Reading Round-Up: Marvel Comics

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A strange combination of having had a ton of spare time to read and a new job means I probably won’t be able to write my usual-type of review for many of the books and graphic novels I’ve read over the past couple of months. For some books, I will still write longer reviews, but for many (if not most) I’ll include them in occasional round-/catch-up posts with mini-reviews. Today, I take a look at recently-read Marvel titles.

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Reviewed: Amazing Spider-Man “Red-Headed Stranger”, “Return of the Black Cat” & “The Gauntlet Vol.1”; Rick Remender’s Venom Vols.1-3, Ultimate Comics – X-Men Vol.1, Ultimate Comics – Hawkeye, Daredevil Yellow

Amazing Spider-Man: Red-Headed Stranger

AmazingSpiderMan-602Writer: Fred van Lente, Brian Reed | Artist: Barry Kitson, Robert Atkins, Javier Pudilo, Luke Ross, Rick Magyar, Yanick Paquette, Mark Farmer | Inks: Rick Ketcham, Barry Kitson, Victor Olazaba, Joe Rubenstein | Colors: Jeromy Cox, Antonio Fabela, Javier Rodriguez, Rob Schwager, Nathan Fairbairn

The Chameleon returns with a terrifying new mission that has Mayor J. Jonah Jameson squarely in his sights!

Meanwhile, the Anti-Spidey Squad narrows its dragnet around the Web-Crawler, and Peter Parker gets a brand new job – will it bring him closer to the newly-returned Mary Jane, or push her further away?

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #602-5

Ok, so the villain Chameleon is pretty creepy. This isn’t a bad story, over all. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the relationships between Peter’s crowd (which I would have liked), and the Mayor is cartoonish in his irrational hatred of Spider-Man (Zeb Wells writes him better, though no less Spidey-hating, in the first issues of Avenging Spider-Man).

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The issues included in the book don’t feel as focused as other series I’ve read, but then, these are beyond the 600th issue, so there’s been a ton of story- and world-building beforehand. It has a more round-about way of telling the story. In some ways, Amazing Spider-Man feels a little like a sitcom that’s been on the air for years and we’re comfortable just randomly dropping in to the story. It’s good for that reason, actually. But, also, not as satisfying as it could have been.

*

Amazing Spider-Man: Return of the Black Cat

AmazingSpiderMan-ReturnOfTheBlackCatWriter: Joe Kelly (606-7), Marc Guggenheim (608-10), Joe Kelly (611) | Artist: Mike McKone, Adriana Melo, Marco Checchetto, Luke Ross, Rick Magyar, Eric Canete | Inks: Andy Lanning, Mike McKone, Justice, Smith, Benes | Colors: Chris Chuckry, Jeromy Cox, Fabio D’Auria, Andre Mossa

“WHO WAS BEN REILLY?”

Raptor is back for revenge against the man he claims killed his family – Ben Reilly, the clone of Spider-Man. Unfortunately, the only person alive that fits Ben’s description is Peter Parker. As this super-powered psycho with a thirst for vengeance targets Peter, his family, and his friends, even Spider-Man might not be able to save the day this time.

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #606-611

This is another not-particularly-focused book, to be honest. The Black Cat story was short, but good, as she and Spidey tackle a strange case involving Diablo and some cut-price “steel”.

Then there’s a continuation of the Ben Reilly fallout from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #36 (which was included in Died In Your Arms Tonight). It’s a pretty good story, actually, but throwing in Kaine as well near the end meant I got a case of clone-overdose… (I read this before I tried Scarlet Spider, so I wasn’t familiar really with who Kaine actually was).

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Finally, there’s a Spidey-Deadpool story, which was… well, just nuts. It also foreshadows the long (perhaps drawn-out) storyline, “The Gauntlet”. (See below.)

