Brief Comic Book Reviews (January 1 to 15, 2020)

The comics reviewed here are mostly from my most recent batch of pull-list books, which I am still having shipped from Midtown Comics in New York City. This makes them slightly more expensive, but the time, energy, fuel it would take me to go pick up comics locally every week or two means it is nearly equal in my mind. I will have to figure out a permanent solution eventually, but the ease with which I can add, withdraw, or pause a title in my pull-list makes me hesitant to change. If I get stuck paying for comics I don’t want more often I am less likely to splurge on an impulse buy. Speaking of which, the first comic I review here today was just such a buy. I picked it up from New Dimension Comics when I was there recently to take advantage of their ridiculous back issue deals. I picked up most of Superman’s Pal JImmy Olsen while I was there, too. I decided to include these two titles in my reviews even though they came out months ago.

Two of the innumerable covers to House of X #1. On the left, the original cover. On the right, the cover to the 5th printing (itself a variant of the “Brooks Connecting Variant.”

House of X #1 [fifth printing] (released November 13, 2019)
Jonathan Hickman (writer), Pepe Larraz (pencils, inks), Marte Gracia (colors), Clayton Cowles (letters), Tom Muller (design)

I picked this up on a whim. So many people have been talking about it positively, I could not resist checking it out despite not being a big fan of Jonathan Hickman’s work. My immediate sense of it was not unlike my feelings about his 2013 New Avengers run that led to (the second) Secret Wars and that I abandoned after three or four issues: the character moments seem very different from the versions of these characters I am used to (then again, that might just be on me, since the versions of X-Men I know and like best are the ones from the Claremont run through about Uncanny X-Men #226 – that’s early 1988 for those who need help figuring out that I’m fucking old). Or maybe it is just the en media res approach to introducing this new status quo of Krakoa as a mutant homeland with flowering “habitats” serving as embassies to human nations the world over that is confusing. Maybe it is not knowing how Professor X came back from the dead and if Red Skull still has his brain (god, I hope so). But no, I don’t really care about that degree of continuity detail, I just care about how the new status quo works on its own as an introduction to this story. If the point is to create a sense of dread in the reader and cast suspicion on Professor X (who appears alien and messianic with his face and pate covering X-helm and open-armed poses welcoming his newly born fully-grown mutant children emerging from Krakoan pods like Jesus in Matthew 16:13-16) then it works. Professor X has well-earned the reputation of being full of bad decisions and having trouble respecting personal boundaries and consent, so suspicion of his motives seems within the bounds of what many an X-fan might feel about this. But if that is the case, then the reader is meant to take the view of the skeptical government liaisons who arrive to take what they can get from Xavier in return for recognizing this new mutant island nation, and that strikes me as counter to the X-Men’s ideals. I don’t hate and fear mutants—nor do I think that the X-Men in their role as minoritarian metaphor should care too much if bigoted humans are scared—but I think it is healthy to fear mutant assimilationists who once sold their own people out who then become zealots for the more radical position. Inspired by Xavier’s apparent geo-political aggression someone is building sentinels out by Mercury. As an X-Men fan familiar with the history of sentinels I am concerned for the characters I have come to love, but in terms of the politics established by Hickman, I can’t help but wonder if whoever is building them has reason to do so. The mutant threat is a chicken-and-egg thing. Maybe that is Hickman’s point, just throw us headfirst into the mess that mutant superhero politics have become in the era of the crossover event. Given that perspective and Pepe Larraz’s capable art and how it benefits from Marte Gracia’s gorgeous colors, upon a second read I like House of X better. It makes me want to know what will happen next, even as I already can’t help but try to predict how long this new status quo will actually last. I am also just not sure I want to pay $5.99 for each of the six issues in this mini-series, plus the six issues in the interlaced companion series Powers of X (which is “Powers of TEN,” by the way). Immediate narrative crossover between two new series is a new marketing low for a company who invented 90% of the ones common to comics. Nor am I won over by the wave of nostalgia titles revived as part of this new status quo—like Fallen Angels and Excalibur—as much as I loved the originals. If I wait long enough, I’ll be able to find them all in one or two dollar boxes, so I shall. It may take years, but I have a lot of other X-Men comics to read in the meantime.

