Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Super-Spies, Thunder Gods and Gender Benders: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So here we are, another week older, another week wiser, another week heavier with new funnybooks to discuss…

Journey Into Mystery #622
by Kieron Gillen, Dougie Braithwaite, and Ulises Arreola

I have to like Marvel’s marketing strategy here. They’re giving Thor a new number one to better-capitalize on the upcoming movie (which I don’t think ever works, but whatever). But rather than completely abandon the original numbering they just returned to less than two years ago, they’re treating the new Thor as a separate series and restoring this series to its original title: Journey Into Mystery. Which is one of the better monster/suspense series titles ever, and one I‘m finding myself surprisingly happy to have back on the racks.

Series writer Kieron Gillen is embracing his title in earnest, too. It’s still a Thor comic, of course, but more of a Thor spin-off starring the young Loki, recently reborn and as-yet-unformed. Gillen is sending his young god of mischief off on a literal “journey into mystery,” a quest that will decide exactly what sort of Loki he will be. I’m finding it pretty compelling so far. Gillen’s Loki is clever and sharp-tongued, and driven by a refreshing mix of curiosity and enlightened self-interest. This first issue plays a little like a children’s fantasy novel, with Our Hero following a trail of bread crumbs left behind by his former self and realizing that it’s part of a larger scheme that he’s going to walk into anyway, if he wants to be his own man.

It’s a nice take on the character, and one more in line with how he was often depicted in the myths. “God of Mischief” too often morphs over into “God of Evil” in modern depictions of the Norse gods, but he’s a much more complex figure than that. There’s every indication that the Vikings admired Loki’s cleverness, even though it was of a type they also believed you couldn’t entirely trust. He exists in a queasy sort of grey area, one that I hope Gillen exploits to the fullest.

On the artistic side of things, the book is apparently being colored and reproduced directly from Dougie Braithwaite’s pencils, which gives the work an illustrative texture that’s difficult to attain with ink. I wouldn’t call the artwork beautiful or anything, but I like the feel of it. It suits the book, I think, and that’s what’s really important in the end.

Grade: B+

Casanova: Gula IV
by Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon, and Gabriel Ba

The reprints of Gula wrap up this issue, and the cat’s out of the bag on what I still consider the best twist ending ever. I have to admit, though, that I’d forgotten how Fraction cheats on it a little here at the end. [SPOILER] The way I remembered it, Seychelle’s artificial life tech had been behind the transformation of Casanova into Zephyr, but he’s just as shocked as the rest of Our Heroes to realize the truth. Which means that Fraction doesn’t actually explain how they did it at all. I’m okay with it, don’t get me wrong; in a world of weird-ass super-science and Life Model Decoys, a little gender-bending DNA manipulation is far from outside the realm of possibility. But an explanation, even one as glib and incomplete as the one I just tossed out there, would have been nice. [/SPOILER]

He makes up for that, though, with the fascinating manifestation of guilt we get from Cas. Faced with Newman Xeno’s choice to fire the gun or re-write history and die, Casanova chooses to go back to his own timeline and die, leaving his friends and family where they were if he’d never made the dimensional jump that started the series. Of course, he’s not really making that choice out of altruism; he thinks he’s really messed things up, and would rather die than face the guilt. Fortunately for us, though, the decision to fire the gun’s really not up to him, and so we get to watch the juicy aftermath. Speaking of which…

I like that Ruby’s the only one who seems able to forgive him. That feels right, to me, and promises to send the series off into very interesting directions with a more isolated Cas for series three. I also like that Casanova has essentially created his own opposite number in Kaito. Not that Fraction goes there, precisely, in this issue, but Kaito leaving with the Cryptomech tells me that we’ll see him again, and that it won’t be pretty.

Of course, this issue isn’t all reprint, either. Backing up the final issue of Gula is a new flashback story from Fraction and Gabriel Ba, starring Suki Boutique (who Zephyr killed a couple of issues back). It appears to be a little throw-away piece, almost a super-spy tone poem, featuring Suki in her prime but not really revealing anything new or interesting about her. Except… There’s this other character in the story, an amnesiac with mysterious knowledge abilities that he doesn’t know how he got. He’s mostly naked, with a really bad skin condition that I think is a horrible sunburn. But Suki wraps him partially in bandages before she leaves him to die on a burning yacht, and I have to wonder… Is this the secret origin of Newman Xeno? Is he really NOT Thomas Pynchon, after all?

