Posts from March 2010

March 18th, 2010

Comics: The Penultimates!

Marvel Comics served up two pivotal chapters in its “Siege” storyline this week – the penultimate chapter of “Dark Avengers” (a series in which psychotic government hatchet-man Norman Osborn, with duped official sanction, creates his own team of Avengers using bad guys costumed as good guys), and the penultimate chapter of “Siege” (a series in which the aforementioned Osborn and his ‘dark’ Avengers and their storm troopers launch a full-scale attack on the fabled city of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, which at the moment is hovering about twenty feet over some empty badlands in Oklahoma). The tension – as events that have been percolating for a couple of years now start to boil over – is extremely well-handled by all involved, and the feat of these two issues, which tell very closely interlinked stories in perfect cooperation, is, to put it mildly, not Marvel’s usual way of doing things.

“Dark Avengers” should be read first, if only for the enormous pleasure of seeing Norman Osborn’s secret ally finally revealed. Some of you may recall that I made a prediction about this ally’s identity waaay back when this whole adventure was starting, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong – happy mainly because the actual identity of that mysterious ally is so perfect, so plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face that I laughed a bit when it was revealed: I should have seen this, the simplest possible answer, coming.

Of course the secret ally is the same ultra-powerful secret ally Osborn’s always had: the super-strong energy-wielding Sentry – only in his Edward Hyde persona as ‘the Void.’ Brilliant.

In the previous issue, readers saw Norman Osborn talk the Sentry down from a tantrum in which he might have destroyed Manhattan, and in a moment of criminal insight worthy of the former Green Goblin, Osborn realizes that the Sentry’s terrified, traumatized wife might be the disruptive element in Osborn’s control over her husband. He orders his ‘dark’ Hawkeye (actually the murderous Daredevil villain Bullseye) to make Mrs. Sentry disappear.

In this issue that happens. Under the pretext of flying her to a safe house to wait out the current crisis, Bullseye gets her alone in an auto-piloted plane and proceeds with his trademark snide mind-games:

You’re husband, he’s almost a god – and you – you’re kind of, well, frumpy is the best word I can think of. I mean, he can have anybody.I mean, I can have anybody and all I do is kill people. And I swear, I can get any girl I want. Imagine the ass he’s missing out on because he’s married to you. And look at you. Do you even own a brush? Or a mirror?

This is great, ghoulish stuff, perfectly in character for everybody, despite how ugly those characters are. The issue’s only weird element comes not from the writing but from the artwork. Artist Mike Deodato has been doing the best work of his career on “Dark Avengers,” and that continues here (even the bare-bones horizontal sequence in which Bullseye kills Mrs. Sentry is a homage to the similar linearity other artists have used in some of Bullseye’s more famous murders in other comics), but every so often there are panels that were constructed entirely on a computer, and the contrast between them and Deodato’s regular work is jarring.

The issue segues perfectly into the big-scale goings-on in “Siege,” Marvel’s breakout hit (sales are running at almost three times Marvel’s own exuberantly pumped expectations), in which all Hell is breaking loose during the aforementioned Osborn invasion of Asgard. This issue features more fantastic Oliver Coipel artwork, and it’s a great thrill-ride, despite multiple oddnesses in the storytelling (one minute Thor is furiously fighting the Sentry, the next he’s calmly standing over a defeated Norman Osborn, for instance, and a newly-returned Iron Man (Tony Stark) is able to remotely shut down Osborn’s own super-armor even though we were specifically told many, many issues ago that Osborn had all the Stark-technology suits replaced with his own armor and weapons-tech).

We get some absolutely great, glad-you-waited-for-it moments, the best of which is certainly comes from the fact that writer Brian Michael Bendis remembered which Marvel character should have the payoff moment of finally decking Norman Osborn (and he gives that character a perfect line while doing it, a ‘real person’ line instead of a comic book slogan)(and there’s the fitting little image of Captain America putting a calming hand on his shoulder the moment after). And of course Coipel’s action-sequences are spectacular, especially the fight – such as we see of it – between Thor and the Sentry. When Coipel draws Thor hammering the Sentry with lightning, you can practically feel it (and he’s one of the only working artists who could have convincingly portrayed what happens to the city of Asgard in this issue). But for me, the neatest such little moment passes so quick you almost don’t notice it: in the midst of the melee, Captain America and his former WWII sidekick Bucky are bantering, just as they did in the Jack Kirby-drawn comics of seventy years ago. I smiled.

