Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Comics! Great Expectorations!

It's Marvel Comics' show this week at the comic shop, and the obvious reason is the launch of yet another sooper-dooper multi-crossover event, "Fear Itself." If you're thinking it's been only a very short time since the end of the previous sooper-dooper multi-crossover, you're entirely right, and what's even odder is how similar "Fear Itself" is to its predecessor, "Siege," in so many ways. In both cases, continuity-wide changes are promised that almost certainly won't happen; in both cases, the central story revolves around Thor and his fellow Asgardians - and in both cases, the actual issue-by-issue execution of writing and art will in all likelihood be irresistible. The writer-artist team here is Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen, and the first issue is so good that even a reader as sceptical as I am will be entertained even while they're muttering "but, but."

Our story so far: the Asgardian god of fear, Skadi, has delusions of all-fatherhood and has seeded the human world with hammers that look bigger and sleeker than Thor's famous Mjolnir, and Skadi is found by the daughter of Captain America's old foe the Red Skull. As those two start to cook up eee-vil, a more domestic strife is brewing in the city of Asgard itself, which crashed into the Oklahoma plain at the end of "Siege." Thor's irascible father Odin, the original all-father of the gods, is irritated that Thor is joining with his mortal allies the Avengers to rebuild Asgard. Odin interrupts a feast his people are sharing with the Avengers in order to tell everybody that Asgard is returning to the stars, that he's rebuilding Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge and taking all the Norse gods and godlings back home (the ominous Watcher shows up briefly to, um, watch - which enrages Odin still further, prompting him to shout "I am the father of all things! I am the fury and the extinction! The leader of souls! The commander of warrior gods!" It brought back many memories, for this long-time Thor fan).

He demands that Thor choose between his mortal and immortal loyalties, and when Thor chooses mankind, Odin slaps him around just for kicks and tells him he's coming back to Asgard anyway. The all-father senses that Skadi has returned, and he's obviously preparing for the battle that's coming, in which the heroes of Asgard and Earth will face off against the god of fear and his hammer-wielding warriors. Fraction has very little in the way of character-based writing to do here (and far too many opportunities for social commentary, but what can you do?), it being basically a premise-setting issue, but Immonen's artwork is yet another step forward in a progression that hasn't slowed down since "Superman: Secret Identity." Although even upward progressions can have nervous tics, I guess, and this issue certainly does: everybody spits. The good guys, the bad guys - there's spittle everywhere. We can hope for dry mouths in future issues.

Marvel's other ongoing 'big event' mini-series, "Avengers: The Children's Crusade," continues this week as well, with really good writing by Allan Heinberg and rip-snortingly fantastic artwork by Jim Cheung. In the last issue, the fat hit the fire when the impetuous Young Avengers went to Latveria in order to find the long-lost Scarlet Witch, who fled there and gave herself amnesia in the wake of the "House of M" storyline. We learned that she had fallen in love with Latveria's king, Doctor Doom - and that he had fallen in love with her and very much didn't want her to remember her own past, for her sake and humanity's safety. The grown-up Avengers followed the Young Avengers, and Magneto (the Scarlet Witch's father) followed as well, and a gigantic, predictable battle ensued that was momentarily interrupted by the return of Iron Lad, the teenager who would grow up to be Kang the Conqueror, and who in this issue helps the Young Avengers to spirit the Scarlet Witch back in time to an alternate time-line - only time-travel is very complex, and they don't really know what they're doing, and by issue's end all they've succeeded in doing is restoring her memories and thereby putting the whole Marvel Universe at risk.

If that all sounds confusing, that's because it is - but then, this issue is just the mid-point in the mini-series, so some amount of textual muddle is to be expected, Cheung's artwork certainly makes the confusion easy to bear, including yet another eye-popping two-page splash panel like the one we commented on last time:

And Heinberg's writing is very enjoyable too, including his ongoing and very refreshing characterization of Doctor Doom as a bit more complex than he's usually portrayed. "She was happy here," he tells the Avengers. "We were to be married." And when Magneto says, "My daughter would never have married you. Not willingly. What have you done to her?" Doom's response is chillingly correct:
I have been trying to save her. From You. From all of you ... who sought to destroy her. And now, because of you, the most powerful force in the universe has been unleashed into the timestream, where she can rewrite the past or the future just as easily as she said the words "No more mutants."

Two big event-titles, both firing on all cylinders, and yet the Marvel comic that pleased me most this week was a regular old ongoing title that hardly ever pleases me at all: "The Uncanny X-Men." Marvel has been coming out with "Point 1" issues of its books, billed as good jumping-on points for potential new readers who might be leery of picking up titles in the middle of long-running stories. This latest issue of "Uncanny X-Men" is one of those: 534.1 (that "534" seems utterly unbelievable to yours truly, but we'll let that go), written by Kieron Gillen and pencilled by Carlos Pacheco. It has a straightforward, two-pronged plot: the X-Men (now basically comprising almost all the handful of mutants who were left on Earth after those three little words "No more mutants" - including both former villain Magneto and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, who, as the super-powered son of a human man and a woman from Atlantis, was Marvel's first mutant long before anybody but Mendel had ever heard the word) race to stop an evil group of scientists from causing a major earthquake, and a media consultant tries to work with Magneto to improve his image with the public. I certainly wasn't expecting the issue to please me more than those big-e events for which I admit I have a sweet-tooth, but it did: Gillen's writing sparkles, and of course Pacheco's artwork is always great. The highlight of the issue for me was Gillen's characterization of Namor as a bit of a lout, not a sterling super-hero at all. When he's confronting one of the evil scientists, for instance, he snarls, "Only Namor has the ability to make the earth move. And he reserves the privilege for one woman at a time. Unless they have experimental friends." That's a far cry from the 'tortured hero' conception of the character that held sway back in the '70s, but I like it just the same.

Of course, there's a couple of sooper-dooper crossover events brewing at DC Comics as well, but this week clearly belonged to Marvel. Maybe we'll get to Superman and Doomsday next time!

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