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

18 November 2016

Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther's Rage

Collects: Fantastic Four #52-3 and Jungle Action #6-24 (1966, 1973-6)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9781302901905

What is this?: The Black Panther, ruler of the African nation of Wakanda, deals with Erik Killmonger’s rebellion, then goes to America and fights the Ku Klux Klan

The culprits: Writer Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, with help from Jack Kirby and Gil Kane

The ‘70s Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther’s Rage was the Black Panther’s first chance to step into the spotlight alone, and the result is simultaneously ahead of its time and firmly of its time period.

Panther’s Rage is ahead of its time because the Jungle Action run is one long story, in which the Black Panther has to deal with a rebellion in Wakanda led by Erik Killmonger, plus the beginning of another. Such long-form stories were uncommon in the ‘70s, although they weren’t unheard of. Also, having the entire cast be people of color was almost unprecedented in a mainstream comic. On the other hand, writer Don McGregor’s narration is very much like some of his more ambitious ‘70s contemporaries: verbose, contemplative, philosophical, and very, very purple.

Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther’s Rage coverMost contemporary readers are likely to be struck by the latter rather than the former. When characters can talk to one another, breaking the monotony of a single voice, McGregor’s insistence on making abstract arguments is bearable, even interesting. But when the Panther is on his own, fighting Killmonger’s lieutenants single-handedly, the page is crowded with narrative boxes, making the book a chore to read. Even dialogue doesn’t always help; by the end, McGregor gives newspaper reporter Kevin Trublood long monologues about America and haranguing lectures about racism that drag on and on without advancing the story or McGregor’s theses.

McGregor gives the reader passages like this:
Cruelty. It’s a word you understand like the word pain … You give it a vague definition and file it away, hoping you never have to learn what the word really means. He wishes the torture weren’t so mindless, that it had a point, a reason that would justify such inhumanity. But reasons are scarce … more for fiction than life.” — Jungle Action #15 (p. 205)
That’s two panels on a five-panel page, and it’s a good example of the verbiage that crowds the page. It’s not badly written, and we can argue about how original its insights are; it’s definitely dense, though, and I find it overwritten. (And who bolded “vague definition”? Those are the least interesting words in the quote.) McGregor isn’t interested in subtlety, but when he does opt for that route, it can be effective; for instance, the death of a bird trapped in a substance Killmonger uses to capture dinosaurs is among the most moving moments in the book, even though the bird is in only three panels with minimal narration.

With other writers, this sort of narration might be a sign of the writer’s lack of confidence in the artist, but I think McGregor works well with Rich Buckler and Billy Graham. I think McGregor lacks confidence in art in general, though. (And in Black Panther himself: I’ve never seen Black Panther get defeated as often as he does in this book. I mean, a cop pistol whips Panther in a supermarket, for Priest’s sake.) McGregor wants adjectives and adverbs, intensifiers and modifiers, that the art just can’t provide. Plus, no artist can draw an interior monologue with narrative philosophical digressions, and that’s what McGregor ladles onto the page.

McGregor needed someone to edit his work, to rein in his excesses and focus his story onto more interesting areas. But editor Roy Thomas was not that person, and it wasn’t Marvel’s style at the time to put limits on the writers of its fringe titles.
Among Marvel’s ‘70s output, this sort of writing was the norm, with writers like Steve Gerber and Thomas himself contributing ornate prose and socially relevant scripts. At worst, this crop of writers came across as Stan Lee knockoffs who tried to prop up weak superhero stories with grabs at social relevance that didn’t go far enough or were obvious at the time. At best, they become critical darlings, but it isn’t their prose alone that achieves that reputation; some experimentation in character or format was necessary to set the book or writer apart.

Does the long-form storytelling qualify Panther’s Rage as experimental enough to overcome the similarity to other Marvel writing at the time? I don’t think so. The Panther’s Rage storyline lasts from #6 to #18, more than two years of publishing time. (Jungle Action was bimonthly at the time.) Black Panther often loses sight of the overall picture, so the linked stories feel like more of an attempt to line up new adversaries for Panther rather than constructing a coherent story; Panther battles Killmonger’s lieutenants from #8 to #10 and #12 to 16 rather than addressing the leader of the rebellion or the people’s discontent. Nothing links these henchmen — who have names like Venomm, Malice, Baron Macabre, Karnaj, Sombre, and Salamander K’ruel — to the overall struggle. In only three issues does Black Panther seem willing to engage Killmonger’s forces with resources beyond his own brawn and muscle. In the end, McGregor’s run suffers in comparison to Ta-Nahisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s current Black Panther, which covers similar ground with more coherence and focus.