Oddly, the issue is almost as full of missed moments too – after all, this is the issue where Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man are reunited on the same side after years of separation, alienation, and heartbreak, and yet in this issue they just take up fighting the bad guys with nary a word or look exchanged. I presume such payoff moments will come later, but considering the fact that five pages of this issue are a text-only backup feature, I wonder that room couldn’t have been found to work in just a single panel or two in the main issue, showing how these three react to seeing each other again.

But picky comics fans can’t have everything (!), and this issue delivers a lot, including a slam-bang cliffhanger that sets up what promises to be a very exciting conclusion. You can read all about that here when it ships to comic stores, I’m guessing  sometime in August.

February 5th, 2010

Comics! Siege 2

A bunch of comics came out this week, but in the superhero world, only one of them mattered much, and it would matter even if it didn’t matter, if you know what I mean – because the writing features Brian Michael Bendis doing his choppy, impressionistic, weirdly beguiling thing with dialogue (he’s the best of the current bunch of ‘no exposition’ comics writers), and because it features the stunning, mind-warpingly great artwork of Olivier Coipel. These two could make Scrooge McDuck matter.

The series of course is “Siege” from Marvel, and naturally it matters for reasons other than its creative team, although it should be stressed that said team has seldom been in stronger form. No, this four-issue mini-series matters because it’s the culmination and climax of the company-wide “Dark Reign” story that’s been playing out in Marvel’s comics for the last few years. Some of you will already be familiar with that scenario (from previous Stevereads entries, if nothing else – just follow the tags!): Norman Osborn, the ersatz Green Goblin, has wormed his way into the country’s good graces and taken command of H.A.M.M.E.R., a gigantic paramilitary force of stormtroopers. And when he’s wearing his super-powered armor and going under the code-name Iron Patriot, he also commands his own team of Avengers, composed of villains dressed in hero costumes – plus the Sentry (think: Superman only biddable and psychotic) and Ares, the Greek god of war.

In the lead-up to “Siege,” as we’ve seen, Norman Osborn, manipulated by the evil norse god Loki (and drunk on power the old-fashioned way), has declared war on Asgard, the home city of the norse gods, which is currently floating above Oklahoma. Osborn talks about how the city forms a real and present threat to America just by being there, and in the first issue of “Siege” he gathers his troops and invades.

So “Siege” #2 starts off in the chaos of general battle, with Osborn’s troops and Avengers fighting a city full of enraged and not all that out-gunned Asgardians (swords and spears are pretty damn effective if you’re super-strong, which every single Asgardian is). Coipel’s pencils are magnificent – he’s able to convey the huge sweep of what’s going on without taking any drama away from the one-on-one encounters throughout the book, the first of which is key to this issue: the Asgardian warriors Balder and Heimdall convince Ares that he’s been duped, that Osborn is really his enemy.

There’s other stuff going on in this issue, but that’s the core story: Ares turns on Osborn, knocks him out of the sky, and is about to cut his head off when the Sentry intervenes, beats the stuffing out of Ares, and then, well … takes him out of the fight entirely, let’s say. The issue ends with Osborn unleashing the Sentry on Thor, Asgard’s greatest warrior and resident super-hero – and with Osborn himself coming under attack by none other than Captain America, alive again and fighting mad, leading his own group of reinforcements into battle. It’s a great cliffhanger ending to a great issue, but it leaves me wondering two things:

First: if Bendis is going to portray the Sentry as so powerful – able to dispatch the god of war with relative ease, likely to pound the stuffing out of Thor in the next issue – then why would Osborn need this mysterious reserve operative he’s been darkly hinting about for the last year? We don’t know who that mysterious operative is (although if you follow the aforementioned tags, you’ll see where I made my own prediction, months and months ago – a prediction I’m sticking with), but he hardly seems Needed, if this is what Osborn’s pet psycho can do all by himself.