*

Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet, Vol.1

AmazingSpiderMan-Gauntlet-Vol.1Writer: Mark Waid (#612-14), Fred van Lente (#615-616) | Artist: Paul Azaceta (#612-614), Javier Pulido (#615-616) | Colors: Dave Stewart (#612-614), Javier Rodriguez (#615-616)

The wife and daughter of Kraven the Hunter want Spider-Man dead and they’re sending his oldest enemies to do the job… First up, Electro and Sandman! Plus: Norman Osborn seeks to check off the number one item on The List: Kill Spider-Man!

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #612-616

This is the first of five volumes covering “The Gauntlet”, featuring confrontations with Electro and Sandman. One thing to say from the start: I didn’t get that these two villains were “sent” by Mrs. Kraven and her evil offspring… Rather, it seemed to just be Their Turn to go up against Spider-Man, in their never-ending roundabout of fight, defeat, incarcerate, fight, defeat, incarcerate…

We start off learning about Electro’s fall, how he got to the sorry point he’s at now (yes, involved Spider-Man royally kicking his ass and foiling his various Nefarious Plans). On page 17, Electro offers a rousing “rooftop rant” for the 99%, following news of a bailout for Dexter Bennett, a billionaire and owner of “The DB” (formerly known as the Daily Bugle). Then all hell breaks loose for Spidey, as Electro rides the wave of Wall Street frustration and popular unrest. The Thinker (awful name for a villain) helps Electro power up, before he takes off to fulfill a vendetta against Bennett. It doesn’t go well for all concerned, and things will change for Peter and everyone else at The DB.

The tale featuring Sandman involves a kidnapped a girl who started calling the bad guy “daddy”, after he dated her mother for a little while. Spider-Man goes to Governor’s Island to rescue her. They fight. It’s a pretty straight-forward story, but not bad. It ends on a tragic note, though.

The book finishes up with “Dark Reign: The List – #8 Kill Spider-Man” (writen by Dan Slott, art by Adam Kubert and Mark Morales, colors by Dean White). I really love the artwork here. I couldn’t quite figure out how it fit in with the series continuity, though. Nevertheless, it’s a decent story, as Peter/Spidey steals some key information – video-logs of Norman Osborne’s heinous crimes and human experiments – and tries to get the information out into the world. It’s a very strong story, actually, I just wish it had fit a bit better.

*

Daredevil – Yellow

Daredevil-Yellow-TPBWriters: Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale | Artists: Richard Starkings & Wes Abbott | Colors: Matt Hollingsworth

In this retelling of the early career of The Man Without Fear, the Eisner Award-winning team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have taken an inspiring action adventure story and blended it with a romantic comedy. The result is the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of two young people in love: Matthew Murdock and Karen Page.

Collects: Daredevil – Yellow #1-6

The first thing that jumped out at me in this book is the great artwork. It’s moody, subtle, with really nice use of greys and black in the start, the only color being Daredevil’s red outfit:

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In the story, Matt Murdock is writing a letter to “Karen”, and decides to look back at the start, to how it all began for him as Daredevil. Later on, it became clear, for the uninitiated (including myself), that “Karen” is Karen Page, Murdock & Nelson’s secretary – someone both Matt and Foggy had crushes on. Naturally, Karen only had eyes for Daredevil… So Lois Lane-Clark Kent/Superman…

Matt reminisces about his father’s boxing career. Issue one takes us up to the catalyzing event of his father’s murder (very like the movie, actually). In issue two, Daredevil is born, and goes after those who killed his dad (a little time has past by this point).

The story takes a little time to get going, but I found myself reading throughout. Matt’s new in town, still making a name for himself as both a lawyer and also Daredevil (he goes after Electro), that sort of thing. Usual origin-story stuff.

I really love the New York details in the artwork – lots of noticeable city landmarks, well realised on the page.

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The story skips towards the end to post-Karen, tying up the whole book. But without telling us what actually happened to Karen. All we get is:

“The rest of the story you know too well. It’s been told a lot of ways, with many other people in my life, but this is the way I choose to remember it when I think of you. Foggy never found love. You found out that Daredevil and Matt Murdock were one and the same. And now… And now you are dead.”

