Secret Wars #4
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
"I am mutant--more than man... I am the future here in the present. And all your worlds--even yours--belong to us..."
After a slow burn build-up, Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic turn the dial and crank it to 11 in the latest issue of Secret Wars, as Victor von Doom finally shows off some of his godlike power against the survivors of Marvel's 616 Universe. In many ways, this issue reminds me of the earth-shattering craziness of The Infinity Gauntlet, as Hickman pulls out some pretty huge guns on both sides of the conflict.
For the past three issues of Secret Wars, Hickman has introduced the world as it was and the world as it has now become, slowly but surely bringing Marvel's surviving heroes into conflict with the twisted forces of the god-king Doom. With this issue, we finally get to see Doom act, as Spider-Man, Black Panther, Mister Fantastic and the rest enter the fray to stop the Cabal from wreaking havoc. In particular, Hickman takes some bold chances with Cyclops, who is now the ultimate loose cannon now that he has been empowered once more with the Phoenix Force - there's a scariness to Scott that goes beyond Chris Eliopoulos' fiery lettering, and watching him go toe-to-toe against the power of the Beyonders is easily the highlight of this book.
But despite some pretty major fireworks from Doom and others, there's also a line of logic that seems to play out throughout this comic book, and it's a devious one: What do you do with absolute power? What are the responsibilities of a god? In many ways, Doctor Strange has been Hickman's mouthpiece here, and while he still comes across as the ultimate multiversal Benedict Arnold for willingly becoming Doom's lackey, there's an underlying feeling of necessity here. He may be a tyrant, but Doom saved what little he could of the multiverse, and he seeks to impose order on a dangerously chaotic system. Yet Hickman shies away from completely lionizing Doom, particularly at the end of the book, as Strange redeems himself in a way that not only adds a nice new complication to the story, but feels particularly wrenching.
Artists Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina, meanwhile, dominate in this book, giving Secret Wars an otherworldliness that still buys into the larger-than-life aspects of superheroism. From the very first page, as we watch the Cabal fend off the Thor Corps, this book just feels big, amping up the stakes just by how powerful everyone looks. Ribic's designs also are pretty spectacular, whether it's Doom's throneroom map of Battleworld, or the boar-headed Thor who pleads with the god-king for backup. Ribic and Svorcina also hit a home run with their portrayal of Cyclops, particularly the way he flings cleansing flames and molten steel in his battle with Doom.
The biggest critique that people have with superhero event books is that despite all that portentiousness, nothing really happens. All the heroes are united, but there's no coherent action to justify all that set-up. But with Secret Wars #4, Hickman and company really go for broke, showing the kind of firepower that the creator of Battleworld possesses. While there's still the whole second half of this series left, Hickman has made Secret Wars one of the most satisfying Marvel events since the days of Civil War. Doctor Doom may be a bad guy, but I'll say this for him - Battleworld sure seems to be yielding some fun stories. Praise Doom, indeed.
Action Comics #42
Written by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder
Art by Aaron Kuder, Tomeu Morey, Hi-Fi and Blond
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Superhero comic books usually aren’t the best place to find commentary about current events, solely because the production cycle doesn’t allow for them to comment on things as they happen. But some problems are bigger than one-time instances. Police brutality, a mainstay in American culture, has come to the forefront of the American consciousness. With it, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy and classism have been dredged up and recognized by many as the modes of thinking that have informed the evolution of our country. Americans have been constantly reminded that “land of the free and home of the brave” is a description of an ideal and not a reality. It’s in dark times that we ask where our heroes are.
Superman is a character that stands for, in no uncertain terms, “truth, justice and the American way,” a background born from the working class immigrants that created him and backed up by his Depression-era heroics. The American Way was never meant to be interpreted as “following government orders.” For Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the American Way was about the resilience of a group of people who risked everything to make a life for themselves. Superman’s parents did the same thing that Siegel and Shuster’s did, leaving behind the familiar for an attempt at a new life in some brave, new world. Action Comics creative team Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are returning Clark Kent to his roots as a working-class hero, and that’s the best thing that’s happened to the character in a long time.
