couch singing along to the most painful parts of Hamilton.
The series is about friendships and sometimes friends inadvertently hurt each other. And, just like in real life, an honest conversation can solve a conflict between people who love each other. It’s a sweet moment, reinforcing that Patsy’s greatest power is her goodness.
Patrick: There’s bound to be a time in the life of every young superhero where their story rubs against the fundamental conflict that created them and drives them to heroism. Silk 14 casually (but very sweetly) reunites Cindy with her parents, effectively concluding the largest on-going conflict in her life. Writer Robbie Thompson and artist Tana Ford play this casual sweetness for all it’s worth, giving the reader glimpses into the quiet, happy versions of their lives before Cindy was bit by a radioactive spider. Ford sets up this page three times, always using the same 4-panel layout, the first three delivered washed-out, saccharine images of the past, and the fourth snapping back to the action-packed present. By the third of these pages, the format is as comforting as the images themselves, and the detached, past-tense narration makes it clear that Cindy is relaying these events from a place of comfort. It’s a therapy session, but we don’t see the shape of that scene until everything is said and done.
It’s fascinating to see much of the bombastic action in the Negative Zone waved off for the slower family non-drama that surrounds it. The issue’s title page would suggest that we’ve got some kind of nasty battle between dragons and demons and knights to look forward to.
But instead, Ford focuses on the hugs, the memories, the gentle assurance that everything’s going to be okay. That’s exactly why it starts to feel weird – toward the end of the issue we join Cindy and her doctor mid-session, and left with only the words and feelings, something feels off. I love this page – the first two panels show Cindy and her doctor close together, but the third and fourth panels literally keep them separated, and the angle of the final panel has forced real distance between them in the same room.
It’s that question – “What is next for you?” – that makes Cindy feel alone.
Spencer: In Spider-Woman 12, writer Dennis Hopeless combines three of the series’ strongest ongoing themes — the joys/demands of family, the more mundane side of being a superhero/villain, and the ongoing rehabilitation of the Porcupine — into one absolutely charming one-off tale. Roger’s battle against the Sandman gives the issue a fairly standard set-up, but it stems from uniquely Spider-Woman circumstances: Sandman’s trying to relax after a heist gone wrong, new parent Jess now has to schedule her relaxation time and won’t give it up for anything, and both situations force Roger to step-up.
Hopeless continues to be bluntly realistic in his depictions of the challenges of parenting, and not just when it comes to the demands on Jess’ time.
This moment made me gasp. It’s not commented on again, but it’s still a grim reminder of how careful Jess needs to be now. In a way, it’s refreshing that Hopeless doesn’t sugarcoat parenting, but it’s just as refreshing that he doesn’t demonize it either. Much of the joy of this issue comes from seeing Jess, Roger, and their kids bond as a makeshift family — Jess even mothers him about sunscreen at one point — and likewise, Roger’s biggest reward for saving the day isn’t the respect of Jess or even his increased confidence in himself, but the adoration of his young daughter. What could be greater?
Artist Tigh Walker is an essential component of this issue. Not only does his work emphasize the affection between these characters as much — if not more — than the writing, but his focus on detail and background characters brings each and every scene to life.
Seriously, Walker never settles for a generic dull pose or lifeless character. Gerry could just be a prop here, but instead he struggles and climbs all over Jess as any baby might. It adds so much life to the proceedings, and in a book that thrives on life and connection, that touch is essential.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 13
Spencer: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a dense book. It’s rare to see a panel without copy, and that’s because Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi want to cram as many jokes as humanly possible into every nook and cranny — heck, this month I laughed out loud before I even finished the recap page! That’s why I was surprised to see several significant silent — or near silent — sequences throughout issue 13. Fortunately, they’re just as funny as any of the best constructed jokes.
Admittedly, much of the context for this gag comes from the panels preceding it — which explain that Brain Drain is taking a photo of sensitive information Ant-Man foolishly left open on his computer — but so many of the visual details alone here make me laugh. There’s the fact that Brain Drain is using a flip-phone in 2016, that he takes the photo with the front-facing camera instead of the normal one, the way the second panel lights up with the phone’s flash while Scott just snores through it all, even just the fact that Brain Drain is daintily holding Scott’s shrunken bedroom aloft throughout the entire sequence. My favorite detail, though, is the mask that’s fixed in place on Brain Drain’s helmet, even as his eyes move around inside it. The image of Drain peeking beneath the mask in the first panel, only to stare intently through the mask in the second, had me in stitches.
There’s a similar gag on the next page — where Brain Drain just ejects himself from a jet instead of bothering to land it — that plays out just as well, but the other dialogue-free sequence I wanted to highlight comes a few pages later, and, oddly enough, doesn’t contain a single joke!
This is a simple, rather standard establishing shot, yet it feels really effective. It’s a moment of peace after a few tense confrontations, and it’s a moment of reflection that prompts Doreen and Scott to attempt to get to know each other better. Perhaps most importantly, it highlights the alien qualities of Squirrel Girl‘s Canada — moments this quiet and serene are rare within this book’s usual world.
I’m not complaining about Squirrel Girl‘s joke ratio — the book is absolutely riotous, and this issue is no different — but it is nice to change things up now and again. This issue is a great example of how to make a few small, effective changes without losing a book’s identity, and I love it all the more for it.
Uncanny Inhumans 14
Drew: Last month, I praised Uncanny Inhumans 13 for establishing and following three blocs of characters with three distinct motivations and perspectives, setting up a conflict I compared to Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. As much as I love the conflict of that story, I have to admit its resolution isn’t the most thrilling: Jack Ryan averts disaster with a phone call. That resolution flips the story from a political action/thriller to a character study — a flip that works when the narrative is understood as part of the Jack Ryan universe, but doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying conclusion in a vacuum. That Uncanny Inhumans is an ongoing comic series certainly makes its larger context more important, but I’m afraid it doesn’t prevent the resolution from being a bit deflating.
Writer Chalres Soule knows how to keep the tension high, but since we know that Stark’s beef isn’t actually with Medusa, it’s hard to sustain the conflict with those two players. Instead, this issue focuses on the Inhumans trapped in New Attilan — Inhumans who fight not because they believe the lie Stark is responding to, but because they feel they need to defend their queen and country. From that perspective, the characters truly shine. Karnak gets to be a skilled warrior and tactician, but admits that he’s no leader. Iso gets to step up and inspire a successful revolt against Stark’s drones. Triton gets to have his crisis of conscience, rejecting Maximus and aiding in Iso’s uprising before ultimately turning himself in.
These are smart choices that build upon these characters as we know them, but it also relegates Medusa to the background. When she finally does show up, her conflict with Tony is resolved with such a short conversation, you can’t help but wonder why she didn’t take a page from the Jack Ryan playbook and just call him. This issue is perhaps best read as a pause in Medusa’s promised hunt for those responsible (though Triton’s admission makes it clear now who she’s hunting for). I suppose such unexpected hitches in personal agendas is routine for a sovereign, but shifting momentum from issue to issue is a little jarring for the rest of us.
The conversation doesn’t stop there, because you certainly read something that we didn’t. What do you wanna talk about from this week?