Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

27 May 2016

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man

Collects: Ant-Man #1-5 (2015)

Released: June 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785193876

What is this?: Ant-Man moves to Miami, following his ex-wife and daughter, and tries to set up his own security company.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer and artist Ramon Rosanas

I enjoyed writer Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which followed the adventures of the new Sinister Six, led by Boomerang. (To get an idea of the group’s competence level, the Sinister SIx had only five members for the entire book.) When Spencer started writing Ant-Man with what promised to be a similar tone, I was eager to try it.

Then I lost track of the book and didn’t pick up a trade until the title morphed into Astonishing Ant-Man. I totally missed that Ant-Man gained an adjective after the latest Secret Wars. Comics!

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man coverAnyway, after I realized my mistake, I went out and bought Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man. The reviews were correct: Spencer gives Ant-Man the same sort of cheerfully oblivious voice that he gave Boomerang; each protagonist knows he’s seen as a joke, but he keeps smiling, sure that things will work out. The main difference is that Ant-Man has people who he could disappoint, such as his daughter Cassie, which raises the stakes and makes the trade paperback feel like it has been soaked in Ant-Man’s flop sweat.

I mean, I want to like Ant-Man and this book. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite Ant-Man’s powers and accomplishments, he’s a more down-to-earth character than most Marvel heroes, with his teenage daughter helping to keep him grounded. But it’s hard to like someone with such low self-esteem; he agrees with others’ assessment so often that he doesn’t matter much that the reader begins to believe it.

Ant-Man buys into everyone’s narrative that he has been a failure, which seems like it’s taking modesty much too far. I understand the mockery — I mean, he’s Ant-Man, and not even the original (but he is the best) — but no one, including Scott, seems to remember his successes. He was a real, bona fide Avenger. Before that, he helped install Avengers Mansion’s security system. He was a member of the Fantastic Four a couple of times, and the Fantastic Four is still the most exclusive superteam in the Marvel Universe. He devised and executed a plan that defeated Dr. Doom by delving more deeply into the nature of Pym Particles than anyone else. Before that, he returned from the dead. (OK, he only appeared to be dead. Still!)

And Scott uses his powers well in Second-Chance — he beats Tony Stark’s security, he uses his powers to save rent by living in a toy house, he prevents his daughter from rejecting a transplant, and he defeats a Nazi robot. A Nazi robot, for Byrne’s sake! But whenever anyone heaps abuse onto Scott, he takes it, even implicitly agrees with their assessments. (He doesn’t call Stark on Stark’s accusation that Scott can’t stick with one team for very long; Scott thinks about how much team-hopping Tony’s been doing, but you get the feeling Scott’s inferiority complex would stop him from actually saying it.) It’s infuriating, and at times it’s difficult to read about this sad sack.

Everyone but Cassie takes the opportunity to dump on Ant-Man. That’s understandable for most characters, who have little interest in the man, but it’s difficult when his ex-wife, Peggy, does it. Peggy’s not cartoonishly bad in her interactions with Scott, but she’s still inconsiderate at best and often much worse. She decides to move to Miami with Cassie, and from the narration, it seems that if Scott hadn’t decided to visit the day she packed up, she wouldn’t have told him his daughter was moving more than a thousand miles away. She denigrates Scott for being a loser and a super-hero, which feels contradictory; she thinks Scott’s superheroics will cause Cassie to get wrapped up in the machinations of supervillains, but if he’s a loser, who’s going to pay attention to him? Peggy wants Scott to be “normal,” and no one gets to demand that of another human being, even if they share a child’s visitation rights.

Spencer brings some interesting villains into the book. Grizzly, a strong guy in a bear suit, attacks Scott, but Scott ends up hiring Grizzly for his new security firm. Scott also hires Machinesmith, a robot with the consciousness of a former Mr. Fear, to help his security firm. As you probably guessed from the book’s vibe, these two are pathetic; Grizzly attacked Scott, not knowing Scott wasn’t the Ant-Man who defeated him, and Machinesmith was working as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties after his parole from prison. Fortunately, Spencer brings in the new Beetle from Superior Foes of Spider-Man, and she doesn’t lack for self-confidence.

Scott having no confidence in his accomplishments doesn’t mean that Spencer’s not aware of what Scott’s career. Spencer brings two of Ant-Man’s old rivals into the book: Taskmaster, whom Scott has fought alongside other heroes, and Darren Cross, whose kidnapping of a cardiac surgeon inspired Scott to become Ant-Man in the first place. Taskmaster is a great villain, and his sneering at Scott feels earned: he is out of Scott’s league when Scott hasn’t had a chance to prepare, and Taskmaster’s noseless face is great for conveying contempt. I’m less sure about resurrecting Cross, who died in his first appearance, but I suppose Scott needs an adversary, and Cross’s son’s exuberant pride in his own supervillainy is hilarious.

Ramon Rosanas’s art is nice. It’s simple, but it remains evocative. Rosanas manages to convey a lot of emotion from a guy who spends most of book in an ant helmet, which is impressive. Rosanas is able to keep conversation scenes from getting boring, which is vital, given how many conversation scenes Spencer writes. Rosanas knows how to draw battle scenes — mostly, as I’m not sure how Ant-Man foils the assassination attempt — and his pages are filled with nice character touches.

Unfortunately, Rosanas art is marred by the lettering — specifically the lettering of the book’s dialogue. The font is … well, I want to say “ugly,” but “distracting” is probably fairer. It bears a resemblance to Comic Sans, and no one wants that in a font. Pick a new style next time, letterer Travis Lanham.

In the end, what the book needs is more scenes with actual superheroics, the stranger the better. The book’s high point was when Ant-Man defeated the Nazi robot that spewed molten gold, and Scott’s sangfroid during the battle suggests he could handle weirder villains. Actually, the book improved greatly when Scott was actually in action; the rest of the time, when people made fun of this character I was supposed to care about, was uncomfortable.

Rating: Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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20 May 2016

I Hate Fairyland,v. 1: Madly Ever After

Collects: I Hate Fairyland #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781632156853

What is this?: A young girl kidnapped by Fairyland tries to find her home for 27 years, trapped physically at the same age and growing increasingly violent.

The culprit: Skottie Young

I don’t know that I’m the right audience for I Hate Fairyland, v. 1: Madly Ever After.

I mean, I thought I was. I Hate Fairyland features Gertrude, a woman in her mid-30s who has been trapped in Fairyland in a child’s unaging body for almost three decades. Unable to find the way out of Fairyland and into her own world again, Gertrude gleefully takes out her frustrations on the pastel-and-spun-sugar world around her. Unremitting violence against all those fairy-tale clichés seemed like something I would enjoy.

I Hate Fairyland coverAs it turns out, the violence gets boring. Writer / artist Skottie Young doesn’t skimp on the blood, bone, or gore as Gertrude destroys anthropomorphic heavenly bodies, anthropomorphic animals, and anthropomorphic plants. (I think she has it in for things that look or act human-like but aren’t.) For variety, she also kills some giants. Gertrude’s violence on the page is mostly perpetrated against those who can’t fight back. Perhaps that’s why the mayhem’s appeal begins to pall after an issue or two. Most of the big fights — the ones against opponents who can fight back — happen between books or off-panel. Some bits of violence don’t grow old, though; I enjoyed Gertrude’s deadly attacks against the book’s narrators, especially once the narrators started to understand the peril they were in.

For many people, Young’s art is going to be the appeal. Young’s work is hyper-cartoony, with expressions and violence amped up to 11. Nothing is too small for him to exaggerate. (Young’s work in I Hate Fairyland is an amusing counterpoint to all his variant covers for Marvel, in which he draws cute versions of characters.) There’s no doubt Young is an outstanding visual storyteller; his art is clear, and he draws admirably clear battle scenes.

So I can’t fault Young as an artist at all. On the other hand, I’m more interested in the story and jokes.

Much like with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer, though, I have my doubts about Young as a writer. Given that I Hate Fairyland is labeled a mature book, I wish Young had done more with Gertrude’s emotional traumas. As written, Gertrude is a shallow character mostly concerned with vengeance against a world she feels wronged her. Shallow characters are fine, if the book is entertaining other ways, but I think developing Gertrude’s character would have served the book much better.

Other than her heartbreaking introduction in #1 and a moment in #2, when it’s revealed Gertrude has the sexual urges of a woman her actual age rather than her body’s apparent age, not much is done with her longings to be normal. (Later in the issue, Gertrude gives her sidekick, Larry, a long list of things she misses from her world, but that list reads as an indictment of Fairyland.) Gertrude’s story is tragic, and I think I Hate Fairyland would be much funnier if that were exploited more than the straight mayhem.