Clark Kent’s new depowered, secret identity-less status quo breathes new life into a character that many find boring because he always does the right thing. Combined with his large power set, the tension of traditional superheroics lacked excitement because it always seemed like there was no way for Clark to lose. But without his powers, he really has to put his money where his mouth is. Did he do good because there was little risk in doing so? Or was it something that was inherent to his personality? Can he find a way to do good even without all of his powers? Can he still be a symbol for hope now that he has a target on his back? Pak and Kuder have forced readers to question Clark’s morality, and that’s a good thing.
But at the end of the day, of course, the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. It’s how Clark is going to carry on his heroism is what’s interesting. Just last issue, we saw Clark fight the very people that he usually fights to protect, simply because he had to defend himself. For this suddenly less-potent Superman, the world has gotten very mean. But the reality is that it’s always been that way. His head was too far up in the clouds to notice.
There’s great juxtaposition in this script between Clark’s battle with the shadow monster and his face-off with the police. With all of his powers and secret identity in place, neither of these are really problems for Superman. But without them, both situations become a struggle of self. For the first time, Clark is doubting his abilities, and he’s realizing that his presence no longer has a calming effect. In the same way that he can’t dispatch a monster quickly enough to stem its damage, his insertion into the stand-off between the police and the residents of Kentville only causes more agitation. A Superman that doesn’t concern himself with street-level injustices is one that plays right into an oppressive power structure’s hands, but one that will actively stand against them in a weakened state becomes an even more powerful symbol that must be stamped out. Pak recognizes this potential in Clark Kent at this moment, and at least for now, Superman is more super than we’ve seen since at least the start of the "New 52."
In addition to his story contributions, Aaron Kuder is a force of nature on the art for this issue. The issue starts with a bang, picking up where we left off in Clark’s battle with the shadow monster. It seems silly to say it, but the stakes are so much higher now. The battle is over in the first 10 pages, but Kuder leaves the reader never feeling sure that Clark is going to make it out of this one. The “rodeo” bit works a little better in theory than it does on the page because the monster's design doesn’t really lend itself to paralleling what a cowboy riding a bull looks like, but that’s a small misstep, as Kuder’s best work in the issue comes in the second half.
As we revisit the civilians in Kentville, Kuder brings pure menace in the face of police officer Binghamton, reflecting the protesters in Binghamton’s aviator sunglasses like he’s a predator going in for a kill. With glee, Binghamton tells Clark what the police are about to do and sics the Metro S.W.A.T. team on Superman. Kuder’s expression work injects a character we barely know with the hostility that most of us are not on the ground to see in situations like this across the country.
In this moment, the issue becomes the embodiment of a Clarence Darrow quote: “No other offense has ever been visited with such severe penalties as seeking to help the oppressed.” Clark says that he cannot fight for these people anymore, he can only stand with them. And this is where Kuder delivers the biggest moment in the script. Like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, Clark stands between the police and the protesters with a giant chain across his own and he realizes what it means to stand up when you have no power. Kuder’s Clark Kent is a barrel-chested everyman in work boots and blue jeans, and he’s no match for a police squad that’s acting more like a mob than anything else.
Action Comics #42 is an incredibly powerful issue, and a return to form for one of America’s most enduring heroes. Pak and Kuder handle their premise with poise and maturity. While some readers will decry this as another attempt by comic book creators to infect "Big Two" comics with their own personal politics, it should be seen as a stark reminder that the times we’re living in are dark and getting darker. Even our greatest heroes don’t stand a chance against systemic oppression, and that should be something of a wake-up call. Pak and Kuder have managed to call attention to a problem that has permeated our culture so deeply that we’ve let it become an acceptable status quo. But Superman can’t let these injustices stand, and neither should we. Clark Kent is just like you. He barely has any superpowers now. So what’s your excuse?