On the other hand, I can’t deny McGregor is writing a story with a Black protagonist and a nearly completely Black supporting cast, both allies and villains. These supporting characters aren’t just hanging around; McGregor does an excellent job juggling their subplots and developing these new characters. Monica Lynne, the Panther’s African-American girlfriend, has to deal with a culture in which people look like her but she is still an outsider. Taku, the Panther’s communication officer, is a kind soul who even befriends Venomm, reforming the captured villain (to an extent). Two of Killmonger’s henchmen, Tayete and Kazibe, are used for comic relief throughout Panther’s Rage; the humor is not in keeping with the book’s tone, but it is a welcome change of pace. (Also: their scenes have a welcome thinning of narrative boxes.) McGregor also gives us a long (and distracting) subplot in which the head of Panther’s palace security, W’Kabi, and his wife drift apart, which makes me suspect McGregor himself was going through a breakup or he was watching someone close go through one.

The issues between the end of the Panther’s Rage story and the book’s cancellation are as mixed as the rest of the book. The Black Panther vs. the Ku Klux Klan is an intriguing idea, and the mystery over who killed Monica’s sister should drive the book forward. But in its final five issues, the mystery goes nowhere, McGregor adds in a non-Klan group to muddy matters, and an inordinate number of pages are used up by the speechifying Trublood and irrelevancies. On the other hand, watching Panther in a small Southern town has promise, and the issue in which Monica mentally inserts Panther into a Reconstruction-era lynching story is an excellent illustration of what it means to have a hero of color.

The art, provided by Buckler (#6-8) and Graham (#10-22, 24), is solid throughout. I prefer Buckler from an aesthetic viewpoint; his layouts are cleaner and larger, easier to follow, and his linework is much easier on the eyes. (Gil Kane does a fill-in on #9, and his work meshes with Buckler’s much better than his successor’s.) However, Buckler’s work does have its flaws. I can’t help but be distracted by how far apart Buckler draws people’s feet in action shots — their groins must be in constant agony, given how widely their legs are spread. More concerningly, he creates a Wakanda that is much more tribal than is shown later at Marvel. The whole of Wakanda is made up of thatched huts, Black Panther’s palace, and a hospital; no one but the Panther and a few supervillains wear pants, with most of other characters having grass fringes around their legs or waists somewhere. I understand the Wakandans are supposed to be isolated, but some of them have probably heard of trousers and wooden houses and would be curious.

Graham doesn’t have much choice but to follow Buckler’s lead on costuming and setting, unfortunately, and when some sci-fi trappings could be integrated into the art, he mostly misses the chance. Also unfortunate is his propensity for denser, more crowded layouts; McGregor’s words need room, and his art constricts their space. Fortunately, he has more of a chance to show the fantastic (mostly unexplored and undeveloped) areas of Wakanda. The frigid peaks and sultry jungles look good, although incorporating a Lost-World area with dinosaurs is a boring choice. Oh, sure: The Wakandans have no idea dinosaurs are living in their backyard. (That was probably McGregor’s decision, but incorporating dinosaurs into a comic is usually blamed on the artist.) Graham often works issue titles or words into the art; sometimes this works (such as on opening splash pages), and sometimes it’s baffling, like when “Epilogue” appears as a cloud in the closing panels in the final issue of Panther’s Rage.

The bonus material is more interesting than usual for a large collection like this. In addition to the standard unfinished art and previous versions of covers and pages already collected in the book, Panther’s Rage also includes five rough pages of the never-finished Jungle Action #25. McGregor supplied pictures of himself (and one of himself and Graham), which adds an unusually humanizing touch to the work. McGregor also provided pictures of the envelopes he stored material related to each issue in; the exterior of each envelope had notes to himself, including themes, ideas for other stories, and possible dialogue. Collection editor Cory Sedlmeier deserves a great deal of credit for compiling this unusually entertaining package.

On the other hand, I would have preferred a reprint of Avengers #62 (reprinted in Jungle Action #5 and featuring Man-Ape), Daredevil #69 (reprinted in Jungle Action #23), or any of Monica Lynne’s previous appearances. Room for one of those could have been made by dropping the standard sketches and a few other things while keeping most of the material I noted above.

Jungle Action was cancelled to make way for the Jack Kirby version of Black Panther, which could not be more different — Kirby’s version of the character was a cheery, enthusiastic king who went on goofy sci-fi adventures. I much prefer McGregor’s version, even when his prose is at its most turgid.

Panther’s Rage is all over the place — as is this longer-than-usual review, I suppose. For readers who have a high tolerance for ‘70s prose-dense comics, I heartily recommend his book. For those who would like to hear the characters and actions speak louder than the narrator, look elsewhere.

Rating: Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol (3 of 5)

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04 November 2016

Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales

Collects: Spider-Man v. 2 #1-5 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785199618

What is this?: Miles Morales, the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe, has to adjust to being a Spider-Man in the regular universe with new villains — in addition to all the problems of being a normal teenage superhero.