Another concern the book does not address is whether Gertrude can’t find her way home because she is incompetent or because of her attitude. There’s a great deal of difference about how we feel toward Gertrude depending on that answer. If it’s the latter, Gertrude is somewhat justified in her hatred of Fairyland. If she’s stuck in Fairyland because she can’t follow directions or figure out riddles — and that’s the way the text leans ever-so-slightly — then she’s just a violent boob, and her suffering is something she’s earned.

Certainly some of the page space could be repurposed to develop Gertrude more. A running subplot involves Queen Cloudia trying to get rid of Gertrude, who’s making a mess of her Fairyland; since Cloudia is a ho-hum villain, trimming some of those pages would improve the book. Also, Young spends eight pages on a gag where Larry lives an entire life — building a house, getting married, having kids, then getting divorced — while Gertrude is unconscious. It’s not a bad joke, but the amount of time that actually passes is unclear, and certain parts of the gag don’t land (why does Gertrude grow a beard while unconscious? why does Larry’s wife go from happy to angrily leaving him between panels?). I think those pages could have better been used elsewhere.

One joke that does not disappoint is the appearance of Happy, a girl Queen Cloudia brings to Fairyland in issue #4 to find the way out of Fairyland before Gertrude can. (Under the laws of Fairyland, this will allow Cloudia to attack Gertrude openly.) Happy is unremittingly cheerful, and her adventures show both the sickeningly sweet and childishly kind quests Gertrude is homicidally reacting against and also the way the quests should have been approached in the first place: with patience, compassion, and with childlike wonder.

After encountering Happy’s rainbows and cheerfulness, Gertrude decides she has to up her game, which is an argument that Happy (or another competent antagonist) should have appeared earlier in the book. This prompts Gertrude to approach one of the Seven Dooms and ask for his power to confront Happy. The tests he puts Gertrude through aren’t great, but what comes out of it is very satisfying.

Other than Happy and smashing the narrators, the book’s humor is hit and miss. Frequently, the characters substitute “cute” words for obscenities, but the results are more annoying than funny: “muffin-fluffer,” “hug off,” and “plush” are clunky rather than clever curse words. The violence stops amusing after the first issue or so. On the other hand, a few jokes, like Happy’s entire existence and a series of dialogue written as “blah blah blah” (she’s actually saying “blah blah blah,” not just running her mouth), are genuinely funny.

If you’re a fan of Young, you know you want this. If you are undecided about him, I’m torn over whether to recommend the book. On one hand, the plotting and pacing is mediocre, and the humor isn’t strong enough to make up for that. On the other, the book really picks up at the end, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. It’s possible Young is finding his groove, which means the next volume might be an improvement, and the experience of reading v. 1 could be improved by what comes after.

For the moment, though, I’m sticking with a dead-center, neither-approve-or-disapprove rating.

Rating: I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol (3 of 5)

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14 May 2016

Giant Days, v. 1

Collects: Giant Days #1-4 (2015)

Released: November 2015 (Boom! Box)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781608867899

What is this?: Esther, Susan, and Daisy deal with their first semester of college, and all its attendant problems: boys, the flu, boys, idiot university administrators, idiot boys, and girls.

The culprits: Written by John Allison and drawn by Lissa Treiman

I’ve followed John Allison’s web comics since the beginning of the century: through most of Bobbins, all of Scary Go Round, and everything to date of Bad Machinery. (Allison admits the weight of the comics he’s put out over 18 years is a bit daunting, so he wrote out a chronology / background of his universe of strips.) I’m a big fan of his strips, which have evolved away from strict joke-a-day comics and into more structured, long-term storylines that manage to combine humor, drama, and well-drawn characters. I can’t think of a webcomic writer I’ve followed as long as Allison.

I’m not trying to present myself as an uber-fan of Allison’s, although I admit to buying t-shirts and dish towels from Allison’s Topatco store, if that tells you something. I’m admitting all this to state my biases before I say Giant Days, v. 1, by Allison and Lissa Treiman is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve read in ages. It is consistently funny, occasionally touching, and always entertaining.

Giant Days, v. 1 coverIt’s not necessary to have read any of Allison’s work to understand what’s going on in Giant Days. Allison introduces the reader quickly and efficiently to Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooten, who have met as freshmen at a British university and have become fast friends. (Their earlier adventures, mentioned on page 2 of issue #1, were released as webcomics on Allison’s site, but they seem to have disappeared online. You can buy them at Allison’s Topatco store, though.) Daisy is home-schooled and naïve, quite fond of her grandmother; Susan is pre-med and determinedly practical. Esther, a featured character in Scary Go Round, is a pale Goth surrounded by a drama field.

I love all the characters in Giant Days. Do I like them so much because I’ve read them before? I dunno. Other than Esther, though, I haven’t read many stories featuring htem. I identify with the mousy Daisy and logical Susan; I can’t help being entranced by the spectacle that is Dark Esther, even if I’m still miffed she cheated on The Boy between Scary Go Round and Giant Days. I sympathize with McGraw, a former friend of Susan’s who rejected her romantic advances. I kinda sympathize with Ed Gemmell, who pines for Esther, but Esther is so out of Ed’s league his head would probably explode if she ever paid him the kind of attention he desires. (That’s not a slight on Ed; remember, Esther has that drama field around her.)

For those who have read Scary Go Round, Giant Days is much more grounded. SGR had plotlines that included bringing a cast member back from the dead, first as a zombie, then fully resurrected as a normal human; that cast member’s sister was transformed into a six-foot Amazon by spoiled off-brand Pepto-Bismol, then ensnared with a magic spell by a villainous headmaster and sent to hell by a different spell that wiped them both from everyone’s memory. Giant Days is a straightforward story of college life, although the stories are exaggerated in the way that all comedies are.

The biggest difference from Allison’s online work is that he isn’t providing the art. Instead, Treiman draws Allison’s creations, and the result is weird — an outstanding weird, but weird nonetheless. Treiman is a great artist, with a beautiful, fluid style and a great comic touch. Her art is vastly different than Allison’s, taking Allison’s character designs, then making the cast her own. She also has a great sense of when to exaggerate features and reactions, always going far enough but never so far that the characters seem to belong in a cartoon.

Allison’s work as a daily comic strip writer shows here. His later two webcomics have had long arcs while maintaining a steady stream of humor, and he adapts that approach to individual comic issues. Each issue is a complete story, with enough loose ends and character work to lead into the next issue, but Allison always remembers to be funny. The jokes are earned, never cheap jokes put into the mouth of a character who wouldn’t say it.

My only complaint is the ending of #3. Even by Giant Days’ / Allison-verse’s logic, I don’t think maternal displeasure has much effect on the kind of bros who objectify women. I admit, the bros’ comeuppance is welcome, but any sort of retribution they receive would be pleasing. Vengeance the protagonists participated in would have been even more satisfying.

My recommendation is to read / buy / steal / demand Giant Days. I feel remiss that I haven’t recommended it earlier, but, well — I blame my retailer, and he probably blames Diamond. I ordered it in January, and after four months of not getting the book, I took matters into my own hands and bought it from Amazon. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go get Giant Days now.

Rating: Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol (5 of 5)

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06 May 2016

Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man v. 4 #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9780785199427

What is this?: Parker Industries has offices around the world, and it looks like Peter’s finally a success. However, when PI is targeted by the Zodiac, the criminals seem to be one step ahead of Spider-Man …

The culprits: Writer Dan Slott and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli

I love the idea of Peter Parker finally succeeding. If he’s so smart — and he is, let’s face it: he invented web fluid and web shooters and electronic ankle bracelet monitors — eventually he has to achieve success in some way or die along the way. Unless you contrive an explanation for his lack of success, like a force of the universe being directed against him or him being a jerk, it makes no sense for a smart, moral person like Peter to be continuously a failure. For periods of time, yes, but not forever.

In Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1, Peter is the CEO of Parker Industries, which has become one of the premier technology companies in the world, with offices on three different continents. He’s working with SHIELD to keep the world safe, and he seems to have managed to keep his soul. This should be exactly what I want.

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1 coverThe problem is that I don’t know that Peter is such a success.

Parker Industries and SHIELD are under assault from Zodiac. Not only is Zodiac physically raiding Parker Industries and SHIELD facilities but they are also involved in a battle of wits with the heroes. Unfortunately, writer Dan Slott doesn’t give Spider-Man very many victories, as it seems the villains win every time. Spider-Man and SHIELD get only minor victories: foiling the robbery that starts the book, defeating an attack by Goblin Nation thugs in Africa, keeping some henchmen from completing employer-insisted suicide. Zodiac defeats Parker and SHIELD almost every time, making the heroes look, well, not very competent. Maybe Peter isn’t such a success after all …

It doesn’t help that Peter built his company during an eight-month gap after the end of the latest Secret Wars series. We don’t know how Peter built his company, what decisions he chose, what compromises he had to make, or why he’s working so closely with SHIELD. His success, then, feels unearned. And that, combined with his lack of success in Worldwide, v. 1, makes me think this version of Peter Parker will be going away sooner rather than later, which is a shame.