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Alec Morgan, Romulo Fajardo, Jr. and Allen Passalaqua
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
If our review last month didn’t convince you to pick up Midnighter, you’re missing out. Based on a glimpse of the first cover alone, it may have been easy to write Midnighter off as a more gruesome iteration of Batman, but writer Steve Orlando has breathed new life into one of DC’s best-known gay characters with an action-packed story that serves as a rough and tumble Die Hard counterpart to Grayson’s slicker James Bond.
As much a character portrait as it is an action film in 30 pages, Midnighter’s strength lies in Orlando’s deft exploration of a character who has no concept of what it is to be a person rather than a superhero. If Bruce Wayne was defined in any way by the conflict of his public persona versus his costumed identity, as many heroes are, then Midnighter is defined by his desire to build an identity to begin with. In a poignant flashback, Midnighter confesses to his ex Apollo that he’s “not anyone,” and that his previous civilian ID Lucas Trent is an invented identity he used because he “didn’t want to scare” Apollo off.
“The Gardener took those things from me. I’m not a person.” This is the Midnighter we see establishing himself in the early months of Orlando’s run. He dates, even if he’s not great at it. He has friends, though maybe not close ones, and no discernable hobbies beyond very violent fistfights. But this issue gives us the first sense of who this Midnighter is as a hero rather than a reactionary with the introduction of short-lived vigilante Marina Lucas.
After a rare allergic reaction kills her husband Patrick, Marina is gifted an unusual organic material from the God Garden that gives her the ability to kill with six different sounds. She seeks revenge on the corporation that distributed the product that killed her husband, and Midnighter steps in to put a stop to her indiscriminate killing spree. Instead of putting a stop to Marina, though, Midnighter assaults the corporation’s board himself, stopping only when they pledge to pursue lenient sentencing and cover the medical bills of her victims.
Pithy quips like “I guess I do know when my birthday is” make it clear Midnighter is eager to throw down at any given opportunity, but it’s moments like the one with Marina in the board room that demonstrate he isn’t interested in punching downward. When it becomes evident Marina is a victim herself (both of the corporation, and the God Garden thief’s manipulation) Midnighter turns against her victims instead, seeking restitution for her with his fists. Steve Orlando is a perfect fit on this title, providing a complex and compelling new perspective on Midnighter while acknowledging much of his complicated backstory from the past several years.
Alec Morgan joins as the artist this month, and while ACO’s clean style was a knock-out last month, Morgan’s art has a more surrealist edge to it that also works well with a book as violent as Midnighter. The thoughtful incorporation of Midnighter’s internal computer seemed to be missing this month, however, and while Morgan is a talented artist, the small reminders that Midnighter was literally winning the fight in his head before it happened were an interesting touch that I hope will resurface in later issues. DC made an excellent choice in keeping Romulo Fajardo, Jr. on colors as well, both for consistency and because he does an amazing job creating drama even in small panels. A scene of Midnighter flying through the air against a cloudy sunset is particularly striking.
As a fan of the Authority, I was cautiously excited to see a new Midnighter solo series, and after a stellar #1, I was hooked. This month serves up yet more quality writing from Steve Orlando, proving he was exactly the right man for this series today. Midnighter is as emotionally compelling as it is action-packed - you may show up for the Batman pastiche, but you’ll stay because this is a stellar story in its own right, and well worth your time.
Red Skull #1
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Luca Pizzari and Rainier Beredo
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
From the Sinister Six to the Frightful Four, there's an undeniable draw to the super-villain team-up. Joshua Williamson and Luca Pizzari draft together a dream (or should that be nightmare?) team of Marvel felons in Red Skull #1, a standard Battleworld set-up issue with the compelling premise of taking the ultimate fascist symbol and turning it against the similarly oppressive forces of Victor Von Doom.
Williamson positions Red Skull as a Che Guevara-esque symbol of political upheaval and social rebellion, which is a fresh (if not morally questionable) take on the character that comes as a very welcome surprise. It's fascist ideology against fascist ideology for Red Skull against Doom, which works in a very silly “Who would win a fight between Hitler and Attila the Hun?” kind of way. The tagline of the Alien vs Predator movie immediately springs to mind here: “Whoever wins, we lose.”