The culprits: Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli

I’m not very familiar with writer Brian Michael Bendis’s magnum opus, Ultimate Spider-Man. I read a few of the early trades, killing time when I was bored, but I didn’t fall in love with the character or the universe.

That means I haven’t read any stories featuring the second Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales. I’ve certainly heard of Miles, but other than Fox News-types screaming about “Black Spider-Man,” I didn’t have any information on him going into Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales, which covers Miles’s first series in the main Marvel Universe.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales, v. 1 coverBendis throws the reader into the story immediately, starting with an in media res fight with the demon Blackheart, who has already defeated the Avengers. Before resolving that fight, Bendis then backtracks to a day in the life of Miles Morales, a high-school student who is the new Spider-Man. (He returns to the fight with Blackheart by the end of the issue.) Although the book has no lengthy infodumps, and the recap page is scanty at best, Bendis gradually introduces the information readers need to understand what is going on throughout v. 1. Occasionally, a bit of information will be shoehorned in as if Bendis couldn’t find a way to elegantly introduce it, but overall, the story flows well and didn’t leave me scratching my head.

(As a side note: As well as Bendis does this, I wonder how much my own familiarity with the Marvel Universe and how these stories are supposed to go allows me to follow along with Miles’s story so easily.)

While I am unfamiliar with Miles, I am quite familiar with Bendis. It occurs to me that Bendis is becoming the new Chris Claremont, albeit one who doesn’t let his bondage fantasies play out on comics pages. Like Claremont, Bendis has an authorial voice and narrative tics (danglers and mind control for Claremont, extreme decompression and a fondness for giving favorite — or just single — characters a push in group situations) that may drive off readers who have grown tired of them. (I dropped Powers years ago when I couldn’t take any more of Bendis’s stammered dialogue.) Fortunately, Bendis keeps those problems in check in v. 1; yes, the book sounds like Bendis, and the plot is a little slower than I would like, but the plot moves along and things happen. Bendis does, however, bring in Goldballs, a mutant character Bendis created during his X-Men work; Goldballs is inexplicably popular and immediately finds himself in the thick of the book without working for it.

As I said, v. 1 has action, but I’m not sure I buy it. It’s not the fault of artist Sara Pichelli; her fight scenes are a treat to read, clear and filled with movement. Bendis’s choices, however, don’t make for a compelling whole. The book’s big action piece is Miles’s fight against Blackheart, who has already taken out the Avengers. Without knowing anything about Blackheart, Miles battles the huge demon, even picking up Captain America’s shield during the fight. Symbolically, we know that’s supposed to be important, but Miles does almost nothing with Cap’s shield — he bops Blackheart’s face with the shield a couple of times. Blackheart, for his part, is no match for Miles; he grabs Miles once, but after Miles uses his venom blast, he never touches the teenager again.

What’s the venom blast? Well, with a touch, Miles can make humans feel like they’re having a heart attack. It has an even stronger effect on Blackheart. Miles also appears to become invisible at some point, although he never mentions the power and only uses again it to attempt to fool heat-seeking missiles. Still: Those are some impressive powers that allow Miles to defeat a near-cosmic level threat by himself.

However, Hammerhead and his goons take out Miles by firing a few missiles. Why was Hammerhead after Miles? Because the Black Cat hired him to do so. Why does she want to go after Miles, even though he’s battling Avenger-type threats rather than street-level criminals throughout this book? *shrug* After Miles has been captured, she says she has an instinctual aversion to Spider-Man, any Spider-Man, but seeking out a fight against a superhero isn’t the act of a rational crime boss, which is what Black Cat seeks to be (and is, in Silk).

And then Miles escapes from Hammer head and Black Cat by using some unspecified (and unnamed) power to shatter / repel the chains that bind him. It all feels so … arbitrary. I mean, I know all narrative fiction is arbitrary, and superhero stories even more so, but this seems even more arbitrary than usual.

Other than those unconvincing fights, the main conflicts come between Miles and his grandmother, who is convinced he is on the drugs after his grades slip, and between Miles and his best friend, Ganke, who reveals Miles’s secret identity to Goldballs, on the theory that heroes should share these things. The former is an excellent idea; family is an excellent shaft to mine for teenage hero drama, and grounding someone who can literally punch through walls is a nice irony. Miles’s grandmother toes the lines between an irritating, over-the-top, cartoonish, and out-of-touch old and amusing foil for both Miles and his parents. More often than not, she manages to stay on the right side of that line, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable. (Pichelli draws her as surprisingly young and fashionable granny — too young to have a teenage grandson, unless teen pregnancies run in the family. Which they could!)

