Five different comics this time around, and the thrilling breath of rejuvenation running through each one of them! And the incredible thing is, four out of five of those comics were published by Marvel, a company whose recent creative decisions have been, shall we say, questionable (fascism rules? check! Spider-Man off in la-la land? check! Captain America effing dead? check!). We here at Stevereads once thought that, given the state of affairs at Marvel, the only way they could field a rejuvenatingly good issue would be to very consciously set it outside the pig's breakfast that is the company's current continuity. Put Spider-Man in some sort of mystical backwater where you can turn back the clock; put the Hulk on an alien world and follow his adventures there; put Thor (and Asgard) out in the American badlands as a declared neutral, etc.
So imagine our surprise to find that two out of these four Marvel titles take place smack-dab in the middle of the current muddled continuity! One of these is Marvel's flagship title, The Fantastic Four, now under the creative control of writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch; issue #558 is the start of a new storyline (not, curiously, the one trumpeted on the cover, "Starting This Issue: The Death of the Invisible Woman" - no hint of which is present in the issue itself), one which sees the villainous Doctor Doom falling prey to a group of mercenaries called the New Defenders (who, in the tiresome Millar fashion, are made to seem bad-ass by easily defeating our heroes in the initial set-to), forcing the FF to come to his defense. Hitch's pencils still seem a little rough (Andrew Currie is not his ideal inker), but Millar's got a good grasp of the non-stop action and underlying humanity that are the hallmarks of this particular team. We predict that if Millar stays with the title, this Doctor Doom storyline will turn out to be really, really good, and the eventual Galactus storyline will be epic. We shall see.
The other of these two issues is the latest She-Hulk, written by fanboy-favorite hack Peter David and drawn with interesting linear simplicity by Val Semeiks. The plot is fairly simple stuff - a giant on a rampage in a city, She-Hulk and guest star Hercules teaming up to beat the giant and save the day, etc. The rejuvenation here is something happening in more than one place in the Marvel universe these days: the revived and fantastic use of Hercules as a character. He's got his own comic, and he's appearing everywhere else, and this is a very welcome development - in Marvel comics, Hercules has always stood in the shadow of Thor, but in many ways he's more interesting and logical character to moonlight as a super-hero: after all, he's part human, whereas Thor is not. When you think about it, it's an inherently silly idea that a god of thunder would spend time having adventures alongside the Wasp and Hawkeye. But Hercules has a history of adventuring alongside superpowered mortals, so it's refreshing to see him showing up i so many places lately.
One of which, in this issue of She-Hulk, is her bed! After their adventure together, these two heroes decide to make merry in her RV, and one thing leads to another. Oddly, when it's time for him to write the inevitable morning-after scene, David doesn't screw it up. As she looks at the sleeping Hercules, She-Hulk thinks, "When all is said and done, he was one of the few who stood beside Bruce when it all went down. That meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to me. And well ... he's immortal. For all I've got going for me, that's something I'll never be. Except ... I was, for one brief moment in time, the lover of Hercules. So maybe that's a little bit of immortality for me. There's dumber reasons to have sex with a guy. I should know: I've used them all."
Far more typical is the aforementioned manuever of setting your story outside of the current Marvel continuity, which is what our next two Marvel issues do. Matt Fraction's new issue of his ongoing Thor mini-series is firmly mythological in its setting; here there is no hint of Thor the super-hero, just high epic fantasy - for which Fraction shows a surprisingly adept hand. The dialog of his gods, demons, and monsters bears no similarity to the 'thee's and 'thou's of Stan Lee's era, but it's extremely distinctive just the same.
The issue features two parts, the first drawn by Khari Evans in a competent enough manner reminiscent of Ron Frenz, and the second drawn to bring the walls down by Patrick Zircher. The first segment is entertaining enough - again, a loose adaptation of a story out of Norse mythology - but the second story! Hoo-boy! Here is everything a real Thor story should be (except that Thor, true to Norse mythology if not to Marvel continuity, is still a bit of a jerk): it's sweeping, epic, and full of fantastic stuff. The best part of it happens when the poor mortals of Earth, beset by legions of the undead, create the husk of a "blood colossus" to combat their enemies. They pray and pray to summon Thor, hoping his lightning will bring their blood colossus to life: "Mortals prayed and prepared as best they could. Shattered by the unending cruelty of an unjust punishment, they began to look toward the miraculous. Until finally the miraculous began to look back." Thor shows up, animates the colossus, and saves the day, but this all feels much more like some alternate title Marvel would have published in the mid-'70s.
Our plea here at Stevereads: Marvel should create a new title, call it "Tales of Asgard," and make Patrick Zircher illustrate it until Ragnarok, if not longer.
The other offset Marvel issue this time around takes a much surer path: a retold origin story. In this case, it's an installment in the ongoing, spottily-executed 'Mythos' title aimed at revisiting the origins of Marvel's characters. In this case, touchingly, it's Captain America's turn, here getting a splendid, moving treatment by writer Paul Jenkins and artist/painter Paolo Rivera. This is an origin story that's been told many times - skinny WWII army reject Steve Rogers is chosen to undergo experimental procedures and become America's "super-soldier," Captain America. The one difference in this retelling (inspired, no doubt, by the "Ultimate" version of Captain America featured in "The Ultimates") is that we're specifically told that the experiments give Captain America super-human abilities. But that's beside the point of the story, which is a wonderful story of a man out of time. That, plus the issue having the greatest cover of any Marvel comic published in 2008, makes this issue a large-lunged call to bring back their signature character, for Pete's sake.
And then there's the ongoing rejuvenation of The Legion of Super-Heroes over at DC Comics, all thanks to legendary writer Jim Shooter, who has kept his new run on this, his old stomping-grounds, positively sizzling with activity on many fronts, all the while packing in a disarming amount of characterization. Bit by bit, piece by piece, he's editing out the ridiculousness of the current Legion incarnation and weaving back in his own sure-footed grounding in character and action. His Legion is beset on all sides - physically by monsters continually adapting to their powers, politically from a suspicious United Planets eager to control the Legion. Each issue happens at breakneck speed, which is great (and something not one writer in ten can manage successfully), and we here at Stevereads confidently expect that the upcoming issues will feature some of the Legion basics Shooter hasn't got to yet - a possible Brainiac 5 meltdown, for instance, or the arrival on the scene of a genuine villain or two (the monsters in these issues are a good start, since there's got to be somebody pulling their strings). In the meantime, this is great stuff, especially for Legion fans.
All of the issue this time around were great stuff - something we doubt we'd be saying if we'd allowed the clerk at the Android's Dungeon to talk us into the latest issue of Trinity, or Final Crisis, or some such. A fate narrowly avoided, and as it is, we put aside our batch of comics smiling a contented smile.