Marvel Comics Presents #1
Written by Charles Soule, Greg Pak and Ann Nocenti
Art by Paolo Siqueira, Tomm Coker, Greg Land, Oren Junior, Jay Leisten, Frank D’Armata and Michael Garland
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
The House of Ideas treats readers with a blast to the past this week with Marvel Comics Presents #1 - but the return of this fan-favorite title can’t help but stir up questions of what exactly an anthology’s role should be in today’s day and age. Should this series be an incubator for new talent? A trio of surefire base hits guaranteed to moneyball at least some sort of profit? Some sort of launchpad for stories that might feed elsewhere into the Marvel Universe? With this first issue, the answers are still unclear, making this debut a profoundly middle-of-the-road experience.
When you look back at the old Marvel Comics Presents, there are a few names that pop out. Barry Windsor-Smith on Wolverine being a major moment in the comic’s lifespan - same with Sam Keith drawing Wolverine baddie Cyber for the first time. Even then-unknown writer Scott Lobdell had some of his first credits with this unassuming anthology. So with that in mind, it makes sense that the title’s perennial mainstay Wolverine gets top billing with this series - but the somewhat bloodless story of Logan fighting a demon in World War II feels disappointing for a number of reasons, and kicks the series off with a shaky note.
Some of this comes with the selection of writer Charles Soule. This is not to say he’s a slouch in the writing department, but it feels like Soule is already stretching to say something meaningful about Logan in his Return of Wolverine series, and so introducing yet another hidden chapter in Wolverine’s past doesn’t seem to shed any new illumination on the character. Even artist Paolo Siqueira doesn’t seem to create any spark with this story - he never seems to get a bead on the common thread between the story’s war setting, the introduction of magic and demons, and any unique ways that Wolverine himself fits into this dynamic. Unfortunately, this story is the one story that seems to be continuing in future installments - which makes sense given that Wolverine was a headliner of the original MCP, but might make readers wonder why another creative team with a different, fresher perspective on the character might have afforded this book.
Which brings us to Greg Pak and Tomm Coker, the undisputed heroes of this anthology thus far. Given his resurgence in The Best Defense, Avengers, and this week’s Invaders book, it’s been a big couple weeks for Namor the Sub-Mariner, but let me just tell you right now - Pak and Coker have them all beat, because this is by far the best the character has read in quite some time. Pak deftly leans into the otherworldliness of Namor as an Atlantean who has nevertheless been drawn into the all-too-human conflict of World War II - and finding his own limits to how much bloodshed he can tolerate.
Pak’s story is somber and moody, with the quiet moments often feeling more potent than the obligatory robot smashing - and much of that atmosphere is the result of Coker’s terrific artwork. There’s little bits of Michael Lark and Butch Guice to Coker’s shadowy artwork, the way he plays with contrasts in the water and the craggy landscape of Namor’s face. Coker has this amazing way of warping light around Namor to better illustrate his mood - in particular, the look on Namor’s face when he talks about the dead of Hiroshima is haunting. Honestly, this story feels like exactly the kind of story Marvel Comics Presents should be pursuing - taking passionate creators like Pak and bringing them with artists like Image alum Coker, and delivering a spin on a character that doesn’t get enough love.
The third and final story, a Captain America short featuring Ann Nocenti and Greg Land, feels closer in intention to the Sub-Mariner story, but doesn’t deliver quite as much of a slam-dunk in execution. Nocenti’s story, to her credit, leans into her idiosyncratic style - it’s a surprisingly low-stakes story for somebody like Captain America, who takes time out of his busy superheroing schedule to… mentor a would-be stunt biker?
It’s the kind of story that will for sure be an acquired taste, given the total lack of danger involved, but it’s also the sort of story that often gets overlooked against the world-shaking events and over-the-top supervillains that superhero comics tend to mandate these days. That said, given the low-key experimental bent of the story, putting Greg Land on the art feels like trying to hedge bets - his hyper-realistic style feels like Michael Bay trying to shoot a kid’s movie, opening with blockbuster explosions before suddenly downshifting into Cap popping wheelies with a young girl. It’s a weird mash-up, with two established creators on an already established character - and it’s a gambit that, with a lesser-known artist, might have paid off a little bit more.
The thing about anthologies is that, just by nature of the business, they’re already a hard sell. So if you’re launching a book that’s unlikely to turn a profit, why not at least take a few big swings before the axe drops? That’s the thought that kept racing through my mind with Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology that often hamstrings itself by playing things way too safe. If this book could get unknown talent - or even get guest appearances from bigger names whose styles preclude them from monthly schedules at this point - there would be more opportunity for buzz, for experimentation, and for improving dividends down the line for the House of Ideas. There are flashes of genius in this book - Pak and Coker’s Sub-Mariner story proves that definitively - but this anthology will never get to that point without more risk.