Ganke spilling the beans to Goldball is an idiotic betrayal of Miles’s trust. Ganke rationalizes it by saying he wanted to impress a superhero he identified with (both are heavyset or overweight), but it feels contrived — and yes, arbitrary — that Ganke would immediately give up the secret. After trying and failing to connect with Goldballs? Sure, that could make sense. As an opening gambit? No. Is Bendis trying to say Ganke is a horrible friend? Nothing else suggests that. He may be trying to make a point about identity politics and representation, but if he is, it’s simultaneously ham-handed and muddled.

Those sort of representation issues are brought up more ably after Miles’s costume is torn during his fight with Blackheart, revealing that he is a person of color. A vlogger he and Ganke watch is ecstatic about learning the new Spider-Man isn’t another white guy, but Miles rejects her label of the “Black Spider-Man.” First of all, that label doesn’t match his personal identity; he’s only half African-American. Secondly, though, he wants to be known as just plain Spider-Man, which — let’s face it — is an unrealistic expectation as long as Peter Parker is walking around. Maybe there’s more to Miles’s rejection than that, as he stubbornly refuses to see the significance of a Spider-Man who is a person of color. But we don’t see any other components of his reaction in v. 1. I have to wonder, though, how differently this scene would have been written if it had been written by someone whose skin isn’t white.

Pichelli’s art is excellent, and I enjoyed reading her work. Her approach is heavy on double-paged spreads, and although she’s better at alerting the reader to continue from one side of the book to the other than most artists, it still disturbs the reading experience, especially in a book as heavy in conversation scenes as a Bendis comic. Still, Pichelli makes those conversations interesting to look at; she doesn’t reuse headshots over and over. People are moving in those scenes, and their movements feel real. Miles’s face is always in motion as well, although none of his expressions are subtle. Then again, teenagers aren’t subtle, are they?

I am really on the fence about v. 1. I have a feeling Bendis wrote this book as a continuation of his Ultimate Spider-Man book, and if I kept reading the series, then I would get into the rhythm and narrative feel of the book. But reading Bendis has made me leery of putting too much faith into him, so I’m not sure I’m going to pick up the next volume.

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

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28 October 2016

Greenberg the Vampire

Collects: Bizarre Adventures #29 and Marvel Graphic Novel #20 (1981, 1986)

Released: October 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 104 pages / black and white AND color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785197911

What is this?: A Jewish novelist deals with life as a vampire.

The culprits: Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artists Steve Leialoha and Mark Badger

Hey, it’s Halloween! Time for something … spooky.

Well, actually, no. Despite featuring an undead protagonist, Greenberg the Vampire is not spooky, and it was not intended to be. But it is a story about vampires, and vampires are Halloween appropriate and notionally scary, so: Let me tell you about Greenberg the Vampire.

Greenberg the Vampire coverOscar Greenberg, a Jewish writer who has been turned into a vampire, has made only two appearances, both of which are reprinted in Greenberg. Despite being a vampire, Greenberg isn’t a brooding creature of the night who preys upon the innocent (or guilty, for that matter); he’s more or less a normal New Yorker. He lives in Manhattan with his nephew, Morrie; he has a girlfriend, Denise Keaton, who accidentally turned him into a vampire. He hangs on to his Jewish identity, although his vampirism puts a damper on any chance that he’d be a practicing Jew. He still visits his mother and his brother. He visits bars and goes to parties.

In Greenberg‘s introduction, writer J.M. DeMatteis says Marvel staffers reacted to his first Greenberg story, in Bizarre Adventures #29, by saying “how funny, how offbeat, how unique it was.” I suppose it was different, although it’s hard to see 35 years into the past and estimate how often vampirism was treated as if it were just another personality trait a nice, normal person could possess. But I don’t get the funny part at all; I never laughed while reading anything in the book.

I wonder if it’s a difference in audience. Marvel staffers were likely to be New Yorkers and at least be familiar with Jewish families, but I have no connection to either. I admit DeMatteis emphasizes Greenberg’s Jewish background without making it distracting or making it seem more exotic than his vampirism. But when it comes down to it, nothing is exotic about Greenberg; DeMatteis has made a Jewish vampire into an almost normal guy, and that makes him less interesting to read about.

Especially since the stories’ plots aren’t strong. In the first story, one plot thread is resolved by a character returning from the dead through no credible or known method; Greenberg and Denise speculate on why the dead woman returned, but even they shrug at their own solution. The other plot thread in Bizarre Adventures involves a vampire hunter who destroys one of Greenberg and Denise’s friends; the vampire hunter’s career ends abruptly when he learns his sister, Denise, is still walking around as a vampire. The idea for the twist ending isn’t bad, but Denise never mentions a brother, and the vampire hunter never mentions a sister who was attacked by vampires. The familial connection — the idea that either of them had a family — is dropped into the story without warning, stopping the story in its tracks.

