Astro City #50
Credit: Alex Ross (DC Comics/Vertigo)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Phoenix Resurrection #5
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Joe Bennett, Gerry Alanguilan, Belardino Brabo and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Break-ups can be rough to get through. Resurrections? Even harder.

That’s the high-wire act that Matt Rosenberg is walking with Phoenix Resurrection #5, which proves to be an insightful look at the toxic relationship between Jean Grey and her cosmic-powered alter ego, even if its other components don’t necessarily click in quite the same way. Some of this feels by design - it’s been obvious from the title that Jean Grey was coming back from the dead, so why cave in to expectations and spend too much time overthinking the whys and wherefores? - but while this certainly feels like a Jean Grey story, the rest of the X-Men’s sprawling cast and continuity feel a little like an albatross across this firebird’s neck.

For the previous four issues of this series, Rosenberg has written this story as sort of a point-counterpoint - while the X-Men have battled psychic projections of their dead friends and foes, Jean Grey has wandered through an unsettlingly cheery suburbia populated by the ghosts of her past. But by splitting it this way, Rosenberg has also stumbled upon the double-edged sword of modern-day X-Men storytelling - we’ve gone long past the days of how are we going to fit 13 X-Men in the Blackbird, and because of the more familial nature of this franchise, every X-Man has to show up in every “important” story, despite some pretty large disparities in quality, leading to messy crowd scenes that can grind the story to a halt. Jean Grey may be the heart of the X-Men, but it’s taken a long time for us to get to her, and even Old Man Logan’s touching mission to bring Jean back feels a little cut short here, as Rosenberg has to check in with dozens of other mutants on the sidelines whose presence never feels particularly earned.

But when he does get Jean to snap out of her haze, Rosenberg delivers some of the best writing of this series. Given Jean’s on-again, off-again dynamic with the Phoenix, it’s a particularly savvy move for Rosenberg to reposition their dynamic as an actual codependent relationship - you can’t help but feel something for this otherworldly flaming bird as Jean tells it enough is enough. Dating all the way back to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, the Phoenix’s god-level telepathy and telekinesis has been almost a shorthand for rewriting reality itself - and watching Jean come to terms with this smothering romance gives Resurrection a weight some of its previous installments has lacked. “You’re trying to protect me from these things, but you can’t,” she says. “I’m supposed to feel pain. I’m supposed to feel loss. And I need to be able to do it on my own.”

Additionally, the switch-up in artists also can’t help but hobble the book a bit. Leinil Francis Yu is the clear heavyweight here, with Gerry Alanguilan’s harsh rendering giving the book an ominous feel that works nicely with the tension of the potentially world-razing Phoenix coming back to life. But Yu also does some nice and foreboding work with Old Man Logan and the brainwashed Jean, playing up that old will-he-or-won’t-he-kill-her dynamic that Logan has had all the way back to the "Dark Phoenix Saga." While Yu doesn’t get a ton of time once the fireworks begin, he, Alanguilan and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg’s splash page of the Last Phoenix is a really solid image, hitting the right combination of scary and hopeful, even if I’m not necessarily convinced it is memorable enough to hit iconic status. But Joe Bennett has a tough time following up Yu, as he and inker Belardino Brabo stumble a bit during Rosenberg’s most heartbreaking scenes. Surprisingly, their take on the Phoenix is by far the most evocative design work in the book, but a return of another major X-player feels like a bigger swing and a miss, with the drama and sadness of these scenes not coming across in the expressions.

Ultimately, Phoenix Resurrection is a tough book to crack, and one that would likely have some flaws no matter what the creative team, simply due to the overall state of the X-Men line. Some of this might be due to trying to shoehorn Rosenberg’s idiosyncratic voice into the very rigid structure of an X-crossover - that in many ways, he has been writing almost an anti-event, sort of a weird David Lynch-ian journey through continuity while paying only the minimum of lip service to the prerequisite superhero punching. Some of it is due to the series’ overall structure, whose slow burn and predetermined end point only increased the expectations of a bombastic payoff. But that’s not what Rosenberg has traditionally been about as a writer, nor is what this series is about - despite being fire and life incarnate, Phoenix Resurrection has been a series that has been willfully, almost subversively low-key. Like Jean herself, it’s also been messy, scattered, literally of two minds - but there’s also a spark of potential. And with Jean’s new lease on life, it remains to be seen if future creators can fan the flames, or let the spark go out.

Credit: Alex Ross (DC Comics/Vertigo)

Astro City #50
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Brent Anderson and Pete Pantazis
Lettering by John G. Roshell and Sarah Jacobs
Published by DC Comics / Vertigo
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Since its earliest days, Astro City has always been about exploring the world of superheroes through the eyes of the everyman, even if sometimes that everyman is a version of Superman. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson have used the language of Marvel and DC Comics to explore the human condition. Astro City #50, an issue fittingly titled “Aftermaths,” explores the cost of the actions of superheroes s and supervillains on the normal, everyday citizens of Astro City. Set in a world of powers and wonders, this issue begins a story that centers us on the cost of living in a world of the Wonder Woman and the Super Man.

Michael Tenicek runs Miranda’s Friends, a support group for survivors and people who have lost friends and loved ones. But this is no ordinary support group - instead, it ties back to the seminal Astro City story “The Nearness of You,” where we met Michael after he lost the love of his live, Miranda, not to guns or war, but to a reality-rewriting crisis. One day, Miranda existed and had a life together with Michael; the next, reality itself was rearranged by cosmic-powered beings and Miranda was just simply never born. But Michael remembered glimpses of her, even if he could not remember who she was or what she meant to him, until one of those super-powered heroes gave him the gift of her memory.