Daredevil’s an interesting character, still. In some ways, he’s not only physically blind, but also emotionally. His father was crooked, but redeemed himself (almost selfishly) at the end, and this act has left its permanent fingerprints on Matt’s own approach to justice.

Summing up, this isn’t a bad book. It’s a slow-burn comic, more about Murdock & Nelson, rather than Daredevil. Quite good, also a bit sad and emotional. I think I prefer Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, though. (I’m not sure if that’s still being published, though… I know he’s started the rather excellent Indestructible Hulk as part of the Marvel NOW re-boot.)

*

Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye

UC-Hawkeye-TPBWriter: Jonathan Hickman | Artist: Rafa Sandoval | Inks: Jordi Tarragona | Colors: Brad Anderson

Hawkeye’s back in a bad way. Armed and dangerous, Clint Barton is tasked with his most perilous mission yet. And what he discovers will reverberate across the entire Ultimate Universe. Tasked on a covert and dangerous mission, Hawkeye finds himself in the middle of an international arms race – but on the brink of obtaining a serum that will change the course of mutant history, has the eagle-eyed hero aimed too high to succeed?

Collects: Ultimate Comics Hawkeye #1-4 (Complete Series)

Ok, a really short review: ultimately, it boils down to “I really enjoyed this.” There’s a lot of action, as everything in the Southeast Asian Republic (SEAR) goes nuts. You see, the SEAR leaders have developed a new breed of super-humans. Why does this matter? Well, in the Ultimate Comics universe, not only have mutants been hunted to near extinction, but many of them were wiped out in Ultimatum. So yeah, a bit of a game-changer. Hawkeye’s sent to SEAR to see what’s going on, and to steal a sample of the serum against the new virus that the SEAR government also unleashed on the world. The four issues tie in with certain events in Ultimate Comics: X-Men, and leads into the second issue and beyond of Ultimate Comics: Ultimates (which I still have to read).

Sidebar, I really like the cover for the fourth part of the series:

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*

Ultimate Comics: X-Men Vol.1

UC-X-Men-Vol.1Writer: Nick Spencer | Artist: Paco Medina | Inks: Juan Vlasco | Colors: Marte Gracia

The biggest mutant cover-up has gone public as the true history of the X-Gene is revealed. the United States government has been outed as the X-Gene’s creator and mutants have been branded terrorists. as an identity crisis rocks the mutant world, the mistrust between man and x-man gets deeper… and it is in this insanity that the X-Men emerge. Who are the X-Men? and how will they fare in a world where they are criminals? Will these outlaw mutants be willing to defend mankind, when all of humanity cries out for their imprisonment?

Collects: Ultimate Comics X-Men #1-6

There’s a really shocking opening scene in this book, as Karen Grant (formerly known as Jean Grey) visits a family whose daughter has recently manifested mutant abilities. Then we’re re-introduced to the mutants from Ultimate X: Origins, and also Kitty Pryde:

“I’m sixteen years old – And this is the story of how I became the most feared and hated terrorist in the history of the United States.”

Jimmy Hudson, Wolverine’s son (who also has the same powers), has left the group and gone on a solo-journey to find out what happened to his father. Meanwhile, the rest of the group of young mutants face off against various aggressive and hostile forces, and eventually a particularly zealous anti-mutant crusader. Shit goes down, I can tell you.

The artwork can be a little off, sometimes (for example, the president’s press secretary’s fingers at the announcement near the beginning; Quicksilver’s eye when he’s with Fury and the US President; and a couple others). But, for the main it’s excellent: bright and vivid, clear and eye-catching. There are also plenty of instances of great nuance in the characters’ facial expressions. It’s not often that I come across comic art that can do so much with small twitches and changes to characters’ expressions. Really impressed.

Overall, this is a pretty cool start to the series, with the group forming, some world-building going on, and the usual beginning-of-series inclusions. It’s not particularly deep, but the story taps into a Government-as-Bad-Medical-Experimenter conspiracies pretty well, and sets things up nicely for the future. I think they were playing this a bit safe, perhaps unsure if people would take to the new direction.