In the graphic novel, Greenberg and his friends battle a dybbuk and Lilith, the Biblical Adam’s first wife, who later became a demoness; the nature of a dybbuk is never spelled out. Lilith’s lifelong interest in Greenberg is only vaguely explained, and the story’s conflict is resolved via the power of love. I mean that literally: The power of love allows a bullet to strike Lilith, who had been previously immune to firearms.

The graphic novel also revolves around Greenberg’s battle with writer’s block. That’s a clichéd, if understandable, avenue to take with a writer character, although it’s a bit discouraging that DeMatteis used writer’s block in Greenberg’s second (and final) appearance. (DeMatteis and artist Mark Badger do throw in a little sex and semi-naked ladies to spice things up.) I do appreciate DeMatteis using a sample of Greenberg’s awful writing to simultaneously show readers how bad his situation is and to give readers the necessary backstory.

DeMatteis looks almost prescient on one thing, though: Although Greenberg is heterosexual, the Bizarre Adventures story has two homosexual couples, and neither the narration nor the protagonists stigmatize those characters. True, the gay characters are on the fringes of society — one couple is a pair of vampires, and one of the other couple is a cult leader who thinks herself a god. But even in a more mature book, one in which he could get away with someone, such as a villain, demonizing homosexuals, DeMatteis sticks to the course of acknowledging these characters’ sexuality is normal.

Steve Leialoha’s work in Bizarre Adventures is beautiful and expressive, taking advantage of the strengths of black-and-white art. (He also draws Denise Keaton to look like Diane Keaton, down to the hat, vest, and tie she wears in Annie Hall.) Leialoha’s art is a little stiff occasionally , although he manages to take advantage of the kind of simplicity used by cartoonists at times. Badger’s art on MGN is harsher and more angular; the subtleties of Leialoha’s work is sacrificed for Lilith’s artfully concealed nudity and full-page text pieces. This is understandable, given the change in plot between the stories, and there’s nothing subtle about Lilith’s seduction of Greenberg. Other parts of the story might have benefited from more precision and care, like Greenberg’s shift in emotions once he’s possessed (or influenced — it’s never made clear) by a dybbuk.

I can’t recommend Greenberg, unfortunately. Although it may have been playing around with the borders of what a vampire can be, the book doesn’t have much to it other than that. Neither the story nor the attempts at humor stand up, thirty years later, and the price tag is too high for such a slim, obscure volume.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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21 October 2016

Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1

Collects: Black Panther v. 4 #1-4 (2016)

Released: August 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781302900533

What is this?: Wakanda is in turmoil, and Black Panther is having difficulty gaining control of the situation.

The culprits: Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze

As someone who hasn’t read any Black Panther books since the Christopher Priest run, Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1 left me feeling like I had missed a lot.

When a character (or object or country) has a complicated history, the writer has to make a choice: Should the continuity be ignored or deprecated? Should it be quickly reintroduced in a way that doesn’t interfere with the thread of the story? Or should it be recapped in depth?

Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1 coverThat last option hasn’t been in vogue for decades now, and since Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is building on the Black Panther’s recent continuity, often using the world-building done by Priest, the second choice is Coates’s only real option. Unfortunately, the continuity I’ve missed is so involved that mentioning the events and moving on leaves me feeling unsatisfied. For instance, how did Black Panther’s long-time nemeses, Erik Killmonger and Man-Ape, die? How and why did Namor flood the landlocked nation of Wakanda? Why was Panther absent from Wakanda when Thanos (of all people) invaded, and where did Panther’s sister, Shuri, come from?

And that’s why you always leave a footnote. It gives the reader context, other than authorial whim, for this complicated interplay of narrative.

Whatever the reason for Wakanda’s troubles, the nation is now in turmoil. For someone who had read only Priest’s run, such internal chaos is hard to come to grips with. But this nation is not run by Priest’s Panther; Coates’s Black Panther is unsure of himself, shaken, and less competent. The first two are obviously what Coates is aiming for. Wakanda’s humbling by invaders and his sister’s death have humbled him personally. The lack of competence is harder to justify; have his personal blind spots allowed his new enemies to get the upper hand? Or is Coates abandoning, consciously or not, the hyper-competent Panther of the past?

As I mentioned earlier, the Panther’s two oldest internal rivals, Killmonger and Man-Ape, are gone. The current unrest — or revolution, in one counselor’s words — is two-headed, and neither seems to be led by costumed aggressors bent on accumulating personal power. As Nation begins, the immediate danger is fueled by a woman who unlocks the people’s latent rage and resentment. The other uprising is started by two renegade Dora Milaje, the king’s all-female elite guard, who have objected to the personal predations of powerful men in the hinterlands who haven’t been checked by the king or his bureaucracy. No one man, these women say, should hold such power over the people.