Magnificent Ms. Marvel #11 (released January 8th)
Saladin Ahmed (writer), Minkyu Jung (pencils), Juan Vlasco (inks), Ian Herring (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Marvel from the beginning and love her original series. Furthermore, I was excited when it was announced that Saladin Ahmed would be taking it over, but the series has been on the bubble for me for a while. It isn’t bad by a long shot, but I am not always enjoying it as much as I once did. This is mostly because I do not find it visually appealing and the art and panel structure comes off as generic. It doesn’t have a distinct enough visual style. Furthermore, as much as I tend to like Ahmed’s writing—and he does a great job here with interpersonal dynamics, relationships, especially family stuff—some of the superhero plot elements feel a little too obviously recycled. For example, in this issue, Kamala ends up fighting her own supersuit, a piece of Kree technology she found in the previous arc while on some distant planet helping to fight a war. It comes to life and they come into conflict and the echoes of Spider-Man’s symbiote suit and Secret Wars are a little too clear. It feels like a direct lift, rather than a re-imagining or subversion of the idea. While I do like Ahmed’s attempt to frame this as a conflict between versions of a self, with the Kree supersuit taking on Kamala’s guise and representing the darker and uncompromising aspect of the superheroic figure, isn’t that essentially what Venom is for Peter Parker? And yet, Ahmed knows how to write some great moments, as when caught out on the street by fans without a costume, Kamala uses her stretching powers to make her face look really weird, like a freaky smiley face doll. The fans help her out by lending her their scarf and sunglasses so she won’t freak people out while keeping her civilian identity a secret. The ethical dilemma of protecting Mr. Hyde (a very bad and murderous guy) from her own suit is also classic superhero fare, but it works because it represents actual choices Kamala has to weigh. There are things to like about this issue. The art is not “bad,” I just wish it was more inventive and playful, less literal. I’ll stick with this series for now, but it remains on the bubble.

Miles Morales: Spider-Man #14 (released January 1st)
Saladin Ahmed (writer), Ray-Anthony Height, Zé Carlos, Belén Ortega (pencils, inks), David Curiel (colors), Cory Petit (letters)

The art is all over the place in this issue. Three different artists did pencils and inks on it, and though the editor did a good job assigning each artist to a different environ/setting as to create some kind of continuity, the styles are so different, I could not help but constantly compare them as I read. Belén Ortega’s work in the scenes at home and Zé Carlos’s scenes at Miles’s school are great. I love the clean and expressive style, with a slight preference for Carlos. Ray-Anthony Height’s action scenes are sketchy and dark. They are too static. Ahmed’s writing here is great, though. The dialog pops and the sense of dread and panic is palpable when Miles realizes he’s misplaced his journal (in which he has been foolishly writing about his Spider-Man adventures). I like the school drama more than the meta-villain mystery (a monstrous version of the Green Goblin) that arises from Miles’s crossover from the Ultimate universe (or at least, having not read much of that stuff, I assume it emerges from that history), but even that element is compelling in this comic book. I look forward to it each month.

Miles Morales: The End (released January 8th)
Saladin Ahmed (writer), Damion Scott (pencils, inks), Dono Sánchez-Almara (colors), Cory Petit (letters)

I only ended up getting this because it was pulled along with the regular series and it was too late to cancel, but I thought with Ahmed writing, it couldn’t be too bad. The story is touching—Miles sacrifices himself for his community’s survival. If that’s a spoiler, I guess it is one that the comic book’s title gives away. Anything I know about this thematic “The End” series (which includes issues for characters like Captain America, Venom, and Deadpool), I’m gathering from the context of this issue and the explicitness of the name. I guess they all imagine the final days of some superhero or another. In this story, Miles is an old man with graying hair and wrinkles around his twinkling eyes. I am not sure if all the superheroes in this series face the same end­—in this case the worldwide presence of murderous monstrous germs—or if this is what Ahmed came up with just for Miles. In this future he is the leader of a community in Brooklyn, holding out against the constant germy threat. I love the way the story pumps up Brooklyn pride but also leaves room for solidarity between places, as when they come to the aid of a Jersey City caravan bringing supplies across the infected zones (There is a reference to Kamala Khan that suggests she plays a similar role as the protector/mayor of an enclave on the other side of the river). Ahmed has a great voice for Miles. Still, the villain is one-dimensional and evocative of Nuke (not in a good way) and the art style is a terrible fit for Marvel Comics and the tone of the story in general. It’s a mess and the lack of contrast in some panels is kind of headache-inducing, which I guess is also on the colorist. Event or theme books are so often sloppy or incoherent that it is not worth it to try them even if you end up missing the very occasional gem. There is no end to the better comics to spend your time and money on.

Runaways vol. 5, #29 (released January 15)
Rainbow Rowell (writer), Andrés Genolet (pencils, inks), Dee Cunniffe (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

This series is always great, and this issue is no exception. Rowell and Genolet (the latter taking a lead from the strong visual foundation laid by Kris Anka) hit the beats of a serial comic perfectly month after month. From the syncopation of a good back and forth conversation that also serves as exposition to the unspoken revelation of a guest character’s identity to just letting us revel in strong emotional moments built up over time, they know how to do it right. I want it to go on forever. With Rowell’s recent announcement that the book is getting (at least) another arc, I have faith that it can gain the following it deserves, as my impression is that this book is always on the edge of cancellation.

