OK, people, there were a ton of decent books this week — a holiday bounty partly because there will be only a handful for next week (although Amazing Spider-Man #700, and Avenging Spider-Man #15.1, the next chapter in the story after that, will both be out) — so let’s get to them. Marvel’s many relaunches lead the pack; I had my doubts about Marvel Now!, but have to admit that reshuffling the creative teams and starting from scratch led to (a) a lot of satisfying conclusions to the old runs, and (b) a lot of intriguing beginnings to the new ones, with hardly a dud in the bunch. For example:
Hawkeye isn’t officially a relaunch, and started earlier than the others, but it’s been the feel-good book of the year: an exuberant, stylish tour de force of technique with a scruffy, human hero at its heart. This issue, “Six Nights in the Life of Hawkeye,” plays around with its chronology (the “nights” are printed out of order, leaving the reader to connect the dots to complete the narrative), but in the capable hands of Fraction and Aja it all makes sense, and turns into a charming little illustration of just how stubborn our archer can be, and how dependent on friendship, too. The Russian “bros” have probably worn out their 15 minutes of spotlight, but it’s so nice to have Aja, and his precise panels and compositions, back after a few issues off that I don’t care. Also: I don’t usually list colorists (I can’t do credits for everyone), but Hollingsworth’s palette choices mesh so perfectly with the art that they deserve some applause here, too.
FF #2 — Writer: Matt Fraction; Art: Michael Allred
Another Fraction book with a great artist. How do you get artists like Allred and Aja to want to work with you? Play to their strengths; FF isn’t at all like Hawkeye, because Allred isn’t like Aja, so Fraction’s crafted this book with all the colorful superhero costumes, whiz-bang giant monsters and pop-culture pizzazz that he’s deliberately left out of that title. Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa and Ms. Thing have been drafted to sub for the “real” FF as that group heads out to interdimensional adventure (chronicled in their own title), but Reed’s set things up so they’ll only be gone for four minutes of Earth time — except that the four minutes pass and… nothing. So, what now? Can the misfit subs hold things together? Hey, read it and see — with only two issues out so far, it’s still easy to get in on the ground floor; Fractions’s clearly got a clever plan in place for this and its sister title, and there’s no excuse for passing up all that shiny, happy Allred art.
This one got off to a slow start in its first issue — but, as we saw with Hickman’s Fantastic Four run, his small beginnings often lead to big payoffs. Here in the second installment, the outlines of the threat become more clear: an alpha-and-omega level duo on Mars, two beings who want to reseed the Earth… or destroy it. The slow burn continues — there’s no actual fighting-type action, although we get a flash-forward to a defeated team and a here’s-my-plan bad guy — but there’s a lot of gathering-the-band talking, an interesting core-and-reserves organizational setup, and some intriguing choices in team members. Withhold judgment on this book for the first six issues; it’s going to take at least that long for Hickman to get all his pieces in place, and for readers to know where this Avengers will take its place compared to past incarnations.
Captain America #2 — Writer: Rick Remender; Pencils: John Romita Jr.; Inks: Klaus Janson
This opens a year after the last issue ended — Cap’s spent that long on a hostile alien world, caring for himself and a young boy and trying to stay alive. It’s an interesting setup, one that strips the character down to his human/soldier basics, and it works very well; the art’s gorgeous, with plenty of weirdness and gritty action for Romita Jr. and Janson to play with, and Remender’s just grown by leaps and bounds with every new assignment he’s taken in the last few years — this and Uncanny Avengers showcase his knack for big ideas, unexpected twists and careful characterization. This title is a good example of the Marvel Now! idea working well — Ed Brubaker’s run was great, but it had been going on for surprisingly close to a decade, and a hairpin-turn brand-new direction (with the right team) has been just the thing to shake the dust off the character and make the book interesting again.
Four issues in… five weeks? Just think of it as a graphic-novel-size sendoff — and a smart move, since, like Avengers, the first issue didn’t deliver much (Bendis’s leisurely style tends to favor the slow burn, too). However, now that we’re 80 pages in it’s just rocketing along, its premise firmly established, with the kids seeing Older Cyclops as “evil” and Older Cyclops (and us) seeing things from a very different perspective, the cynical modern age confronting the optimistic Silver Age. It feels very… solid, too, both structurally and because there’s more density to it than, say, in the last year or two of Avengers, and that helps to make it compelling, what-will-happen-next reading.