Second: Even at the breakneck pace this thing is developing, how can it possibly wrap up in only two issues? Captain America re-entering the fray; Thor fighting the Sentry, this mysterious operative entering the fray, Iron Man presumably showing up at some point … not to mention the fact that if long-term grudge-matches are going to be honored here, Spider-Man (currently just a background member of Cap’s reinforcements) should surely take pride of place, no? Osborn killed his beloved Gwen Stacey, after all! How Bendis can possibly resolve all this in only 50 more pages is beyond me.

But I’ll certainly be along for the ride. This issue erases all my slight misgivings about the first issue of this series: this is epic-style Marvel done just right.

January 8th, 2010

Comics! Siege begins!

This week sees the first installment of Marvel Comics’ next Big Thing: a four-part series called Siege. The back story will be familiar to those of you who’ve been paying attention here at Stevereads – Norman Osborn, the murderous ersatz Green Goblin, has professed to be a changed man, wormed his way into the President’s good graces, and been placed in charge of the super paramilitary organization known as H.A.M.M.E.R. He’s recruited his own team of ‘dark’ Avengers, and for several months now readers have been treated to a surprisingly entertaining dystopian version of the usual Marvel continuity … the bad guys have been in charge, hunting down, torturing, and even killing the good guys.

It’s yielded some good stories, and one of the things that made those stories good was the background current of tension that’s been building the whole time. Norman Osborn has been written consistently as a smarmy psychopath with only a tenuous hold on his own sanity, and his team of Avengers have for the most part been written as unabashed scumbags. Readers like me have been both fascinated and appalled, and every month the prospect of Osborn’s fall from power – and the face-stomping his team of storm troopers so richly deserves – has grown just a little more delicious in the aniticpating.

Marvel’s in-house ads hint pretty strongly that Siege is the story of that downfall – that the core trio of the real Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, will reunite to bring about the return of the so-called Heroic Age Marvel’s been touting lately. We’ll see if that turns out to be true, but in the meantime, this issue opens with a bang.

Bang as in explosion. Osborn and the evil Norse god Loki conspire to orchestrate an catastrophic incident involving a bunch of energy-wielding bad guys and one Volstagg, a warrior who’s left the fabled city of Asgard (which now floats ten feet above some empty scrubland in Oklahoma, as seen in last year’s new run of Thor’s own comic) in search of adventure. The catastrophic incident involves a crowded football stadium, and Osborn uses its aftermath to justify launching a full-scale invasion of Asgard, spearheaded by his own super-powered shock troops. That invasion is launched in this first issue, which is written by Brian Michael Bendis in his usual spastic way and gloriously illustrated by Olivier Coipel.

Osborn’s surveillance intelligence tells him Thor is not in Asgard at the moment (readers of Thor’s own book will recall that, for the millionth time, he’s been exiled from his hometown), so his hopes of success are high. His ‘dark’ Avengers move in with Air Force fighter jets and catch the Asgardians by surprise, and the fighting is in full fury when Thor does indeed show up – only to get rather unceremoniously knocked around by the bad guys. The issue ends with things looking fairly bleak for Asgard.

The two main problems that usually afflict comic book Big Things are a) inconsistent characterization of the major players, or b) incoherent plotting, and Bendis avoids both those pitfalls in this first issue, and he does quite a bit right besides. The elements are in place here for a tremendously satisfying story – not only the prospect of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man reuniting but also the classic overreaching Osborn has been doing all along, culminating in this issue when he angrily delegates to an assistant the task of telling the President that he’s going to invade Asgard (“I’m done talking to that man,” he snarls, and a later scene in the White House makes it clear the President feels the same about him). And certainly attacking an entire city full of warrior gods can be classified as overreaching.

So: a fine strong premise-issue (marred only by the inclusion of some script-pages for a fairly pivotal scene in which Osborn explains his decision to his Avengers – no explanation is given as to why Coipel didn’t draw these pages, like he did the rest of the issue), and the ball is Bendis’ to fumble. My fingers are crossed that he doesn’t.