*

Venom, Vol.1, Circle of Four & other issues

Venom-01-ArtWriter: Rick Remender | Artist: Tony Moore | Inks: Crimelab Studios, Sandu Florea, Karl Kesel (#1-2) | Colors: John Rauch

America… meet your newest Hero! The lethal alien symbiote known as Venom is in the custody of the U.S. military… and with a familiar face from Spider-Man’s world inside the suit, the government’s own personal Spidey is going into action as one of the nation’s top covert agents in hostile territory!

Collects: Venom #1-5

Eugene “Flash” Thompson wears the symbiote suit. But he can apparently only do so for 48-hours, otherwise it will bond permanently with him, and start exerting more control over Flash’s psyche and body. I thought this was a pretty interesting development. I first ‘met’ Flash in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, in which Chameleon has taken on Peter Parker’s identity. Pseudo-Peter attends a photo-op with the Mayor, to which Flash has been invited – he’s a double-amputee war hero – and Chameleon makes some time to take the piss out of Flash (they went to high school together, and Flash was the jock who took out his insecurities on Peter, despite idolizing Spider-Man).

The book drops us right into a war zone. Shit’s goin’ down, and we’re not given much time to figure out what or take much of a breath. It’s fast-paced, furious, and there’s some trouble with Jack O’Lantern (presented in a truly horrific, evil version of the character). O’Lantern crops up throughout the issues I’ve read (all the way up to #14), and he just gets madder and more brutal as the story goes on. I bought him as a genuinely dangerous, psychotic villain.

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The rest of the book develops into a great character piece as well as an action tale. Flash is not only Venom, but also a recovering alcoholic, depressed, suffering from some PTSD, trying to make things work with his girlfriend Betty Brant, and attempting to avoid his father (who is ill and possibly dying).

Some lines of dialogue are used a little too often (for example, inserting the idea of pulling off a Hail Mary, and specific things related to rage and how that effects the symbiote). They’re not terrible, but it’s noticeable that they are either a vocal/authorial tic or a crutch.

This is a great book, though. I’m really glad i picked it up – and have, in fact already read #6-12 (which, for some reason, have not been collected together). The story continues to grow and deepen, as Flash deals with some more changes and tragedy. The fact that a criminal overlord knows his true identity is also putting strain on him, as a marker is finally called in.

I really enjoyed the first book if Venom. The next bunch of issues were also good, but kind of went off the deep end in some ways, and the quality and my interest dipped the more I read. Perhaps I overdosed, I’m not sure.

Venom-CircleOfFourSpecifically, the trip to Hell in “Circle of Four”, which teams Venom up with Red Hulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider (a new, female one, which was interesting). The misfits are in Las Vegas, but get sucked into Hell, as a demon prince decides to bring Hell to earth – through a casino. Naturally. The story’s ok, but it didn’t grab me as much as the earlier issues.

Overall, I think this series is worth a look, especially if you’re looking for a slightly edgier-Spidey series. I prefer Scarlet Spider, but this will do in a pinch, also. I’ll read more, but I’ll probably wait until it’s on sale again on ComiXology.

One thing I do really like? When the symbiote takes over, and Venom goes mental:

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Amazing Spider-Man: “Died In Your Arms Tonight” (Marvel)

AmazingSpiderMan-600-ArtWriters: Dan Slott, Stan Lee, Mark Waid, Bob Gale | Artists: John Romita, Jr., Marcos Martin, Colleen Doran, Mario Alberti | Inks: Klaus Janson | Colors: Dean White, Jose Villarrubia, Javier Rodriguez

The return of Doctor Octopus, Daredevil, a wedding you never predicted, and the return of one of the most important people in Peter Parker’s life. Doc’s back in town, but it’s only a prelude to darker days ahead as Spidey unknowingly prepares for a gauntlet he can’t predict. Also, several short features showcase some rarely-explored aspects of both Spidey and Peter’s life. And, finally, the second most important wedding day of Peter Parker’s life.