I do like some aspects of Worldwide. Bringing back Hobie Brown, the Prowler, to be Parker Industries’ head of security and a backup Spider-Man is a nice choice; Brown was an inventor as well as someone with a costumed identity. I’m not sure Brown is qualified for either job, but I believe it’s totally a choice Peter would make. (I can also see him hiring Rocket Racer as well. Fingers crossed!) Harry Osborn makes his return under an assumed name, but since he hasn’t changed his appearance — not even his hairstyle — I can’t see that working for long. A fellow student from Peter’s college days, Philip Chang, shows up in Parker Industries’ Shanghai office, and Clayton Cole, a low-level thug Spider-Man sent to Parker Industries in the previous volume of Amazing Spider-Man, is working in PI’s New York offices.

The subplots are intriguing as well. How did Dr. Octopus end up inside the Living Brain, and what’s his long-term plan? What will Norman Osborn — or someone posing as him — do after selling weapons in Africa? Who’s wandering around in a red suit, offering to return the loved ones of Spider-Man villains? I’m looking forward to seeing these subplots play out, and I’m betting it’s going to be a combination of Dr. Octopus and Norman who bring down Parker Industries after Zodiac weakens it. (I’d almost bet PI will be Marconi Industries by the end, headed by Doc Ock’s love interest, Anna Maria Marconi.)

I don’t like the introduction of Regent to the main Marvel Universe, though. Regent was the villain in the main Spider-Man mini in Secret Wars. He made an OK villain for a series in a universe that was going to be thrown away once the miniseries was over. In the main Marvel Universe, a villain that exists to drain minor villains and eventually become a powerful threat is a waste; why kill villains to power a supervillain who will be gone once the writers hit his climactic fight, then never return? (Of course, I thought writers would have the sense to never return to Morlun, but boy, was I wrong.)

But the subplots are mostly respites from the main plot. I don’t think Zodiac works well as a Spider-Man villain; the astrology-themed criminal organization generally take on teams, and Spider-Man is a poor team player. This brings up the question of why he’s working with SHIELD — it seems a poor fit, even if he has SHIELD’s worst impulses under control. The new Scorpio’s identity is supposed to be a big deal, but even though Scorpio has an important role outside his supervillain ID in the storyline, the actual reveal falls as flat as the naming of the female villain in Spider-Island. The Human Torch flips out too easily in #3; all it takes is the news that Parker Industries has moved into the Baxter Building to set him on a fiery rampage.

I’m indifferent to Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art. Something seems off about his faces; I think he has trouble with noses, or maybe it’s the space between the eyes. Mockingbird’s mask is awful; the Human Torch’s costume has been given a bustier outline for reasons I can’t possibly imagine. His Melinda May is hardly recognizable as Ming-Na Wen, and I’m only 30 percent sure that the guy I think is Agent Coulson actually is Coulson. Still, his action is fine, and even if his Spider-Man isn’t lithe or a contorted mess — both Hobie and Peter seem stockier than the usual Spidey — he’s still recognizable. (I really enjoy the old, stubby legged spider logo on Spider-Man’s back.)

I should like Worldwide. The premise is something I’ve wanted for years, and the story itself has many trappings I enjoy. But everything about the story seems slightly off. Do I really not want Peter to be a successful CEO? Or is it the execution itself that bothers me? I’ve made it clear I think it’s the execution, but I can’t shake the feeling I might be at fault.

I’m not going to let that doubt inflate the rating, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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30 April 2016

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6

Collects: Detective Comics #408-26 and Batman #229-44 (1971-2)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401251536

What is this?: A chunk of early ‘70s Batman stories, mixing the first appearance of Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins with forgettable stories.

The culprits: Writers Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, and others and pencilers Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others

When I reviewed Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5, I said the Bat-titles of the era were on the brink of something exciting. Batman and Detective Comics had shaken off the lingering funk of the Silver Age and were heading toward something much greater. So I was eager to read DC Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 — well, as eager as a person can get for a book after four years when you thought the book line was cancelled.

And — good news! — v. 6 is better than v. 5. But it’s only an incremental improvement, and the Bat-titles reprinted in this volume still feel like they are poised to become something different, something greater. They just aren’t quite there yet.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 coverYes, the Ra's al Ghul / Legion of Assassins story is sprinkled throughout the volume, but few other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery appear in the thirty-plus issues. Man-Bat and Two-Face each appear in one issue — with Two-Face beautifully drawn by Neal Adams — but each gets only as many issues as the embarrassing Ten-Eyed Man. Most of the stories are single-issue mysteries, often with a supernatural tinge, that go nowhere.

Those mysteries, whether they have a supernatural element or not, are v. 6’s biggest problem. Some of them (mostly those with occult touches) are set in exotic locations, like Waynemoor Castle in northern England; some of them are set in the gritty streets of Gotham. Unfortunately, whether Batman is taking on circus freaks, hicks, or Shakespearean actors in Gotham or elsewhere, these stories become monotonous. Despite being solidly constructed mysteries, their flaws become more readily apparent than their virtues after the third or fourth in a row. All the ghosts and haunted castles Batman investigates have as much real supernatural content as the average Scooby-Doo episode, which takes some of the suspense out of the story. Issues that try to be socially relevant, dealing with youth gangs and urban crime, devolve into over-the-top action sequences, like when a group of teenagers threaten to blow up an apartment tower to get their demands listened to.

As a side note, O’Neil’s frequent asides asking readers whether they picked up on whatever clues Batman used to solve the crime annoyed me — not because of the device itself but because the clues are so rarely available to the reader. If your mysteries aren’t fair play, you don’t get to taunt readers that they aren’t as smart as the detective.

That being said, the Ra's al Ghul stories are classics for a reason. Beautifully drawn by Adams and full of menace, Ra's is the one villain who seems to worry Batman, the only adversary who requires the World’s Greatest Detective to have long-term plans. Adding a new dimension to the stories is Talia al-Ghul, Ra's’s daughter, a love interest who presents a puzzle Batman can’t solve; despite his undeniable attraction to her, she is the daughter of the Demon as well as being ruthless and a remorseless killer herself. Additionally, these stories knock the Batman canon of this era out of its unmoving, unchanging placidity. Although the League of Assassins stories don’t affect the continuity of the rest of the book, the storyline’s progression gives the book a sense of passing time the stories don’t have otherwise.

Of course, it would be helpful if the cliffhangers in the League of Assassins storyline were followed immediately by their conclusions, but those issues are usually followed by unrelated issues from the other Batman title. I understand chronological order is important, but in a book like this, story coherence is more vital.

The art in v. 6 is outstanding. Adams provides covers for almost all the issues, and he draws about a quarter of the stories. This is Adams’s work at its finest: perhaps not as explosive as his work on X-Men a few years earlier, but each panel is beautiful, fully adapted to Batman’s world of shadows. The concessions he makes to Batman’s more grounded world makes his artwork tighter, more focused. Most of the remaining issues are drawn by Bob Brown and Irv Novick, both of whom worked with Adams on the previous volume. Neither is Adams’s equal, but both are solid artists with outstanding storytelling and an ability to fit the story into a many panel layout.

 coverScattered among the work by Adams, Brown, and Novick, the three issues drawn by writer Frank Robbins stand out, and not in a good way. Robbins is a good artist for a writer, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. (Robbins was primarily an artist in his career, but he splits the writing chores in v. 6 with O’Neil.) His style has a thick line and lacks the fluidity of the rest of the artists; even if he were a better artist, his work wouldn’t fit in v. 6.

One warning about this book: although it says it contains sixteen issues of Batman, that’s misleading. Two of the issues, #233 and #238, have only the cover reprinted because their contents are reprints. The covers of other issues of Batman and Detective promise back-up stories featuring Batgirl, Robin, or some other hero, but those aren’t included even though at least some of them are original stories.

On average, v. 6’s quality is only incrementally greater than v. 5. However, it contains so many iconic and important moments that it feels a great deal better at times. Nothing in v. 5 compares to shirtless Batman dueling Ra's al-Ghul, the first appearances of Ra's and his daughter, the first time Ra's is resurrected by the Lazarus Pit. I’ve read these issues before, in color, in Batman: Tales of the Demon, which was superior to v. 6 — and not just because Tales of the Demon was in color. Learning the context in which those Ra's stories initially appeared makes them more impressive, since the League of Assassins stories are nothing like the rest of the era. But actually reading those non-Assassin stories makes reading v. 6 feel like a chore at times, a bit of self-education that is unnecessary.

Still: shirtless Batman vs. Ra's al-Ghul. That fight was pretty awesome.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4 of 5)

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22 April 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #7-11 (2015)

Released: March 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785191674

What is this?: Rocket and Groot survive a frozen planet with poison wolves, then get a glimpse of the future; Rocket searches for the Halfworld Bible.