Only time will tell, I suppose, and I’m looking forward to seeing th enew Anti-Casanova wrecking crew of Xeno, Kubark Benday, and David X (World’s Greatest Escape Messiah) in series three this Fall. In the meantime, though, Gula IV, and this second series of Casanova as a whole, was damn satisfying, and warrants a third read now that it’s all done. I’m still not sure I’m down with Kaito’s reasoning for not bringing back Ruby. I suspect it might have been a really insanely selfish move, in fact, but I’m gonna need to revisit the scene to decide for sure. And that sort of re-readability, to my way of thinking, makes Casanova one of the best deals on the stands.

Grade: A+

Secret Warriors #26
by Jonathan Hickman and Alessandro Vitti

This issue of Secret Warriors also made me feel like I needed to re-read the series, but not in a good way. Hickman’s entered something of a “secrets revealed” mode with the current “Wheels Within Wheels” arc, and many of the mystery seeds he’s been sprinkling out over the last two years are blooming. Unfortunately, there’s been so much going on and, as the title implies, so many plots and counter-plots intersecting, that I’ve lost track of it all. I do think that if I went back and re-read the entire series to date, it would all make sense, and I‘d be pretty impressed with the long-term plotting. But, unlike the Casanova re-read, I don’t think I care enough to go back and do it.

To some extent (a large extent, in fact), I feel like this is maybe a failure of myself as a reader rather than a failure of Hickman as a writer. I do love intricate plotting and spy games and bouts of one-upsmanship of precisely the type Hickman’s been doling out in this book. And the prospect of going back to pick over the clues to put it all together is usually my idea of a good time. But the thought of slogging through all the stuff in this book I don’t care about, all the half-assed melodrama of the super-team characters, so that I can pick out the long-range plotting… Guh. I just don’t wanna. So there’s a level of hypocrisy in this grade I’m about to give that I’m not at all comfortable with. But I have to express my disappointment somehow…

Grade: C

SHIELD Infinity
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, and Gabriel Hernanadez Walta

Continuing along the Hickman tip of insanely complicated sci-fi plotting, we get to this book, his Umberto-Eco-meets-Stan-Lee opus, currently on hiatus between series. This “Number Infinity” special is a flashback book, a collection of stories meant to better-develop several of the series’ principal figures: Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Nikola Tesla. DaVinci’s story is, characteristically, not really about him, but instead about him teaching SHIELD devotees about that time that Archimedes piloted the Colossus of Rhodes in a fist-fight against a giant Kree Sentry.

(Yeah, I know. It’s that kind of book.)

Likewise, the two Michelangelo stories are less about him and more about what he’s willing to do to the agents he uses to get his work done. In the first story, set in the 19th Century, three men die just to deliver a message that Nostradamus was hanging in there in his dungeon cell beneath SHIELD headquarters. (Because, yes, Nostradamus is also a recurring character. Again, it’s that kind of book) The other details Tesla’s resurrection and transformation into the Night Machine, and his journey to find some ancient super-science pods that figured prominently in last month’s SHIELD-centric Secret Warriors. I’m gonna have to go back and re-read that issue to remember exactly what their significance is, but this is some re-reading I’ll happily do. There’s not much of it, and there’s no collection of snot-nosed super-teens running around to get in the way of things.

But it’s Newton’s story I found most interesting here. Before now, I’ve seen Sir Isaac as a classic well-meaning villain, a driven man twisted into a monster by his desire to help the world. But here, we see him eliminate all of his scientific rivals, serial killer style, before he ever sets foot inside the Hidden City, leaving behind (I shit you not) an apple as his calling card.

(Because, yes, it’s that kind of book, too.)

Grade: B+

Butcher Baker #2
by Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston

While there’s less sex this issue, and more of a hint that Casey may actually be telling some kind of story with a modicum of weight (or at least plot), it does, on the other hand, feature a naked cosmic hermaphrodite. Which makes up for a lot.

Mostly, this issue introduces us to Baker’s rogues’ gallery, a collection of pretty awesome over-the-top bad guys like electrical bimbo White Lightning, blue-skinned anti-messiah Jihad Jones, and (perhaps my favorite) the huge masked Japanese luchador El Sushi. Oh, and the afore-mentioned cosmic hermaphrodite as well, whose name (The Absolutely) falls a bit shy of the mark, but whose appearance (think fertility idol, but full of stars, and with a giant schlong dangling between its legs) is pure genius.

Of course, it’s Mike Huddleston who brings the thunder on this book to begin with, and really makes it worth buying. His style shifts and color work are once again stunning, and the sheer crazy motion he puts into the action sequences is nearly enough to make me weep tears of pure manly joy. And with White Lightning bearing down on Baker’s big rig in an open-cockpit jalopy straight out of Big Daddy Ed Roth, next issue promises to be a classic.

Grade: A-

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