Wednesday, March 17, 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.

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