The culprits: Writer Skottie Young and artists Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade

You can expect a drop-off in quality when a popular artist stops drawing a title. It’s probably worse when that artist remains as writer.

Such is the case with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer. I have no idea how long Skottie Young planned to remain as writer / artist for the title — and I’m too lazy / disinterested to look it up — but after Rocket Raccoon #4, he gave up the artist part of his job to Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer coverThe result is a book that is significantly less interesting than what readers expected when they read Young’s Rocket Raccoon #1. The book is competently written — everything makes sense — but the story lacks the extra oomph that Young’s art supplies. The star is not playing to his strengths.

Young is not a polished writer. His plots are serviceable but unremarkable. The dialogue is not crisp or memorable, and I think we can all agree Rocket should never say “stupid fresh,” even if that expression is better than the “murdered you” he was using for a catchphrase. His Rocket makes a lot of references to Earth TV (including the season 6 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies for a space raccoon.

Young has three stories in the five issues of Storytailer: Rocket and Groot surviving on an ice planet for two issues, a glimpse of a possible future where Groot goes crazy, and a two-parter where Rocket finally gets to the bottom of his origins. The future story is pointless, and even Rocket remarks on the clichéd ending. The ice planet story is fine but very forgettable; introducing poisonous dire wolves as a threat to Groot’s survival is a nice complication, but Young is the one who decided Groot would be so hard to kill in the first place, so he doesn’t get any points from me on that score.

Storytailer’s ending is problematic, though. In the final two issues, Rocket gets a lead on the Halfworld Bible (called “Gideon’s Bible” in the original Rocket Raccoon limited series). He finds the bible, and with the help of another uplifted raccoon from Halfworld, he deciphers and reads his own backstory. (Again: why has he forgotten it? A footnote would be nice — I’m looking at you, assistant editors Charles Beacham and Devin Lewis.) Rocket then walks away from all of it — the explanation of his history, Halfworld, his fellow raccoon — because he feels it’s stupid. Which it is, but since I’ve read that story, I know it’s stupid in a daffily charming way. Denigrating the original Rocket Raccoon LS is needlessly insulting; that story, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Mike Mignola, hangs together as a memorable four-issue story, which is more than I can say for Young’s run. And if Young was going to make a callback to the original limited series, why didn’t he use a character from that story to help Rocket find the Halfworld Bible? Why invent a new character for Rocket to reject?

As I said in my review of A Chasing Tale, Young’s art is a secondary draw for me, but I felt its absence in Storytailer. Part of the problem with Young’s writing is that he’s writing for artists who aren’t named Skottie Young. Andrade is not up for drawing scenes with all the white figures and backgrounds in #7 and 8, which is a problem since those two issues take place on an ice planet. Andrade’s storytelling gets muddled at times, and it is especially difficult to distinguish what’s going on with all that white. (Maybe colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu is at fault, although Beaulieu did a fine job in the other issues.) Sometimes Young’s dialogue has to help Andrade out — like when Andrade is supposed to show eggs as big as Volkswagens, but nothing in the art hints at the eggs’ size.

I enjoyed Parker’s Rocket in issues #9-11, and his future Rocket in #9 is nice (although the scar over the eye and small bits missing from the ears is not the most original way to show “grizzled warrior”). But other elements of his art are lacking. A couple of times he’s supposed to depict amazing transforming machines, and the results are underwhelming. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high, but I think this could be traced back to Young — Young the Writer probably thought those transforming scenes would allow Parker to cut loose and draw something astounding, maybe even Kirby-esque. But Parker is a more intimate artist who excels at characters and expressions, and while his machinery is fine, that’s all it is: fine. The same goes for the scene in which Rocket is fighting his way to a teleporter in #10; this is supposed to be a big set piece, Rocket battling through all the obstacles in his way so he can get to the truth of his existence, but it boils down to a few scattered bodies as the actual moments of violence mostly happen off-page.

Storytailer is worse than A Chasing Tale, although not by much. (Your mileage will vary if Young’s artwork is a major draw for you.) Young trades Tale’s dismissal of women for a dismissal of Rocket’s origins; the former is more troubling in a societal sense, but since Young is working in a larger framework of the Marvel Universe, the latter bothers me more. Take that as you will; I suppose I’m inured to casual sexism in comics. The entire series is disappointing and slightly overblown, and I’m kinda glad Secret Wars ended it.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Half Rocket Raccoon symbol (1.5 of 5)

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15 April 2016

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5 (2013-4)

Released: March 2014 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607069454

What is this?: The mercenaries of Palisade are targeted for death, and four female adventurers — the eponymous Rat Queens — search for answers.

The culprits: Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch

I like fantasy settings, as everyone who has read my Conan the Barbarian reviews has guessed. (Why else would I keep reviewing them?) I like humor comics, or even comics that think they’re funny. But I am a bit of a Marvel zombie, which explains why I had yet to read Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery two years after it was released.

To be fair, I still wouldn’t have bought the book had I not needed something to get free shipping on an Amazon order with a birthday gift for my mother. But the price point was right, it sounded like fun, and I hate paying for shipping, so here we are.

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery coverRat Queens is set in a low-fantasy world, and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are not interested in extensive, Tolkien-like worldbuilding. The characters and institutions are given names that wouldn’t be remarkable in our world. The world is restricted to the city of Palisade and its environs, with a few hints of the world beyond: a magical college that Hannah, an Elven wizard, attended, and … well, wherever Dee, the priest, grew up. We see four civilized races — humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Smidgens, the Halflings / Kender / Gnomes of the world — but we don’t see what makes these races different from each other. (Dwarven females can grow beards, which … OK, is not that unusual.) The non-civilized races are generics: goblins, orcs, and trolls.

The entire book feels like an RPG that the players aren’t taking seriously. The protagonists are named Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty; other adventuring groups are named “the Four Daves” (the members are all named Dave), “the Peaches” (they all dress in peach-colored clothing), and “the Brother Ponies” (four guys with ponytails). The humor is usually sophomoric — no complex wordplay here — and the characters concentrate on (mostly) sanctioned killings, booze, drugs, cursing, and sex. If someone had told me Rat Queens was based on a real Forgotten Realms campaign set in a city like Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep, I would have believed it.

The humor is largely successful, even if it is unsophisticated. Being funny will make people forgive a lot of faults — just look at the women who date unattractive comedians — and that’s what happens here. Rat Queens is very self aware, knowing its fantasy RPG tropes and amping them up: gleeful carnage with grisly injuries, showing frustration rather than fear when confronted by unnecessary battles, not looking very hard at the shaky mechanics of divine spells. When the reader is laughing, it doesn’t matter that the setting looks like D&D splashed with whitewash or that adversaries are as deep as an oil slick but without the breadth. The book rarely takes itself seriously, and the jokes proceed at a healthy pace — because Anubis knows if they didn’t, readers would start looking around and wondering about the story.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the plot, but Old Lady Bernadette does point out a large flaw: the Rat Queens (and other mercenaries) get away with too much on their violent sprees. Readers customarily identify with the protagonists, but it’s hard to disagree with Bernadette. We see them inflicting major property damage without much punishment, and we’re left to infer that they don’t pay restitution; one of the Rat Queens tries to impersonate the head of the city guard and gets a few hours in jail, while another of the Queens robs the Merchants’ Guild and gets away with it. No wonder someone’s trying to kill them, since death is the only punishment that will stick, and it will actually make Palisade safer.

Wiebe doesn’t neglect giving the protagonists depth and backstory. We get a sense of each character: Hannah, the Elven mage and Rat Queens’ leader, is vengeful and powerful; Dee is a priest who doesn’t believe in the squid god who gives her spells; Violet, a Dwarven warrior, lacks repartee skills despite her preoccupation with what’s cool; and Betty, the Smidgen thief, is an amoral mushroom addict whose real problem, according to the woman she wants to date, is her awful friends. The characterizations fit well in a world that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Occasionally, however, the story will snap to a halt for a serious character moment — Violet’s conflict with her twin brother, Dee leaving her home and faith behind — before the plot’s gears grind, and the humor slowly ramps up again. (Hannah’s more serious moments with the captain of the guard, her ex, and Betty’s attempts at romance work much better, perhaps because they aren’t taken quite so seriously.) Some characterizations are unexplained (or perhaps unexplainable). Dee, the atheist priest, somehow develops a crippling, unexplained social anxiety between the book’s beginning, when she brawls and drinks in bars, and issue #5, in which the Rat Queens host a party. Betty is extremely perceptive but still wears an awful shirt. Hannah is described as “rockabilly” on the back cover. As she has no connection to music, and she seems neither a rocker nor a hillbilly, I have no idea what this can possibly mean. (Perhaps it’s a reference to her pompadour-like hairdo? I doubt many rockabilly musicians were heavily tattooed and wore corsets, though.)