Thor, God of Thunder #3 — Writer: Jason Aaron; Art: Esad Ribic
Another Marvel Now! title benefiting from frequent shipping: three issues in five weeks has helped to retain the dark, Nordic tone of both Aaron’s words and Ribic’s pictures, as the narrative switches between three encounters between the Thunder God and an unbeatable, ghoulish godkiller, at three very different times in his long life: the barbaric Viking warrior god, the Marvel superhero, and the aging, Odin-like Thor of his twilight years. This is another title where I’d recommend picking up all three issues at once, diving into them some night between Christmas and New Years, and seeing if they don’t hook you enough to keep reading this title well into 2013.
Not a new title, but another by Aaron — and very different in tone from Thor, with a light touch and casual everything-but-the-kitchen-sink verve that’s let it carve out a worthy little spot in the X-canon over the last two years. Here, we’re revisiting the X-Men-as-circus-freaks image from back in the early Claremont/Byrne years, with the monster of Frankenstein (although not, apparently, the one from regular Marvel continuity) helming an evil, soul-sucking traveling big-top extravaganza that’s ensnared our heroes and forced the kids at the Jean Grey Academy to try and rescue them. Meanwhile, one of the sociopathic Hellfire Club preteen recruits who’s a descendent of the Frankensteins wanders in and… well, as I said, everything but the kitchen sink, but it’s all delivered with a wink and enough style to go down entertainingly.
Indestructible Hulk #2 — Writer: Mark Waid; Art: Leinil Yu
Daredevil #21 — Writer: Mark Waid; Art: Chris Samnee
Alan didn’t like the first issue of Indestructible Hulk, wherein Bruce Banner cuts a deal with SHIELD to fix him up with research facilities and, in return, lets them point his big green alter ego at various bad guys. Like some of the other Marvel Now! number ones, it suffered from too much setup, but the second installment pairs up Banner with Tony Stark, both as competitive genius civilians and in their Avengers identities, and offers enough action and character banter to keep the pages turning. I didn’t mind either issue, but it’s true that they’re very different from Waid’s fun, confident work in Daredevil, where he’s spent two years brightening up the mopey, morbid Matt Murdock, and letting him live up to his swashbuckling superhero name . The difference in artists spotlights the differences in tone, too — Yu’s widescreen, serious pencils set a more sombre mood, while Samnee’s smaller, clearer and more sharply-lined figures bounce around with more energy and optimism. Waid’s early issues of this book really helped to blaze the trail for this kind of storytelling, too — without his and Mark Martin’s, or now Samnee’s, DD, it’s hard to see Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye getting an editorial green light, or being as good as it is.
Thunderbolts #2 — Writer: Daniel Way; Art: Steve Dillon
This doesn’t have the “Hey, this doesn’t suck!” advantage of surprise that the first issue had, but it’s still readable: Thunderbolt “Red Hulk” Ross has gathered a black ops crew consisting of the Punisher, Deadpool, Venom and Elektra to kick ass and take names (and slit throats and blow big holes in bad guys), and they proceed to do that here, although of course, this being only the second issue, complications ensue. This title’s biggest secret weapon is Steve Dillon, who’s drawn Frank Castle quite a bit, and already done decent versions of Elektra and Deadpool too. It helps that Way, who doesn’t work well with every artist, meshes nicely with Dillon (better than anyone not named Garth Ennis), so that this is both a very violent and a very good-looking comic book.
Immonen’s got a way of getting right to the heart of a main character; she did it with Patsy Walker in her underappreciated Hellcat mini-series, and she does it here with her second JIM issue about the Asgardian warrior woman and Thor supporting character Sif. Sif’s cut a deal to become an unstoppable warrior, without realizing the cost that constant violence will exact on her personality, or how much it will irritate her friends. Philosophy plus lots of ass-kicking: that’s an attractive combination, especially as Immonen writes it, and one well worth checking out.