With Victor Von Doom in the driver's seat at Battleworld, rebellion is not tolerated. The Red Skull once attempted to seize control of Battleworld, but he failed. After Electro, Magneto, Moonstone, Jack o' Lantern and Lady Deathstrike begin to sow similar seeds of discord all over Battleworld, they are soon brought together by Doom's forces in chains. Oh, and The Winter Soldier? He volunteered. Their mission? To retrieve the corpse of the Red Skull in order to bring his followers back into line.
Plot-wise, Williamson opens hard with a no-nonsense shoot-out turned abduction. The premise is simple, with strong shades of the Suicide Squad, even down to the exploding bomb collars. Unlike other villain team-up books, Williamson doesn't rely on the interplay between mass murderers to carry the issue, instead focusing on the team's mission and the harsh world in which they inhabit. At times, it seems a little unnecessary. After all, we all know how Battleworld works at this point (I'm pretty sure that the opening blurb is going to be enshrined permanently into my memory), so even if the majority of Red Skull #1 seems to be a record on repeat, Williamson will have your attention by the issue's end. After all, in Battleworld, the Red Skull is a symbol of hope. Things are that dire.
Visually, Luca Pizzari's artwork is loose and sketchy, which underlines the obviously murky tones of Williamson's script. The fluid nature of his style means that more static sequences can look a little off. There's a Power Rangers-style “No one is going to mess with a group like us!” panel at around the half-way point that just misses the mark completely. Magneto stands there like a cut-price suit of plastic knight armor as the rest of the group hover around in dead space with balled fists and wobbly limbs.
In more fevered panels, such in the opening shoot-out and the issue's climax, Pizzari seems much more comfortable. When there's grit and gore, Pizzari is a solid hand. Like a super-hero with a grounded set of powers, Pizzari is a “street-level” artist; a guy who should be drawing The Punisher, not The Avengers.
Colorist Rainier Beredo's black, gray and red color palette is immediately striking. Red and black have always been a match made in hell, and Berado's shading adds an undeniably Nazi-esque flavor to Pizzari's artwork. Beredo's skies are eternally gray, and why wouldn't they be with Doom in charge?
All in all, Red Skull #1 is a standard set-up issue, sprinkled with a few fresh ideas that elevate the concept above the initial execution. Pizzari's artwork is wonderfully gritty during action, but fails to accurately render static characters. A compelling cliff-hanger and the promise of adventure with a great team of super-villains make Red Skull #1 worth a read, but only if you've got some room in your pull-list.
Omega Men #2
Written by Tom King
Art by Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Lettering by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Omega Men is what a war comic without any heroes looks like. After the Citadel’s failed raid on an Omega Men stronghold in #1, Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda show both sides’ reaction to that raid where 39 Citadel soldiers were killed. In retaliation for their dead soldiers, the Citadel demands ten people be killed for each soldier who was killed. That seems about right for ruthless interplanetary overlords but the shock of the story more follows the Omega Men, our “heroes,” who use the chaos caused by the demanded killings for their own self-justified opportunities. After all, this is war, and soldiers have to take advantage of every situation, even if you have a Green Lantern as an unwilling recruit.
The Citadel is handled in this comic book just as any evil government would be. They’re the bad guys, demanding an eye for an eye justice over a citizenry who has no power to fight back. They’re the Empire from Star Wars, and their Viceroy is practically Darth Vader. King and Bagenda play to our expectations of them. The Citadel is the big bully of the galaxy. They’re posed to be the big bad guys of this series. This is Space Opera 101, and the creators execute it perfectly. We want these bad guys to be crushed by this rebellion.