Upchurch’s battles are a mixed bag. On one hand, he never skips on the violence and blood; these battles are savage and dangerous, and his art always communicates that. However, his battle choreography is frequently confused, as it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or to other landmarks.

Perhaps more contentious is his depictions of the Rat Queens. Blurbs on the back contain praise for the protagonists’ looks from the Mary Sue and CBR column / tag Comics for Girls. Each admires Upchurch’s ability to make the protagonists look like real women. I’m not sure of that; they look more like real people than the women in most superhero comics do, yes, but they are still abnormally attractive females, and they wear impractical, sexualized clothes — Hannah wears thigh-high boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier into battle (and the rest of the time, but it’s not quite as impractical in day-to-day life), while Dee always wears a loincloth that exposes most of her legs. Betty wears a top more suited to clubbing than adventuring. Even Violet, the practical one, has what appears to be boob armor from certain angles. Additionally, the characters are introduced in Sass and Sorcery in a series of pin-up poses. There’s nothing wrong with the way these women look, but it’s strange that Upchurch is being praised drawing characters who always wear the same sexy clothes, regardless of the situation. Agency solves the problems the humor doesn’t, I suppose.

I enjoyed Sass and Sorcery, enjoyed it enough to read the next volume. It’s fun! It’s as deep as a mud puddle and nowhere near as reflective, but even if that doesn’t change in future volumes, the series is still worth reading.

Rating: Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens half symbol (3.5 of 5)

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08 April 2016

Avengers West Coast: The Death of Mockingbird

Collects: Avengers West Coast #92-100, 102, Spider-Woman #1-4, and selections from Marvel Comics Presents #143-4 (1993-4)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 384 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785196891

What is this?: The Avengers West Coast fight Dr. Demonicus, the Lethal Legion, and the Power Platoon before disbanding; Spider-Woman learns the machinations behind her acquisition of powers.

The culprits: Writers Roy and Dann Thomas and artists David Ross, Andrew Currie, John Czop, Steven Ellis, and others

The first thing you need to know about Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird is that the title is a lie, a total lie, and Marvel knows it. Heck, by now, everyone knows it.

I suppose you can pull the Obi Wan route and say it’s true, from a certain point of view. But people who say that are, generally speaking, liars or weasels. It wasn’t Bobbi Morse, whom the Marvel Universe knew as Mockingbird, who died in Avengers West Coast #100; it was a Skrull taking her place. (As revealed years later, Bobbi was replaced during Avengers West Coast #91, which is reprinted in the Avengers: Ultron Unbound collection.)

Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird coverAnyway, that’s for the best, because Mockingbird’s death is unsatisfying. A long-time Marvel character who was getting back together with her husband, Hawkeye, Mockingbird was killed saving him from a stray spitball tossed by Mephisto. The death seems random, something in the “kill someone for shock value” line of superhero deaths — it was an anniversary issue, after all. Mockingbird had just saved Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, but her death seems more random than heroic; Mephisto didn’t have any specific hatred for her, didn’t even seem to be aiming at her. Anyone could have died. It just turned out to be Mockingbird.

The whole book feels of random — no, “unsettled” is a better way of putting it. Death begins with U.S. Agent and Hawkeye (calling himself Goliath at the time — just another bit of evidence that something is off) squabbling among the ruins of their headquarters; Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman each go off to find less destroyed housing, and the Living Lightning leaves the team. The AWC doesn’t even have a quinjet, having to beg one from Stark Industries a few issues later. Everything feels like it is falling apart; ten issues later, the West Coast HQ is still rubble, and team has been officially ended.

The stories in Death don’t help; they’re not very good, first off, and the team never seems to regroup. The Demonicus storyline takes a previous story, in which the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Dr. Demonicus created an island nation in the Pacific, and removes any sense of complexity from it. Demonicus and his super-followers are mind controlled by the demon Raksasa, start acting evil, import a population of foreign criminals, and even hijack a passenger plane while waiting for Raksasa to enter the world. If they hadn’t drawn attention to themselves with the hijacking or breaking Klaw out of jail, they might have gotten away with their plans (whatever they are), but instead Demonica is sunk. Literally.

The Spider-Woman issues are standard for a mid-’90s limited series: inconsequential and forgettable. The mini lasts only four issues, and one of those issues is devoted to retconning her origin story. The villains (Deathweb) are forgettable, even if they shouldn’t be, and the story combines ‘50s monster movie science with post-Watergate antigovernment paranoia in predictable ways.

In #98-100, Avengers West Coast reaches a nadir. The team is opposed by the Lethal Legion, four evil souls brought back from the dead to kill them. The AWC lose every time, which is bad enough, but the worst part is that writer Roy Thomas makes the members of the Lethal Legion real people — not based on real people, but actual historical personages. Axe of Violence, a woman with an axe for a hand, is Lizzie Borden; Cyana, who emits poison, is Lucretia Borgia; Coldsteel, a giant powerhouse all in steel, is Josef Stalin; and Zyklon, who flies in a suit of armor and emits poison, is Heinrich Himmler.

Yes, that’s right: the Avengers fight a real Nazi, named after the gas the Nazis used to kill a million people during the Holocaust. Making Stalin, a man who killed millions of his own countrymen, into a comic-book villain is questionable, although I admit comics do this with Hitler all the time. “Zyklon,” a name that evokes the Holocaust, goes over the line. Also, equating Stalin and Himmler with Borgia, who probably played politics a bit hard but probably didn’t engage in mass poisonings, and Borden, who may not have killed anyone and killed two people at most, is a tone-deaf mismatch.

That unsettled feeling that saturates Death was planned, I think. In a narrative sense, it leads to the main Avengers team trying to get rid of the West Coast branch. The East Coast branch’s dissatisfaction with the West Coasters isn’t foreshadowed at all, so the decision to shut down the West Coast branch comes out of nowhere. But the dissolution of the team is a natural consequence of the poor planning and shoddy superheroics that led up to it. In a corporate sense, Marvel used the closure as part of their push to cancel Avengers West Coast and replace it with Force Works. Unfortunately, Force Works was a downgrade, and about a year later, that title was still drawn into The Crossing, Marvel’s worst storyline ever. The title never recovered, sputtering to a halt a couple of issues later.

Death does have a few positive attributes. I enjoyed the Power Platoon, a group of solar-powered aliens who can’t speak any Earth language. They show up during the Infinity Crusade, when most of the team is off dealing with that crossover’s foolishness, and battle Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and War Machine. The eight members of the Power Platoon look similar, but each has a different power; their alien language allows them communication the heroes can’t understand, and their teamwork is excellent. The story ends with a sputter — the Power Platoon achieves its goal and then wanders off, while the Avengers decline to pursue — but it’s an enjoyable issue up until then.

RaksasaI also like the art of David Ross, who drew #93-5, 98-100, and 102. He shows excellent attention to detail, and action scenes are easy to follow. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his females aren’t gratuitous sex objects. Most impressively, he draws excellent demons; his Mephisto is nice, his Satannish is intimidating, and Raksasa — the only one of the three he designed — is truly impressive. In an era when Marvel’s demons tended toward Technicolor goblins of varying sizes, Raksasa is an alien, frightening, insectoid presence. With this facility for monsters, Ross would have been great on Conan, Marvel’s other Roy Thomas title. (He would have been wasted there, but he was wasted on AWC as well.)

The rest of the art — well, the less said, the better. You remember the ‘90s, and while none of this is as bad as the decade got, most of what is in Death looks like artists who weren’t quite ready for a big title. (To be fair, those artists drew a second-tier limited series, Marvel Comics Presents, backups, and fill-ins.) I’m sure they all did better work, in comics or out, and I’ll let it go at that.

Why reprint these issues? For completists. For those who want to see how a title that started so well finally ended, curling up on itself in a corner and dying. For those who like Ross’s art. But the resurrection of Mockingbird put an end to whatever emotional impact this book might have had, and it’s not recommended for non-Avengers fans.

And for Heimdall’s sake, don’t pick up the Force Works book. Death is the nadir of Avengers West Coast, but Force Works is even worse — and then it leads to The Crossing, which is the worst. Stop now. I beg you …

… although I admit if the price for a used copy drops low enough, I’ll eventually pick up Force Works. Completionism is my weakness, and I know it.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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01 April 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #233-40 (1990-1)

Released: December 2015 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616555894

What is this?: The adventures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Conan, his first girlfriend, and his best friend as they are stalked by a sorceress who wants to avert a prophecy.

The culprits: Writer Michael Higgins and pencilers Ron Lim, Gary Hartle, and Rodney Ramos

A collection with a name like Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories demands an impressive story. The Death of Conan should require a struggle against something huge, perhaps insurmountable — against an unbeatable monster, an undefeatable army, or even a struggle against the greatest enemy of all: fate itself. Ideally, The Death of Conan would feature an older Conan, one who has the maturity to see the stakes of his struggle, perhaps even doubting himself, if only for a moment. In other words, The Death of Conan should be more than just a shock to the reader; it should be a summation or at least an examination of the character.