And that’s the crux of this conflict, one that is rarely explored in superhero comics: that Black Panther is a monarch — perhaps not an absolute monarch, but a monarch nonetheless. Regime change is always a transition between powerful men and women, and the people never remain in charge of a nation we pay attention to. Seeing the people reach for democracy or at least a more egalitarian government is fascinating, and Coates is to be praised for not only showing a “good” ruler being on the receiving end of unrest but also for not showing the revolutionaries as evil or power-hungry.

Readers know Panther is a benevolent ruler, when he has ruled and not been abroad superheroing. But when the people aren’t well served by a leader, whether that be in administration or in national defense, they should have a right to replace that leader. In Nation, the Panther’s government is not doing an acceptable job on either front, and since the Panther is a monarch, it’s only logical for people to conclude he has to go. There’s a reason Changamire, the revolutionary philosophy teacher, is discussing John Locke when we see him lecturing his class.

The rightness of the revolutionaries’ cause is the only way Panther’s difficulties in fighting the unrest make sense: Either he somehow recognizes the legitimacy of the arguments against him and is sabotaging himself or the writer is strengthening the rebels’ argument. Additionally, Panther mentions in issue #2 that a king is more powerful in potential than in actuality: “Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king’s powers and thus his limits.” The Black Panther’s powers and limits are very exposed in Nation

Still, other aspects of the revolt and Wakandan culture are a mystery. Those unsatisfied with the king call him “Haramu-Fal,” the orphan-king. This is regarded as an insult, although I don’t know why. Another says the Black Panther’s house has fallen, although I don’t know if that’s hyperbole or accurate.

In the Priest run, all readers ever saw of the Dora Milaje was the Panther’s two personal bodyguards, but Coates implies the Dora Milaje are a much larger body. Given that the Dora Milaje was created to keep tribal tensions in check, it makes sense that there are more than two, but the story intimates the Dora Milaje are a small army. That seems like a mistake; the Dora Milaje gain their impressiveness through not only their abilities but the idea that they are a very select group. By the end, not only are the Dora Milaje many, but they are defecting in large numbers, which makes them a poor elite group. (Black Panther never comes close to fighting the renegade Dora Milaje, regardless of what the cover of #3 — re-used for the back cover image of the trade paperback — tells us.)

Artist Brian Stelfreeze draws the Dora Milaje as dressing in a non-Western fashion, in direct contrast to how they had been portrayed in the past. I suppose that’s appropriate, as the Dora Milaje in Priest’s run were usually either in America or in a military capacity. (The experimental armor the renegade Dora Milaje wear is ridiculous, as it has large areas of fishnet mesh — midriff and arms — where a normal person would expect to be protected by armor.) Since this book takes place entirely in Wakanda, very few people wear Western clothes, and the super technology of past runs is largely absent, except for Panther and his allies. This is an African Africa, distancing the Panther from the Western-focused books of the past. The lowered ears on the Panther costume gives Black Panther a look between a wary cat and a slinking one, which is appropriate for a harried and combative leader. I also enjoyed the costume’s circuit-like Kirby lines that show up when his costume performs a technological function; Stelfreeze nicely ties the Dora Milaje to the Panther by giving their heads similar lines.

The price tag for Nation is a bit high: $17 for the series’ first four issues and the often-reprinted Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther, seems too much. It seems $17 is the going rate for five new issues, but a reprint is not a new issue. Perhaps the increased tag is the price for someone as distinguished as Coates or Stelfreeze; I don’t know. The book tries to compensate for this elevated price by including bonus material, mostly Stelfreeze sketches and alternate covers. Neither does much for me, although your mileage may vary. Other material includes a interview with Stelfreeze, a chronology that serves more as advertisement for Black Panther stories than an informative narrative of the Panther’s history, and a map of Wakanda. The map’s nice, anyway.

I recommend this book, despite my disorientation at the beginning. I’m interested to see where Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 2 is going. So interested, in fact, I must admit I think four issues is too short for v. 1; the story stops rather than arriving at a conclusion (or even a decent cliffhanger). Hopefully, the end of the next volume will be less abrupt.

Rating: Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Half a Panther symbol (3.5 of 5)

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14 October 2016

Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town

Collects: Power Man & Iron Fist v. 3 #1-5 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9781302901141

What is this?: Luke Cage and Iron Fist help an old friend by “recovering” a necklace, but the necklace is enchanted, and the old friend uses it for a crime spree. Plus: Are Danny and Luke back together? Like, for good?

The culprits: Writer David Walker and artists Sanford Greene and Flaviano

In Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town, everyone is obsessed with whether Luke Cage and Iron Fist (Danny Rand) are back together. Have they reunited? They’ve been working together; obviously they’re back together. Why don’t they just admit it? The story is as relentless with questions about their relationship status as a ’shippers’ message board.