Second Coming #6 (released January 15)
Mark Russell (writer), Richard Pace (pencils, inks, colors), Leonard Kirk (inks), Andy Troy (colors), Rob Steen (letters)

I loved this series, but this end to its first arc felt abrupt and out of sync with what came before it. The Devil’s plan fails quite anticlimactically and God’s rotten demeanor seemed curbed. Maybe I need to reread the whole thing from the beginning again, but it felt a little too pat…leaning a little too much into some generic wisdom. It is coming back after a break, so hopefully they can get the spark back.

Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy #2 (released January 15)
Jeff Lemire (writer), Tonci Zonjic (pencils, inks, colors), Steve Wands (letters)

Another limited series in the world of Black Hammer, this one follows a kind of Batman/Punisher analog in the mid-90s and his ward-cum-sidekick, who he kidnaps from a group home after the boy’s parents come to a Crime Alley-like end right in front of the kid (and then witnesses Skulldigger kill their murderer). This is the typical training issue, where the kid who will be Skeleton Boy is basically abused in the process of being transformed into a bad-ass criminal-killing “superhero.” As usual, Lemire weaves transparent analogs for existing Big Two characters (for example, Detective Amanda Reyes is essentially Gotham Central’s Rene Montoya, the good lesbian cop with neglected girlfriend and surrounded by corruption) with interrogations of old superhero tropes (the child sidekick) to come up with something compelling. As with basically all the Black Hammer series, this one does a great job of creating a familiar world that nevertheless makes some different choices—especially when it comes to making subtext into text. In a way, Black Hammer is like a dark-tinted Astro City. Zonjic’s art is perfectly suited to this story. There have been more hits than misses in the various Black Hammer related series and so far this is yet another one.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen vol. 3, #3 (released September 18, 2019)
Matt Fraction (writer), Steve Lieber (pencils, inks), Nathan Fairbairn (colors), Clayton Cowles (letters)

This is a fun and inventive series that is really carried by Steve Lieber’s consistently charming, sharp, and delightful art. I only recently acquired the comics that were already released of the 12-issue maxi-series, but issue #3 is as far as I have gotten as of this writing so I am reviewing it instead of the most recent one. In Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen vol. 3, #3, the structural conceit that Fraction and Lieber are using to tell the non-chronological story really comes into its own. The form also helps pay homage to both the goofy transformations and twists of the original Silver Age series along with other recognizable moments in comics history (like the infamous sweating astronaut from 1953’s Weird Fantasy #18, which ran afoul of the comics code). Every two to four pages, the comic nearly reboots the narrative as if introducing a new disconnected issue, except it is all connected, even if we as readers are only slowly getting a sense of what is happening. And what is happening is that someone is trying to kill Jimmy Olsen, and as such he has faked his death and is hiding out in Gotham (that’s the present time, with the other fragments showing events leading up to that out of order). The series does a great job of being silly but also allows itself a little bit of disbelief that Jimmy Olsen could participate in so many destructive and dangerous capers for his news stories without raising the ire of his bosses and the city of Metropolis, before plunging back into a reasoning for why his madcap adventures continue to happen. There is also a series of flashbacks to a time before Metropolis’s founding, when the Olsen Family (then spelled “Ollson”), were important figures that helped to exile those who would become the Luthor (as in “Lex”) Family, leading to an ongoing feud. We shall see how that connects to the current day conflict between Jimmy’s family and Lex Luthor in future issues. Oh yeah, it turns out that Jimmy’s family is rich, and he has successful siblings who are embarrassed of their Superman loving brother. It is just the kind of never before mentioned plot point you’d expect in a Silver Age comic, that hopefully­­—like a lot in the Silver Age—never needs to be mentioned again. Anyway, this series is as great as I imagined it’d be—at least so far. One last note, this is the kind of series where everything is just so perfect that I even stopped while reading to see who the letterer was because even that was impressive.

Dropped/Cancelled or Finished: Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur. Wonder Woman
On the Bubble: Agents of Atlas, Die, Magnificent Ms. Marvel
Current Pull-List: Ahoy: Second Coming; Dark Horse:  Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy; DC Comics:  Far Sector, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Superman Smashes The Klan, Wonder Twins; Fantagraphics: Love and Rockets; Image: Bitch Planet, Bitter Root, Die, Fix, Monstress; Lion Forge: Quincredible; Marvel: Agents of Atlas, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Magnificent Ms. Marvel, Runaways.

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