None of this is true, of course. Chronicles of Conan, v. 30 gets its name from a single story in the collection (issue #238); the other seven issues are the “other stories.” Conan’s brief death is set in motion by a queen who is gone almost as soon as she proclaims Conan as a regicide. Although Conan heroically resists torture before his death, he has no agency beyond gritting his teeth at the lash. Perhaps worst of all, the story does not present an older Conan, whose death might have been presented as an event that will stick.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories coverNo, it’s only teenage Conan. Oh, yeah — these issues are all wasted. In fact, Death shows Conan’s first adventures, an origin story for a character who doesn’t need an origin story. Who’s going to believe a character is going to die in his origin story?

Even when the deceptive “Death” in the title is forgotten, the storyline is problematic. No one ever wanted the stories of Conan’s youth before “The Tower of the Elephant,” a Robert E. Howard short story set when Conan was a young thief. (That story was adapted in Conan the Barbarian #4.) Writer Michael Higgins does incorporate an earlier story Howard alluded to — the raid on Venarium — into Death. In Howard’s version, Conan is a young but fearsome warrior, leading the charge over the fortress’s walls. In Higgins’s version, he’s a young warrior who manages to convince a party of older raiders into waiting until his friend opens the gates from the inside. It’s a small difference, but it weakens Conan; why weaken Conan to build up his friend?

We all know Jorrma, Conan’s first friend, and his first love, Melanie (a Hyborean name if I ever heard one), are going to die. If Higgins is going to waste time with them, he has to go all out: he has to make sure they are as important as they can be, given that Conan never mentions them in the 230 issues leading up to this story. But Higgins doesn’t. His characterization is scant, at best. Melanie could be any bar wench, as she’s blandly accepting of Conan’s demand that she take third place behind his plundering career and Jorrma. Late in the storyline, Higgins hints she might fancy Jorrma instead of Conan, but that hint goes nowhere. Jorrma is used as a tool by Acegra, a witch who has manipulated his and Conan’s families for generations and who killed both men’s parents. Jorrma fears harming his best friend, but he’s jealous of Conan’s relationship with Melanie. He falls in love — love at first sight, a love that requires some psychic manipulation of the young girl — while a captive in Venarium; his love is killed opening the fortress’s gates, and then she is mostly forgotten, as is his mental tampering.

Even Conan doesn’t seem so impressed by Jorrma and Melanie. Conan isn’t broken up by the death of either. By the story’s climax, he’s fed up with Jorrma’s incompetence, which gets them captured more than once, and his betrayals. Perhaps by the end, he realizes he was better off without Jorrma, and top-heavy bar maidens like Melanie are not that uncommon. Or maybe he stoically kept his grief over Melanie to himself, seeking out a succession of bland wenches over the years because they remind him of Melanie.

The one-issue prelude to this storyline, #232, was collected in Chronicles of Conan, v. 29: The Shape in the Shadow. In that story, Conan’s grandfather had a lifelong rivalry with the ancestor of Conan’s future best friend; this eventually deadly rivalry was provoked by Acegra, a Ron Lim-designed sorceress. (I’m a fan of Lim, but if you know his art, you know exactly how this woman looked, and you’ll know it’s a bad fit for Conan.) Acegra drives most of the action in this book, creating pawns to kill Conan and his family. Despite her power, she gets involved in combat only once, and that is to kill Conan’s mother. If she had only killed Conan when he was a baby, then she would have been victorious.

But there was a prophecy. There’s always a prophecy, I suppose; in this case, Acegra and her brother, who is possessed by a demon, have a vision of a 30-year-old Conan standing over their dead bodies. But none of that comes to pass; Conan’s victory comes much earlier and looks nothing like what it did in the vision. Conan doesn’t kill them, either: it’s their catspaw, Jorrma, who slays them.

But that’s just one of the sloppy storytelling problems in Death. Higgins keeps lobbing goons into the story, random soldiers Acegra has implanted with a grudge against Conan and Jorrma. These are supposed to be people Conan and Jorrma have a friendly history with, but readers never see any of them before they begin their grudge matches … I think. It’s hard to tell. Using characters we’ve seen before would make their attacks on Conan more significant. In fact, Higgins could have re-used Dryden, a Cimmerian rival to Conan, or Balthus, a guard who blamed Jorrma for the fall of Venarium. The reappearance of either would have meant something. Instead, all the other non-Conans in the book mean nothing — we have nothing invested in them, and they fail to elicit the slightest emotion for their successes and failures.

The artists are somewhat at fault for my confusion about whether villains have reappeared, although I suppose the number of ways sweaty, disheveled thugs can be drawn is somewhat limited. Lim (#233-5) is a poor match for Conan, with his smooth lines and streamlined designs; the grime and grit of the Hyborean Age can’t stick to his characters. Gary Hartle (#237-40) and Rodney Ramos (#236) are much better matches with the source material, but neither of them are standouts. I can imagine either having a successful run on the title, but being saddled with Higgins’s run is a recipe for forgettability. (Hartle continues with Roy Thomas, who will write Conan until its cancellation, after this arc.)

In #240, the story mercifully ends, with Justin Arthur (Thomas’s pseudonym) wrapping up the story with a climactic battle. Thomas also provides a framing sequence in which King Conan and his wife discuss how much of the story Conan, who was telling the tale to his son, was exaggerating or just lying about. Less obvious ways for a writer to denigrate his predecessor’s work exist, but given how bad Higgins’s run is, I can’t blame Thomas for telling readers to forget about it. I wish I could too.

Rating: Half Conan symbol (0.5 of 5)

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25 March 2016

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places

Collects: Secret Six v. 3 #1-6 and DC Sneak Peek: Secret Six #1 (2014-5)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401254858

What is this?: A new Secret Six! Five criminals and a PI are hunted by the mysterious Mockingbird, who wants some information from him. Who is he, and what does he want?

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and artists Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, and Tom Derenick

It has to be natural to make comparisons when you’re reading a title that has been recently rebooted, like Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places.

I’ve read most of writer Gail Simone’s run on Secret Six — the final volume, Caution to the Wind, will come out next month — and it’s hard not to compare Friends to that run. Frankly, it was hard for me not to mix-up the two different versions of the team. I’m not sure whether the source of that disorientation is the reboot or the book itself — but I’m leaning toward Friends.

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places coverIn Friends, four villains (Catman; the newest Ventriloquist; Strix, a Talon from the Court of Owls; and new character Porcelain), a superpowered teenager (Black Alice), and a private investigator (Big Shot) are tormented and hunted by Mockingbird. Why? Mockingbird is coy about the reason, imprisoning them and asking, “What is the Secret?” They escape (without answering) and form a team of sorts.

Mockingbird claims to be an arch-criminal, but his plans are haphazard at best. He’s looking for a stolen diamond, but he doesn’t ask about the gem. He’s trying to protect his identity, sure, but he’s dealing with criminals, a teenager, and a private investigator; he’s asking for “the Secret,” yet it’s hard to imagine a more secretive yet stubborn group. Everything is a secret with them. Mockingbird sends a team, led by Scandal Savage, to track and fight the new Six, although it’s unclear what he hopes to achieve. He and Scandal hope the Six will be re-imprisoned, but Mockingbird has a mole in the group, which he uses almost immediately after the fight to draw the team into a … trap, of sorts. (The trap is he threatens to blow everybody up, including his putative fiancée and himself, if he doesn’t get what he wants. I’m not sure why it’s effective.)

It doesn’t help that Scandal’s team doesn’t seem interested in fighting the Six, despite Mockingbird threatening to use hostages against the Scandal. Nor does it help that the team — Scandal, Silver Banshee, and Ragdoll — were all members of the pre-reboot incarnation of the Secret Six. During the entire fight, part of me was bothered that those three were fighting against Catman.

The fight scenes don’t raise the stakes; instead, they seem to lower them. The scrap between the Six and Scandal’s team is frequently amusing, but no one’s heart seems to be in it, and Scandal unilaterally ends the fight by walking away. (She also doesn’t seem interested in the obvious next move of joining forces against Mockingbird.) The final fight between the Six and Mockingbird’s forces is desultory at best; Strix takes out Mockingbird’s men in a few panels, and the rest of the fight is the team reluctantly turning on Mockingbird’s mole despite having more effective options other than fighting among themselves. Perhaps this is intentional; the Six have no tactician, and they’re mostly people whose first and last recourse is fighting. It doesn’t make the book entertaining to read, though.