Miranda’s Friends brings together others like Michael who have been emotionally damaged because of the superpowered world that they live in. One man’s roommate was killed in a battle between superheroes and the bad guys. Another woman was the only one of her co-workers to survive a mystical incursion. Busiek and Anderson have chronicled the lives of the men and women of this city during these moments of wonder, but Astro City #50 steps back and gazes at the damage left in the wake of these spectacular events.

For the 50th issue of a superhero comic book, Astro City #50 is actually a nice, small, and very personal story. Busiek and Anderson tell the story of a man who survived a tragedy that he really shouldn’t even remember, and instead of letting it break him down, he tries to help others who have suffered like him. Of course, the creators hint that he may be trying to evade his own problems by burying himself into helping others. Busiek has this great, underappreciated handle on character, telling stories about people, whether or not they have superpowers. Anderson draws men and women who you recognize, not in an “I know who that person is” photo-referenced way, but in a way of capturing the essence of his characters through their appearance and their body language. Together, the two creators tell a story that’s not reliant on being about super-powered stand-ins but on true and real characters.

Back when Astro City started, it felt like it was a reaction against the Imagization of comics, as Marvel and DC tried to recreate the surface excitement of their “extreme” competition. Here in 2017, superheroes are in a much different place, as they’ve moved from a subculture to pop culture, and are now one of the predominant entertainment genres. The work of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson continues to ground and critique the state of superhero comic books, movies, and entertainment. It helps focus our attention on where it should be in these types of stories; not on the adventure or even the genre, but on the characters who inhabit these cities and worlds.

Astro City #50 is a comic of introspection and remembrance. It calls our attention not on the spectacle of the superhero adventure but onto the solitude and reflection on the moments between the battles. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson have crafted a superhero comic about the weight of those heroes on the people who stand in the street and look up in the sky. Normally, 50th issues of comics are big and boisterous celebrations. While Astro City #50 is a celebration, it is celebrating the small moments of reflection that normally that fill most of our days and nights.

Credit: DC Comics

The Flash Annual #1
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Howard Porter, Christian Duce, and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual and Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Wally West - no, the post-Crisis Wally West - is still struggling to move forward in The Flash Annual #1. Using this annual to kick off his incoming “Flash War,” writer Joshua Williamson cuts to the quick of Wally West’s post-resurrection characterization, casting him as a man untethered to his new status-quo and longing for recognition. Neatly segmented between action in the future and Flash family drama in the present, Williamson sprinkles around enough clues to keep readers on the line for the upcoming event while anchoring the annual as a whole with a heartfelt, in-character Wally West adventure. Stack all of that next to some truly engaging artwork from pencilers Howard Porter and Christian Duce as well as the vibrant, tonally sound colors of Hi-Fi, and The Flash Annual #1 can be comfortably called a success.

In the future, the Flash Museum has been destroyed (again), but in the present, the Flashes have their own problems, both personally and professionally. While most of Williamson’s efforts in the future are focused around teasing hints at the upcoming “Flash War” event, the main story in the present is really solid. You see, after a vertigo-inducing battle with the Top, rendered kinetically by penciler Christian Duce and colorist Hi-Fi, Team Flash retires for some post-battle tacos, and it is here where the fireworks really start to fly.

Post-Crisis Wally West, who still doesn’t have a life outside the costume and refuses to move forward after his triumphant return, is taken to task by his fellow Flashes and reacts poorly. And due to his poor reaction he accidentally reactivates an old villain in the form of his ex-girlfriend Magenta. As fair as stakes go, it isn’t exactly a dire situation, but I applaud the fact that Williamson is working to further integrate Classic Wally back into the narrative of the title. Better still that he is using Wally’s new state as a “man out of time” to give him a clean slate of stories for this new timeline, while still respecting Wally’s characterization and rich, storied history from before his disappearance.

The Flash Annual #1 is also gifted with a wildly talented twofer of artists in the form of Howard Porter and Christian Duce, both of whom are enriched thanks to the colors of Hi-Fi. Opening on a sumptuous and easter egg filled double page splash of the Flash Museum, Porter and Hi-Fi revel in the Jack Kirby-esque design of the 25th century and add a real dramatic flair to the action in the future, culminating in a Speed Force-shaking cliffhanger. But on the other side of the timestream, Christian Duce and Hi-Fi take a more intimate approach to the scenes in the present, keeping most of the action centered around a character’s mental state during the scene giving the zipping around and heroic grandstanding a more theatrical feel that sits neatly right alongside Porter’s bold, pulpy vision of the Flash’s future. While I would have loved for Porter to get to stretch his legs a bit more and contribute more action to the proceedings, the dynamic shift from outlandish future tech and costumes to intimate, character based action allows The Flash Annual #1 to walk a fine artistic line with style and heart.

While Joshua Williamson and company are gearing up for a full-on “Flash War,” they prove that they haven’t lost sight of character and emotions in The Flash Annual #1. Of course, I wouldn’t have been mad at some more substantial hints at what the war will bring or a better understanding of what that Big Name Cameo at the end of the issue is really up to, but I will always settle for some good, old-fashioned Flash Family antics, and that’s exactly what this annual delivers. Wally West may not know what his place in this world is quite yet, but this annual proves that he always has a place in the pages of The Flash.

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