Only the Omega Men aren’t the valiant rebellion we’ve grown accustomed to in this kind of story. Primus, their leader, isn’t a heroic man or a great warrior. As we see in this issue, he’s a guerilla deluded into believing that he’s a moralistic warrior. In actuality, he is going to use every opportunity he can to further his side in the war. It’s easy to see the Viceroy as the bad guy, as he takes delight in negotiating for the life of 3,900-4,000 men and women who mean nothing to him. King and Bagenda don’t do anything to make the Viceroy anything more than a villain. On the other hand, they don’t do anything to make Primus and the Omega Men heroes. Primus lets the 4,000 people be killed because it suits his agenda. That agenda includes using a bomb to blackmail a Green Lantern into fighting for the Omega Men.
The storytelling influences in King’s writing and Bagenda’s art inform nearly every page. Whether it’s the page structure and moral ambiguity of Watchmen, the grimy dirtiness both physically and spiritually of the “5 Year Later” Legion of Super-Heroes or the attempt at righteous rebellion of Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, King and Bagenda build this issue like any of those stories of rebellion, righteousness and morality. Bagenda’s artwork, building the story around a nine panel grid, recalls the best of Dave Gibbons and Keith Giffen and it contextualizes the story around the themes of its predecessors. And like Starlin, King and Bagenda’s characters live and move in a world where what’s right is primarily defined in contrast to all the actions around it that are clearly wrong.
As we’re plopped into the middle of this insurgency, the only thing that’s missing from this comic book are the stakes of the war. As we see the sides maneuvering and displaying their cruel wartime skills, the creators haven’t provided any motives or cause for all of these battles beyond a simple difference of view. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad but the examples of each that we’ve seen are only surface displays the inherent goodness or lack of each side. It makes the conflict seem inconsequential because we don’t know what anyone is fighting for.
King and Bagenda demonstrate how far these leaders, the Viceroy and Primus, will go in the name of their conflicts, there’s no morality or lack thereof behind either side. At this point, it makes this issue into empty posturing as both sides show just how cruel and unjust their actions are. It cannot be as simple as the good guys versus the bad guys because the creators are going out of their way to color the protagonists of this story as morally compromised as the protagonists are. Omega Men #2 is a war comic but who are we supposed to be rooting for? This isn’t as easy as old Sgt. Rock comic books ever were.
Written by Jeff Loveness
Art by Brian Kesinger
Lettering by Jeff Eckleberry
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
"I am Groot" may be the next "peppersh on my paprikash," as Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger weave together the comedic, heartwarming story of how Groot met Rocket. In many ways, this comic seems to share just as much DNA with Pixar as it does the usual Marvel stock, as this creative team pulls off what can only be described as a perfect issue.
Now, regular readers of the column know I don't use that term lightly. There are plenty of great comic books out there - even awesome comic books - but "perfect" is a tough bar to hit. But what other word can you use to describe the story of everyone's favorite anthropomorphized tree, as he mopes around the galaxy without a single person who understands him? Loveness approaches his story with a very smart angle, showing the consequences behind Groot's limited vocabulistics - namely, that literally nobody knows what he's talking about. Groot's isolated, jeered, even abused because of his speech, and I think that's something a lot of past and present nerds can readily relate to. Suddenly, the loveable lug from Guardians of the Galaxy has just gotten a whole lot deeper.
Of course, it's not all maudlin stuff here, as Loveness and Kesinger imbue this series with a lighthearted humor that really leavens the whole story here. Groot dreams of being an Avenger, and seeing the carved-out versions of Earth's Mightiest Heroes is a great bit. Even watching Groot try to deal with freaked-out aliens on a bus is hilarious, as the put-upon Groot still manages to plug up a hole in the bus's hull with a well-placed foot. And in particular, it's a great detail on this creative team's part to have images from the last issue inside the font of "I am Groot" - it's a great visual way to show that Groot has a ton to say, but in a way nobody's going to get.