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #600-601, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #36,
& material from Amazing Spider-Man Family #7

The book is rather uneven. It’s bitty, highly episodic, and the tone veers all over the place, dependent on the writer. The humour works at times, but at others it feels like it is trying so hard, it’s difficult to like it at all (imagine the quippiness of Gilmore Girls, but with a wall-crawling super-hero). It took longer than I expected to read all of this, as I just couldn’t get sucked in. It is not, however, without its moments. Thankfully, the book improved, once we got beyond the first, mammoth issue.

First up, let me just deal with the “Spider-Man Covers You’ll Never See!” features, which are sprinkled throughout the book. They’re crap, and pointless. Moving on…

AmazingSpiderMan-600Issue #600 of Amazing Spider-Man is 101 pages long, including the cover and back-matter/extras (I was reading this via the comiXology app), and man did it drag at times. I’m not wholly new to Spider-Man or the characters that surround him. I’ve read a number of issues from all over the series chronology, as well as other Spidey series. So I wasn’t exactly lost while reading this, but there were times when I just wondered why the hell I should care at all.

“LAST LEGS”

Writer: Dan Slott | Art: John Romita, Jr. | Inks: Klaus Kanson | Colors: Dean White

In this story, Spidey’s incessant quipping was frankly exhausting. Maybe 10% of the comments, retorts and jokes were enough to raise a smile. That is certainly not a success rate that one might expect from such a popular series. Doctor Octopus is a complete cartoon, and his dialogue is just awful and cliché, and had me cringing on almost every page. I was very disappointed. The story dragged, the wedding stuff preparations and Spidey’s ongoing conflict with Mayor Jameson were simply tedious. I’ve read some later Spider-Man stuff written by Slott, and it’s clear to me that he got much better over time, as he became more comfortable with the characters. Given what I know about Superior Spider-Man, and the end of Amazing Spider-Man (issue #700), I can see some foreshadowing.

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“IDENTITY CRISIS”

Writer: Stan Lee | Art: Marcos Martin | Colors: Javier Rodriguez

In this first back-up-style story, Spidey has visited a shrink. He reflects on his many, many years of adventures. The writing was a little weak, but the premise was strong: Spider-Man basically goes through all the (very) weird events and experiences that have happened over the course of the 600 issues of the series to this point. There’s a nice, knowing nod and a wink regarding the comics industry’s tendency to upend the lives of their various characters, not to mention ret-conning, poor artistic and narrative decisions, and other things like that. It was amusing, but I do think it could have been better, if written by someone else.

“MY BROTHER’S SON”

Writer: Mark Waid | Art: Colleen Doran | Colors: Jose Villarrubia

This short tale is told from the perspective of Uncle Ben. He’s reflecting on his insecurities about raising Peter, after the death of his father. We see how much he worries about his nephew, how much he misses his brother. It builds nicely, and eventually Ben and Peter confront his concerns. It’s calm, not at all melodramatic. And it is actually a wonderful, moving story. Superb.

“IF I WAS SPIDER-MAN”

Writer: Bob Gale | Artist: Mario Alberti

This story has slightly rougher artwork than the previous stories, but it is a fun story of kids philosophizing (as they are wont to do) about how they would “be” Spider-Man, if they got the chance. They go through all of the things that would be so cool, and the ways in which they’d use their powers for celebrity and other selfish purposes. But then move on to the concerns they have.

“It’s just WRONG — that Spider-Man is cool, but BEING Spider-Man isn’t cool. That’s, like, so totally messed up.”

Tell me about it, thinks Peter Parker, as he wanders past…

“THE BLESSING”

Writer: Marc Guggenheim | Artist: Mitch Breitweiser | Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Aunt May, pre-wedding to Jameson Snr., is visiting Uncle Ben’s grave. She talks to him, going over her various fears, her worry that she might appear to be replacing Ben. It’s a short diversion. Sweet story, interesting art style, but thin and ruined by a silly, schmaltzy ending.