The art doesn’t help the fight scenes. Ken Lashley’s work on the Six’s escape from Mockingbird in the second issue is a few chaotic panels followed by a declaration of victory, while Tom Derenick’s art for the final fight lacks dynamism. Derenick tries to give a demonstration of Strix’s fighting style on a single page, but the horizontal layout makes the fight into a sidescroller, with that old video-game logic: antagonists come out of nowhere, they could possibly spawn forever, a character might not be something you can fight, and the fight ends arbitrarily. The battle in #3, which takes place in Big Shot’s suburban home, is much better, but it’s played for laughs, and there’s always a sense everything is being held back.

In the first two issues we should ideally be meeting the team and seeing how the members relate to one another. However, those issues feel disorganized; the first issue is mostly about Catman, how he was captured by Mockingbird and how poorly he fares in captivity. (His actions when he meets the rest of the Six in #1 have little to do with how he relates to them later on.) Issue #2 has many flashbacks to Catman’s captivity — no, not this captivity, but the captivity before that, the one we didn’t know had occurred. The double captivity is confusing, and the lack of issue labels doesn’t help; since the book includes a “Sneak Peek” issue, and I assumed one of the first two issues was that issue — something loosely connected to the regular series but that might not match up well to its continuity. Getting captured twice by Mockingbird makes Catman look like a chump, but the focus on Catman in these issues gives the impression Secret Six will be Catman and the Kitties Five, something the rest of Friends doesn’t dispel.

The book does have a lot of things going for it. Simone’s sense of humor is still appealing, and with a few less faults, that humor might have won me over. The other characters are types, but entertaining ones. Big Shot is the straitlaced suburbanite, unwilling to curse (or to have others curse) around ladies. The Ventriloquist is a Norma Desmond-type, believing the spotlight will find her and her dummy, the seemingly sentient Ferdie. Strix is silent, phonetically writing all her communications on a pad of paper and completely unable to guess what is socially acceptable. The “writing on paper” gag becomes impractical many times — who would let her write during combat? — but I’m willing to accept it for now. More concerning is that Strix is identified as a Talon for the Court of Owls, but neither “Talon” nor “Court of Owls” is explained. I know what they are, but a footnote would have been nice. I don’t think DC does footnotes any more, though.

Big Shot’s relationship toward Black Alice quickly becomes paternal. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Scandal Savage and Bane in the previous volume of Secret Six, but that’s all it is: an echo, a parallel, an allusion. The relationship differs in many important ways: Big Shot and Alice are relatively nice people, which Scandal and Bane were not; Alice is young enough and Big Shot not so controlling that the relationship doesn’t have any creepy overtones; and most importantly, Alice enjoys Big Shot’s protectiveness. Their scenes together are sweet.

Porcelain is an afterthought. We learn the character’s basic powers — making hard matter brittle — and we’re told the character is trans to some degree, shifting from presenting a female to male persona to the world. We never discover if that’s a normal, real-world transition or if it is something in Porcelain’s powers. It hardly matters, since we see Porcelain as male only for a brief moment in issue #3. Unlike the others, we learn little of Porcelain’s personality. In the big fight scene, Porcelain is knocked out between issues #5 and 6, as if either Simone or Derenick had forgotten Porcelain was unaccounted for at the end of #5 but didn’t want to spend the necessary time showing what happened.

As revealed by my comments above, I’m not enamored of the art. Lashley draws the first two issues plus a few pages of the third. His work is atmospheric, but it lacks the detail needed to plant long-term hints; it’s hard to tell, for instance, that the singer on the first page of #1 is the same character who hits Catman with a taser a few pages later. Derenick (parts of #3 and #5, and #6) and Dale Eaglesham (Sneak Peek, #4, and part of #5) have much clearer styles. Their work is complementary, similar enough that I sometimes miss the handoff between them. I enjoy the clear lines and clear action both of them supply, but as I noted before, their fight scenes lack a certain vitality. I can’t decide whether that’s because the fights are written as pro forma, or if the art is the reason the fights seem so lackluster.

Friends is a disappointing book, but it’s not without promise. I’ll probably pick up the next volume, but I may not pre-order it. (I’m assuming the DC Universe didn’t re-reboot before the next six issues were released.)

Rating: Secret Six skull symbol Secret Six skull symbol (2 of 5)

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18 March 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #1-6 (2014-5)

Released: October 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785190455

What is this?: Rocket Raccoon of the Guardians of the Galaxy endures space jail and an army of ex-girlfriends while trying to discover what happened to “his people.”

The culprits: Skottie Young, with artist Jake Parker (#5-6)

Since Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer will be released next week, I thought I’d look back at Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale. Relevance!

For most readers, the book’s appeal lies in Skottie Young’s artwork. Young, who drew #1-4 and wrote the entire book, certainly gives readers hyper-cartoony action and violence, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Not that Young’s style looks anything like old Warner Brothers animation, but it does have the expressiveness, flexibility, and humor of those cartoons.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale coverYoung’s art often lives up to its reputation for imaginativeness. The prison escape montage is excellent. The sea-creature visuals surrounding Rocket’s accomplice Macho are creative and cohesive; I especially like the fish-like creature who swallows Macho’s ship, then spits it out at the other end of a hyperspace warp. Young sneaks in a few funny Easter eggs as well, like a box marked “John Woo props” in the middle of a gunfight.

Sometimes the art fails to live up to that standard, though. The aliens all look like humanoids, blobs, or animals; I’m not sure what else they can look like (clouds? Mechanical items?), but I feel confident Young could come up with something more unusual if he tried. (The strangest alien in Chasing Tale is Xemnu the Titan, a long-time Hulk villain Young uses in #2.) The ship designs are a bit boring as well. The sound effects Young adds are not as funny as the ones in Hercules — or as funny as Young thinks.

But I am not interested in Rocket Raccoon because of Young’s art. It’s nice to look at, but I’m a fan of the character Rocket — both Bill Mantlo’s original creation, with his anthropomorphic animal friends and stupid Beatles puns, and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s sardonic, violent space warrior. The latter is in Chasing Tale, but the more I learn about him, the less I like him.

Young’s Rocket has a habit of swindling and leaving women he has bedded. He uses the idiotic catchphrase “Murdered you” that Bendis came up with in the new Guardians of the Galaxy series. (It’s possible Young might be using the phrase ironically; that doesn’t make it better.) Rocket learns no lessons from his bad behavior. What’s worse, he spends time angsting about his origins …

Once upon a time, Rocket’s origins were simple. He was an uplifted raccoon, meant to amuse the inmates on Halfworld, a mental asylum planet. When the psychiatric professionals left, Rocket and his animal pals were elevated to caretakers of the Loonies. Halfworld had a lot of uplifted animals, but none of them seemed to be of the same species; given that Rocket (then known as “Rocky”) was in charge of Halfworld, he would have known whether any other raccoons existed. But in Chasing Tale, he’s looking for others like himself (one of whom seems to exist) and Gideon’s Bible, the legendary artifact of Halfworld. What happened to Rocket’s memories of Halfworld? Why doesn’t Rocket know where any his old friends or the Loonies are? Why doesn’t Rocket know why Blackjack O’Hare hates him? (And why does Blackjack say it was over an employment dispute, since the two frequently fought on Halfworld?) Would it have killed editor Sana Amanat — or assistant editor Devin Lewis, who signed the lone footnote in the book — to give us a damn footnote explaining some of this?

The villains in Chasing Tale are all weak or problematic. The women Rocket wronged are both. They are all portrayed as unhinged, as jokes. Their leader tells Rocket that women’s pain isn’t treated as seriously as men’s; she’s right, but saying that doesn’t mitigate Young making light of their pain in Chasing Tale. (I mean, look at that pun in the title!) Rocket ruined their lives, and his only punishment is a few punches that he takes without complaint (and community service). That’s not enough; Rocket not only seduced and left the women, but he took their money, which caused them to lose their social status. Rocket manages to pummel an army of exes, despite their armaments and large ships, and still have something left over for Blackjack.

Every other villain is merely a speedbump for Rocket on the way to the end of the story. Without a clear view of continuity, Blackjack is only an opportunity for Young to draw a murderous bunny, not an opportunity to explore an existing relationship. The rest of Rocket’s antagonists are done away quickly and as a joke — huge person (with or without a gun) threatens Rocket, Rocket thrashes huge person. Ha! Ha?

Groot’s haphazard evolution as a character continues here, with the Guardians of the Galaxy movie providing the impetus for his new directions. In Chasing Tale, Groot can regrow from a splinter. Repeatedly. In a few hours. This ability reduces the stakes to nothing when Groot is in danger. And since when can Rocket (and the other Guardians) understand Groot? I think it’s a poor choice; Rocket’s responses to “I am Groot” aren’t funny enough to justify the change. Groot’s impenetrability was an aspect of his character I appreciated. Issue #5, in which Groot tells a bunch of kids a story, illustrates the superior comedic potential of not being able to understand Groot. The kids’ mystification is great, and the story’s entire dialogue consisting of repeated “I am Groot” communicates that confusion to the reader while the art tells the story.