Fables #124 — Writer: Bill Willingham; Art: Shawn McManus
The only DC title that I found worth buying in this Marvel-centric week; it has the advantage of having been around for over ten years, written by Willingham all the way, and it’s survived partly because of his brainy, idiosyncratic tone and partly because the concept allows him so much leeway to shift gears and keep things interesting. Case in point: this is an all-Bufkin issue, finishing the adventures of the everymonkey hero who’s been starring in the book’s backup series for the last year, leading a revolution against the evil nome king of Oz; we get the last three chapters of that serial, plus “After,” a wrapup of the “742 years” that he and his fairy girlfriend Lily adventured after that, and it’s just as clever and casually inspiring as Fables always is, and offering just the right kind of plot and characters to suit McManus’s whimsical style.
Warren might be best-known for his early-’90s Dirty Pair, but he’s been surfacing occasionally since then to do techno-savvy, intricately-plotted superhero work (a Gen 13 run over there; an Iron Man mini-series over here…), and for most of the 21st century he’s been working on Empowered, a seven-volume (so far) work that started out as a commissioned bondage fantasy and, somehow, expanded to a very human, clever exploration of sexual stereotyping in superhero comics and, not incidentally, a rollicking adventure story focusing on the title heroine, her boyfriend and girlfriend, and the rising and advancing of her spirit. This special focuses on just Empowered, and has art mostly by Ryan Kinnaird, but it’s still a good sampling of the pleasures of the main series; anyone who reads this and is hooked should talk to Eddie about ordering copies of the regular volumes, too.
Happy! #3 (of 4) — Writer: Grant Morrison; Art: Darick Robertson
This collaboration by Morrison and the Boys co-creator features a disgraced ex-cop who’s run afoul of the mob and is trying to leave town, but gets pulled back because a little girl’s in danger (she, and other kids, have all been kidnapped by a deranged Santa Claus impersonator), and he’s the only one who can see her imaginary friend, a tiny winged blue horse named Happy; it was seen in some quarters as Morrison’s parody of Garth Ennis (because of the over-the-top violence and the Robertson art), but it’s really just a typical Morrison fantasy-crossed-with-the-gritty-world fairy tale — a Christmas story, actually, assuming that it has a happy ending (a good bet, since he and Ennis share a fondness for happily-ever-afters), and another good candidate for readers who’d like to buy up all the issues at once and read a satisfying chunk of story over the holiday break.
This is another book where your best bet is to get this, plus the first two issues, and just sit down and read them all in one sitting during some cold (for Phoenix) holiday evening, sitting by a roaring fire. Graham’s got a breezy, imaginative science-fiction-centric style that’s big on weirdness (but logical weirdness), word games and cool characters, and his dense-but-inviting style rewards patience: you’ll wonder what the fuss is all about, and then all of a sudden a light bulb will go on and you’ll get him, and then you’ll be a fan. If you like this, read his Prophet, and ask about the trade of his King City series from a year or two ago.
Saga #8 — Writer: Brian K. Vaughan; Art: Fiona Staples
As above, so here: in a year of unexpected indy hits, this has been the biggest (although why a series written by the creator of Y, The Last Man and drawn by the accomplished, confident Staples shouldn’t have been seen as a hit from the start is a good question). There’s a trade of the first six issues, and that plus the seventh issue and this one would make a great late present for any fantasy lover on your shopping list; experience with comics isn’t even necessary, since this is accessible to anyone (like the very different Walking Dead, it’s a great ambassador for our little hobby, and a magnet for new readers). Besides the latest installment of this story, this issue has a bonus: a fascinating article on the letters page about Staples’s process in creating the 100% digital (but somehow warm and gorgeous) art.
Can a $7.99 anthology of non-mainstream stories survive in today’s comics market? Well, here we are at issue #19, so so far so good (it helps when you offer 80 pages of slick-paper storytelling for that money, which is four times what Marvel’s $3.99 books (on worse paper) are offering readers). As always, there are ten different series running here, a buffet of some of the better small-market creators; the high points are a new episode of Matt Kindt’s Mind Mgmt, and the start of a new serial starring Caitlin Kiernan and Steve Lieber’s Alabaster character — but it’s also fun just to read the whole thing, and discover new talent that you’ve never heard of; then, when they make a big splash in another year or two, you’ll be able to say you knew them when.
Rachel Rising #13 — Creator: Terry Moore
Thirteen issues in, this probably isn’t an issue to pick up cold; there’s too much going on, and not that much action. It’s a great horror series, but start it properly: get the first trade, and then the second, and then once you’re hooked we’ll talk about how Moore’s wonderfully-drawn women and clever scripting make it such a good read.