Yet as Groot thinks back to when he met Rocket Raccoon all those years ago in a Kree prison, Loveness also has a partner that understands him, in the form of artist Brian Kesinger. Loveness' script might be resonant, but it's Kesinger's art that makes this story so endearing. There's a great sequence, for example, where Rocket demands Groot stay out of his personal space - but once Rocket's sense of fairness means he defends Groot from some power-tripping guardsmen, there's a glee in Groot's face as he sits right next to the grumpy raccoon. There's all sorts of little moments like this throughout Groot #2 - Groot may be a simple creature, but he's not without emotions or even complex thought, and Kesinger is able to show the full range of Groot's emotions with a real deftness.
In my review of Groot last month, I docked this series because it felt like it had retread Skottie Young's Rocket Raccoon, by having one of these BFFs race through space to rescue the other. But having read this second issue of Groot, I have to take it all back - Loveness and Kesinger absolutely improve on Young's formula, not just relying on stylish art but pure characterization to propel the story. By the end of this issue, you know why Groot and Rocket are going to be inseparable - would you give up the one person who understood you? This epic bromance is as charming as it gets, and one that makes Groot a truly surprising success.
Written by Heath Corson
Art by Gustave Duarte, Pete Pantazis, Kelley Jones, Michelle Madsen and Francis Manapul
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Writing for all ages is difficult, with the attempt to please everyone often winding up pleasing absolutely nobody. It's perhaps why kid friendly fodder so often relies on formula, because it's easier to entertain younger audiences with the familiar than try something new. Ask any parent who has lost count of the number of times Disney's Frozen has been given a spin in their household. Yet there's another reason formula is often relied upon: it works even in the face of premises that otherwise shouldn't. Bizarro, featuring a road trip to Canada with Jimmy Olsen and the backwards anti-hero, is a case where the familiar road trip holds together what is otherwise an excuse for non sequitur funnies.
Bizarro gets the formula right straight away, and there is a simple delight to a story that has no wider consequences. Yet don't mistake Bizarro for being inconsequential, as nothing could be further from the truth. While this issue nominally continues on from the story presented last month, with a possessed car salesman in King Tut’s outfit wrapped up in a Scooby Doo plot of mystic influence, it resolves itself so effortlessly that the focus is on the content rather than the familiar form. Like a cartoon, writer Heath Corson and artist Gustave Duarte just as rapidly ping us from a car-smashing action piece to a shopping excursion at the local Lex-Mart. Both are just as delightful with the affable Bizarro.
Which is where the real strengths of this iteration of the reverse world character lie, in finding the joy in the simplest of things through the most unlikely of Goliaths. Bizarro sees the world through a child’s eyes, while we (that is, the ‘grown up’ readers) see it through Jimmy's. That we are in Swamp Thing's Louisiana in one panel, Starling City the next and a composite version of Gotham on the next page is something we just happily take at face value. It's totally illogical, or completely dream logical, which is exactly why it works. As Grant Morrison would fondly remind us, even the smallest child will have the answer: it's not real. Yet in the hands of these creators, it might as well be.
Brazilian artist Duarte's cartoon style is wonderful, a perfect translation of his Monsters and Other Stories style into the DCU form. The lead's design is a teddy bear version of The Hulk, imposing and powerful but still cuddly - not to mention able to educate us all on why superhero costumes need pockets. The vignettes of Bizarro’s journey are arranged as photo snapshots on some pages, or crudely drawn crayons in the case of the recap. In all instances, color artist Pete Pantazis vividly brings a primary palette to the forefront, from the reds and blues of Bizarro to the neon green of The Riddler. Just as we learned last month that Bizarro dreams in Bill Sienkiewicz art, this month's guest artists seamlessly blend their versions of Batman (via Knightfall era Kelley Jones art with Michelle Madsen) and The Flash (Francis Manapul) into the animated world. It's high-concept experimental train-of-thought art, and yet it is also one of the most accessible books on the shelf.
Bizarro is not going to appeal to all tastes, as there will be those looking for the tragic figure of Geoff Johns' B-0 last seen as the failed experiment of Luthor in the pages of Justice League. Yet if the Teen Titans can have their Teen Titans Go!, then Bizarro can happily coexist alongside the rest of the DC multiverse. Perhaps the only problem is that this series has a limited run, at least for now.