Young is trying for a lighthearted tone in Chasing Tale, and despite the missteps I mentioned above, often he succeeds. Rocket quoting Earth movies to the space police during an interrogation at the beginning of #2 is amusing, although Young undercuts the joke by explaining it on the next page. The entirety of #5 is hilarious, and I especially enjoyed the Deadpool cameo. The payoff in #6 is a nice touch as well. But sometimes the violence and humor sit uneasily next to each other, especially when Young doesn’t quite nail the joke.

Jake Parker drew #5 and 6, and I prefer his work to Young’s, actually. His work on Groot’s tale in #5 does a better job telling the story than all but a few of the wordless ‘Nuff Said issues Marvel did in 2002. Parker’s art seems more in line with the funny animal aesthetic that covers Rocket’s backstory and the ideas Young’s story undercuts. Parker’s work isn’t as dynamic as Young’s, and it’s not as exaggerated; in fact, Parker looks like he’s strongly influenced by Bill Watterston, who wrote and drew Calvin and Hobbes. This gives Parker’s issues a touch of innocence that works well with Groot’s story in #5 and with Cosmo’s scenes in #6.

Chasing Tale has a lot of energy and a decent amount of humor going for it; if it was a story about a new character, I’d probably enjoy it more. Readers familiar with Rocket from the last few years or only the movie might love it, although that won’t get them past how Young treats Rocket’s exes. Storytailer might make this book better in retrospect by explaining Rocket’s history, but no matter what happens, I can be sure of this: I don’t care if Rocket is the last of his kind.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Rocket Raccoon symbol (2 of 5)

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11 March 2016

Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: The Return of the Sinister Six

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #334-50 and Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth GN (1990-1)

Released: February 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 504 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785196914

What is this?: Spider-Man fights the Sinister Six, Chameleon, Dr. Doom, Venom, the Black Tarantula, Boomerang, Rhino, and Scorpion.

The culprits: Writer David Michelinie and artist Erik Larson

Although I would not say Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: Return of the Sinister Six collects a classic run, I enjoyed reading it a great deal. I liked the book for simple reasons: the stories were relatively well told, from an era before the ‘90s comic-book madness shattered the way comics stories were told, and they were (mostly) new to me.

These stories seem custom-made to kindle the flame of nostalgia within the reader’s breast. Writer David Michelinie cozies up to the past over these issues; almost all the villains he uses are ones who have faced Spider-Man before, in one form or another. He reunites the Sinister Six for the first time since 1964, and he uses a parade of familiar Spidey foes: Chameleon, Scorpion, Rhino, Boomerang, the Black Tarantula … Even Mary Jane’s stalker has stalked her before.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: Return of the Sinister Six coverErik Larsen’s art will make or break the book for most readers. Larsen’s style is reminiscent of Todd McFarlane’s, whom Larsen succeeded on Amazing Spider-Man. Larsen draws similar spaghetti-strand webbing and contorted-yet-graceful poses for Spider-Man. (Well, they contrive to be graceful, but in many of them, Spider-Man is folded up in ways that can’t be comfortable.) He doesn’t quite have McFarlane’s immense capes, although that’s mainly because Spider-Man doesn’t have a cape, and neither do most of his villains. (Dr. Doom has a voluminous cape, but it doesn’t figure into many panels, and besides, it’s Dr. Doom, who can get away with huge capes.)

Larsen’s style is often cartoonish. As I said, his Spider-Man is often contorted in his postures, but other characters get distorted for effect as well. Dr. Octopus’s arms seem to stretch for miles, the equal of Spider-Man’s web lines, although the arms get more tangled. The cartoonishness is a virtue when it comes to Venom, a character who was created by McFarlane to be frightening, not realistic; the strange proportions and distended jaws increase Venom’s alien, fearsome qualities. Usually, Larsen’s exaggerations are a visual quirk, something readers get used to in time. However, it’s always distracting with women, especially Mary Jane. She is a caricature of femininity: perpetually pouty lips, large breasts in tight dresses and tops, long legs in short skirts that accentuate her callipygian form. Making Mary Jane into a super pin-up accentuates the problem that so many editors and readers made about Spider-Man having a supermodel for a wife: If Peter has married a woman so attractive, then he’s less the everyman.

Larsen’s style is not an unusual look for women in comics, but his art emphasizes the negative aspects of the practice. Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, is Mary Jane’s silver-haired twin, although her lips aren’t so pouty. Since the Black Cat has powers and is a superhero (of sorts), it’s arguable that she should be drawn on a larger-than-life scale — I don’t like the argument, in this case, since most of those exaggerated characteristics are large breasts, big hair, and a shapely lower half, but it is a line of thought. But women other than Mary Jane and Felicia — the Chameleon’s arm candy, Mary Jane’s co-stars on the soap opera she acts in — are drawn similarly, which makes them more dull than titillating.

The plots themselves are simple superhero stories told satisfyingly, for the most part. I don’t fault Michelinie for unoriginality; when he gets his most original, with Dr. Octopus’s ultimate goal for getting the Sinister Six back together, the logic can become tenuous. (Lacing the atmosphere with a cure for cocaine addiction, then expecting addicts to pay to get addicted again? I dunno, man — why not just deal cocaine?) Michelinie seems to pull out the stops for Venom’s two-issue battle with Spider-Man (#346-7), with a fight that has actual tension that’s lacking in the rest of the book. Michelinie always shines with Venom, creating an adversary for Spider-Man who displays an extra level of viciousness and is more than a credible threat for the hero.

The lack of originality in the rest of the book is acceptable, given how badly originality can go awry. (See “Saga, Clone.”) Spider-Man — all superhero comics, really — have succeeded by using and reusing tried and true antagonists, and the villains in this collection are all used in serviceable ways — goons, mostly, giving Spider-Man credible sparring partners while he works out the larger moral implications or plots. There’s nothing earthshattering about these fights; they’re comfort food for a Spider-Man nostalgist.

The Sinister Six’s reunion unfortunately is underwhelming. I can hardly believe no writer had reunited the group since Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, way back in 1964. (Given how often groups “sinister” groups have formed since 1990, the Sinister Six should have gotten together at least once in the quarter century between Annual #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #337.) The story should have been more momentous; instead, Dr. Octopus spends half the six-issue storyline gathering the team, then another issue prepping for his grand plan. The Six is in action together for only one issue before Dr. Octopus betrays them, and they all go in their separate directions.

Larsen and Michelinie aren’t entirely using old ideas. Cletus Kassidy, the serial killer who becomes Carnage, makes his first appearance here, and the symbiote’s later appearance is teased. Cardiac, a vigilante doctor with a grudge against a chemical company, also debuts in this book. After Michelinie left the book, he gets forgotten, and it’s not hard to see why. His costume and energy blast effect, with their cool blue color schemes and jagged lines reminiscent of a heart monitor, are nice bits of design, and his alter ego as a doctor has some potential. But it doesn’t come together into anything intriguing, here or anywhere else.

I mentioned that even Mary Jane’s stalker was reused, but giving Mary Jane an antagonist she faces by herself is remarkable. Spider-Man’s core supporting cast — Mary Jane; Aunt May and her fiancée, Nathan; Flash and his girlfriend, the Black Cat — each have things to do separate from Spider-Man himself. Michelinie can be faulted for paring down the supporting cast to those characters and those he works with in his grad student lab (those characters aren’t given much room to grow), but at least he doesn’t neglect the important characters.

Michelinie’s Mary Jane is a delight, especially when compared to the problems later writers had with her characterization. She gets her own battles to fight, she has her own career, and she is a supporting spouse to Peter. She argues with him when she thinks he’s wrong, but she’s not petulant about it. Perhaps she too easily gives in to Peter’s rationalizations, but it’s better than creating pointless drama by having her object to everything Peter does.

Charles Vess contributes an original graphic novel to this collection: Spirits of the Earth, which I didn't even know existed before this collection came out. After reading it, I can understand why; the story is slight, and Vess’s art, as pretty as it is at times, can’t compensate. It reads like story written to justify a vacation: an exotic location (the Scottish Highlands) that Spider-Man fits into badly and should blow his secret identity. (In actuality, Vess had visited Scotland frequently.) Tying the story into the wider Marvel Universe by placing the Hellfire Club behind the evil plot mitigates the incongruity of Spider-Man in the Highlands somewhat, but the small concession to the shared MU can’t compensate for the incongruous yet forgettable story.

Return of the Sinister Six is a book for fans of Spider-Man and Erik Larsen. But even general fans of other superhero comics will find parts of the book to enjoy. I doubt anyone would fall in love with Spider-Man or any other member of his cast from this book, but it’s good enough to spend a diverting few hours with.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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