Back in Town is obviously attempting to cement Power Man and Iron Fist as a big deal in the Marvel Universe, even though it’s uncertain whether Luke Cage is Power Man any more. (The presence of a new Power Man, even one who has worked with Danny before, is not a barrier to Luke reusing the name, a fact pointed out by two Spider-Women as they watch the duo fight second-rate villains.) The book is pushing the importance of Power Man and Iron Fist as heroes, as everyone — fans, villains, other heroes, and Luke’s wife — are speculating on the two reuniting with differing levels of enthusiasm.

I’m not saying Power Man and Iron Fist aren’t cool. I’m saying the duo have never seemed that popular within the Marvel Universe.

Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town coverBut on the other hand, writer David Walker and artist Sanford Greene, who draws #1-4, undercut that idea. Everyone acts as if Luke and Danny are a big deal, but the magical item that fuels the first arc is specifically one that only works with powerless wielders. The villains the pair fight are low-rent at best; as much as I enjoy Gorilla Man (Arthur Nagan version), he’s not someone you throw at a hero you’re trying to show is important.

Rather than representing the book Walker’s trying to sell to readers, Greene’s art does a decent job representing the book as it is. Greene’s art does not depict a world of front-line superheroes. I admit Green’s Cage dresses sharply; he’s certainly a cut above everything else in the book, although he’s not dressed like a hero. On the other hand, I have no idea why Iron Fist is wearing a high-collared track suit. Overall, the art has a loose, non-mainstream look to it, one that exaggerates violence by making recipients of punches rubber-faced. This is the look of a book that’s on the fringes of the Marvel superhero universe. It’s not low quality, but it’s not a look that says, “This is a book featuring two very popular heroes in it.”

Even colorist Lee Loughridge contributes to this diminution of the leads. The world of Cage and Iron Fist isn’t decorated with the bright colors of superheroes or even strong, clear colors. The pages are muddy and grimy: mustard yellows and browns, muted purples. Even Danny is not in his usual colors; instead of his usual green costume or the white one from the previous volume of PM&IF, he’s wearing a reddish-brown tracksuit. It’s not even the bright red of that his costume turns when he turns evil. Its color is too boring to say anything about Danny — except, perhaps, that he’s boring, and that’s not what anyone wants.

The actual story has Luke and Danny helping their former office assistant, Jennie Royce, after she is released from prison. After being thrown in prison for murdering her abusive boyfriend, Royce asked for Iron Fist’s help in the previous Power Man and Iron Fist series, one that featured Victor Alvarez, the second Power Man. The duo discovered Royce was possessed at the time; the story ends with Danny saying She-Hulk, who is a lawyer, “almost guaranteeing an acquittal.” Back in Town glosses over this, mentioning the possession and murder a few times but never mentioning what book the story appeared in.

Oops! Looks like She-Hulk spoke too soon (although it also looks like everyone’s forgotten what she said). Jennie’s out on probation, not acquitted, and she wants Luke and Danny to get her grandmother’s necklace back from Tombstone. They take it back easily, but instead of being a family heirloom, the necklace is a magic device that gives power to the powerless. Luke and Danny have to deal with the consequences of that, with Danny willing to rob a gangster on her say-so and not believing Royce lied to them. (In the previous volume, he’s willing to believe Royce killed her boyfriend; he investigates before giving his opinion on Royce’s innocence. Perhaps that’s why the previous volume isn’t footnoted.)

This book has a glimpse into the secret world of supervillains that I’ve wanted for quite some time now. The world in Back in Town is a lovely slice of New York inhabited by villains who communicate with each other, spread rumors, and generally complain about each other and heroes. I want to read more of this world in which people know the villainess Nekra by her first and last names (Nekra Sinclair), where Tombstone has two incompetent henchmen who can’t understand his whispering speech, where a strip-mall wizard named Señor Magico calls Dr. Strange a “pendejo” and claims he knows much more than the Sorcerer Supreme. The book also brings back Black Mariah as Royce’s partner-in-crime, and it’s a good choice; her previous (rare) appearances indicate she’s exactly the right person to help Royce: underestimated, familiar with New York’s gangs, and on the lookout for quick grabs for cash.

On the other hand, it’s not that Luke and Danny are dull, but when they are the only two characters on the page, the book gets a little less interesting. The villains get all the best lines, naturally. Luke’s minced oaths, like substituting “fiddle-faddle” for curse words out of his wife’s concern for their daughter’s vocabulary, are funny, but they aren’t enough to cover the pair’s squabbling about whether they are a couple again. A team! Not a couple. A team.

