A weirdly off-key week in comics, full of issues that were more concerned with setting up other issues than with telling their own stories. The latest issue of “Captain America Reborn” was a place-holding affair, and the summer’s standout series, “Blackest Night,” featured a big crowd of snarling zombie-esque villains being held at bay by a group of desperate heroes – for page after page, panel after panel, without much else happening (except that we learned what the PURPLE Lanterns specialty is: droning exposition!).
There were some standout moments, however, even though one of them – in the latest “Amazing Spider-Man,” still retains the power to irritate. The issue was all about the love-life vicissitudes of our hapless hero Peter Parker, and that’s fine, time-honored territory. No, the irritation comes from remembering that none of these great stories fall into normal Spider-Man continuity … all of this is a weird, retro placidity bought through a deal with the devil. It’s tough to enjoy it all – as enjoyable as it undeniably is – when you know, you just know, that some writer is going to come along sometime in the next two years and undo it all.
And then there’s the issue’s cover! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun picture (done by Mike Mayhew, whom we’ve met here before), with a chubby Spider-cupid smack dab in the middle. But off to one side, we see a face-shot of someone I can only assume is supposed to be Peter Parker, only there’s one problem: the young man in question is a super-hottie. As a lifelong reader (although not always a fond one) of “Spider-Man,” I can’t help but think this is crucially wrong, despite how often different artists have made the same mistake. Peter Parker was a nerd in high school, a skinny kid who had to be smarter – and incidentally funnier (although Stan Lee had the original genius insight of having him only vent that side of his character when he was in costume fighting bad guys) – than the actual super-hotties (like that dreamy Flash Gordon). In adult life, Peter Parker should be an older version of the same skinny kid – lanky, vaguely schlubby, a slightly sad-sackish young guy who’s still the smartest, funniest guy in the room. He shouldn’t have the fresh, shiny face Mayhew gives him; instead, he should look like just another face on the train to Brooklyn.
Questions of artwork naturally crop up with the fourth issue of “Batman and Robin,” where the wretched, one-note fan favorite artwork of Frank Quitely has been replaced by the vigorous, moody pencils of Philip Tan, so we can all stop geeking out and concentrate on the story itself, which is formulaic but still mighty enjoyable: a charismatic, refreshingly three-dimensional Red Hood (and his sad, pathetic sidekick) taking Gotham’s criminal underworld by storm, telling his partner “I guess this is all about one crazy man in a mask taking revenge on another crazy man in a mask.” The main problem I had with this issue is the same one I’ve had with this whole series (and with the high-spirited antics over in “Red Robin”): if these titles keep being written so well, will any of us want the original Caped Crusader back?
To put it mildly, a variation of that same question obtains over in Marvel’s “Dark Avengers” series, the central title in its current “Dark Reign” story arc. As you may recall, in that arc the bad guys have won and are running the show: Norman Osborn, formerly the villainous Green Goblin, is now in charge of Nick Fury’s old government-funded paramilitary operation S.H.I.E.L.D., now known as H.A.M.M.E.R., and every hero who hasn’t agreed to knuckle under to Osborn’s dictatorial rule has been outlawed and hunted by Osborn’s hand-picked team of villainous Avengers, including Ares, the brutish Greek god of war. Fury himself has returned and is in hiding, training a cadre of new heroes to strike back against Osborn when the time comes, and one of those young heroes is Alex, the young son of Ares, and in the latest issue of “Dark Avengers” (with more knockout artwork by Mike Deodato, whose stuff has never been better), Ares gets wise to this fact, follows Alex as he’s taken to Fury’s hideout, and breaks down the door, intent on gods know what.
That’s the setup of that fantastic cover the issue sports, and in tried-and-true Marvel fashion, the cover is what the kids call a total lie. As awesome as it would be to see a well-orchestrated battle between Ares and Nick Fury (who’s a pretty damn good god of war in his own right), it doesn’t happen, because Brian Michael Bendis’ script is far too smart to let things get that far. For this entire series, Bendis’ Ares has been very nicely complex – he’s not afraid of Osborn, and he’s not beguiled by him in the way some of his other Dark Avengers might be … instead, his vast godlike powers are governed by a weirdly predictable, otherworldly sense of right and wrong, which Osborn cannily uses but can’t alter. It’s a great funhouse-mirror version of Thor’s participation in the Avengers, and it’s one of the best parts of Dark Reign’s Dark Avengers.
This version of Ares isn’t just a villain, and when he confronts Nick Fury at the climax of this issue, he confesses that he’s at his wit’s end dealing with his little boy. Fury isn’t angry, and he isn’t fawning – he just tells Ares that he’s been training the boy and is impressed by his potential, and that gets to Ares, who utters that rarest of comic book lines: “I don’t know what to do.”
In the end he decides to leave the boy in Fury’s care and simply walks out. It’s wonderfully done, entirely believable on all counts, but I can’t help but wonder how it’ll play out when the whole “Dark Reign” story comes to an end – and as with “Batman and Robin,” I’m no longer oh so impatient for that to happen. This is good storytelling, weird unheroic premise or no weird unheroic premise.