“FIGHT AT THE MUSEUM”

Writer: Zeb Wells | Artist: Derec Donovan | Colors: Antonio Fabella

Wells is also the author of the first few issues of the awesome Avenging Spider-Man. However, this is just another quick jolt of making fun of past bad decisions (the Spider Mobile, in this case). It’s fine, but too short to really do anything beyond make long-time fans chuckle. (In itself, no bad thing, it’s true.)

“VIOLENT VISIONS”

By: Kelly, Fiumara, Chuckry & VC’s Caramagna

This was a very dark and very cool short: it’s clearly a prologue, of sorts, for “The Gauntlet” storyline, which ran from #6??-#6?? (and was collected into five books). I’m quite intrigued by this upcoming story, now, I must say. I had been cool on this whole series (despite picking up the first two collections from #600) at this point, but this short certainly made me sit up and take note.

***

AmazingSpiderMan-601Writer: Mark Waid | Artist: Mario Alberti | Colors: Andres Mossa

Which brings us, after waaay too long, to issue #601. This one features a famous cover – of Mary Jane Watson, sitting suggestively on the couch, breasts pressed together, as Spidey swings off out the window. I have a feeling someone recreated this at some point, perhaps the guy behind Collectors…?

This issue finally picks up the main story from the end of #600. Mary Jane Watson has returned to New York, which has distracted Peter no end. It kicks off the morning after the wedding, with Peter waking up, very hung-over. He turns over, and sees a woman in his bed, who he believes is MJ. Unfortunately for Peter, it’s not his former flame. Michelle (his not-exactly-platonic-anymore roommate) is especially pissed after Peter calls her “MJ”. Naturally: “You’re the reason there’s a waiting period on handguns!” she screams at him.

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The issue had a lot of talk about economic downturn and hard economic and employment times (the issue was published in 2010, so that’s not surprising).

“THE BEST VERSION OF MYSELF”

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis | Artist: Joe Quesada | Colors: Morry Hollowell

This was another pretty cool back-up story: Spidey drops in on Luke Cage’s wife, Jessica Jones, and their baby daughter (she used to be a super-hero, apparently). They talk about Jones’s memories of the first time she ever saw Spider-Man, and how much of an impact it had on her own career as a super-powered-person. Spider-Man convinces her that the best way for her to instill the idea of “With great power comes great responsibility” is to show her the best side of herself, rather than to just tell her. (This story continues in New Avengers, apparently.)

***

AmazingSpiderMan-Annual-36And last, but by no means least, we get to Annual #36.

Writer: Marc Guggenheim | Artist: Pat Oliffe | Inks: Pat Oliffe & Andy Lanning | Colors: Antonio Fabela

The whole Parker and Jameson wedding party has schlepped up to Boston for a special dinner. This, sadly, meant that a lot of the issue was written in a “Bahstin” accent. Rookie, bad writer mistake. It was fine for one or two speech bubbles, but after that, it quickly got old and annoying (not to mention inconsistent). Mid-way through the dinner, some crazy dude called “Raptor” interrupts Peter in the bathroom (uncool), and just starts wailing on him. It turns out, Raptor believes Peter is Ben Reilly – Peter’s clone from a long-running Spider-Man story-arc, The Ben Reilly Epic. There’s more to come from this story, later in the series, and I’ll be interested to see how it unfolds.

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I think the annual should have been placed at the start of the book: chronologically, it would’ve made far more sense, being set before the wedding. It’s not a bad way to finish a book, though. Despite the “Bahstin” accents…

***

So, overall, this book is very hit-and-miss. It’s long, but the first issue makes it feel so much longer. There are moments of excellent story-telling; but there are also swathes of dull, drawn-out and boring sections. If you want to start on Amazing Spider-Man, then there may be a better point either earlier or later in the series. I’ll be investigating later collections (I have already read the follow up to this book, Red-Headed Stranger), so I might be able to give new readers a suggestion for a better starting-point.