Luke’s wife, Jessica Jones, is a problem in Back in Town. For the first three issues, she’s a shrew, complaining about her husband destroying his shirts while accompanying Danny. It’s sitcom characterization; she’s the nagging wife of every screw-up husband in every sitcom ever. Matters improve somewhat in the two issues, but she’s in a total of two panels in those issues, so it’s hard to say definitively that she’s turned a corner.

Royce is a problem as well. Her powerlessness is a major part of the story; the necklace won’t work for someone who has power. We’re supposed to feel some sort of connection to Royce’s plight, but we’re not given enough time and information to build that relationship with the character, especially given how little we’re informed about the story in which she was incarcerated. (The book seemed to have enough room for this line of development.) What little characterization we get about Royce suggests not that she’s a figure who should be pitied for how she’s been pushed around but someone who has willingly decided to pull a caper after her release, inspired and abetted by better criminals she met in prison. The book tries so little to tie her to Danny and Luke’s past that we never see her in the same flashbacks as the Heroes for Hire. Danny feels guilty about her time in prison; that’s clear. But what Royce feels is more ambiguous, and not the good kind of ambiguous.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Back in Town, I enjoyed the book overall. I’m looking forward to the second volume, where hopefully the will-they / won’t-they nonsense and the bad Jessica will be gone and the ground-level villainy and heroism will be front and center. (Also: stop trying to convince me about how important the characters are.) With all the shortcomings the book has, though, I’m not sure I can recommend it until the second volume shows which way the series is going to go.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (2.5 of 5)

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07 October 2016

Spider-Man / Deadpool, v. 1: Isn't It Bromantic?

Collects: Spider-Man / Deadpool #1-5 and 8 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785197867

What is this?: Deadpool tries to befriend Spider-Man, both because he admires Spider-Man and because he wants to kill Peter Parker.

The culprits: Writer Joe Kelly and penciler Ed McGuinness

A lot has changed since Joe Kelly last set a direction for the character Deadpool; when Kelly left as writer on Deadpool’s first ongoing after 33 issues in 1999, it was the (Bill) Clinton administration, before the millennium turned and the world changed. More relevantly, Deadpool was always on the brink of cancellation, and although the title lasted three years after Kelly left, Deadpool didn’t get another solo book until 2008. Now we have umpteen Deadpool ongoing and limited series per year, a Deadpool movie that improbably was popular and high quality, and a sequel scheduled. 1999 is a long time ago, isn’t it?

Also, Deadpool has changed as a character in the intervening years. Gone is the mercenary wondering if he can be a hero; he still struggles with heroism, but the hero’s journey that Kelly put him on is over. Deadpool has settled down with a demonic wife, so he’s done mooning over Siryn and Copycat. He has a (secret) daughter now, albeit not by his wife. And Deadpool’s rich now! He has a band of mercenaries!

 coverThat’s a long introduction just to ask if Kelly can still write Deadpool. It’s not that Kelly can’t write any more — I actually don’t know if his recent work is any good, since I haven’t read any of his 21st century work — but it’s difficult to return to one’s glory days and succeed. Just look at Chris Claremont’s most recent X-Men work, for instance. Fortunately, Spider-Man / Deadpool, v. 1: Isn’t It Bromantic proves Kelly, after all these years, is still able to write a funny Deadpool while giving him more depth than most characters are allowed to have.

For those who aren’t diehard Deadpool fans, Bromantic’s likely appeal will be its humor, which is where Kelly and penciler Ed McGuiness excel. Kelly manages to keep the jokes coming through Deadpool’s signature combination of sorrow, death, and blood. It’s an impressive feat, one that I have trouble fully explaining; on the other hand, no one should explain jokes. By way of example, though, I admire Deadpool’s narration in #8, where he explains to the reader (and his daughter) why the previous two issues are missing from Bromantic: “I feel a great disturbance in continuity … as if there were a massive crossover or just a better creative team for two issues.” (It’s an elegant way to avoid using footnotes as well.)

On the other hand, I have no one other than Kelly to blame for the title of this book / arc. I hate the word “bromantic” and all its associated terms, and causing me to have to type that word several times irritates me beyond all reason.

Someone else who still has the ability they showed last century is McGuiness. The penciler, who drew the first arc of Kelly’s initial Deadpool run (#1-6 and 8), contributes fabulous work to this book. His Spider-Man almost looks like he could jump out of the book. His fight scenes — and there are a lot of them — are outstanding, and he’s shows an equal facility for humor and action. He is a little weak on the horror at some points, but his Patient Zero (the book’s chief villain) looks creepily loose-jointed, and his henchmen are imaginatively distorted by genetic modification. (Although one of them does look like something out of Japanese anime.)

I didn't believe there could be a good reason why Spider-Man and Deadpool would interact, but Kelly manages to find one: Deadpool is offered a contract to kill Peter Parker, and in an attempt to get Spider-Man (whom everyone believe is Parker’s bodyguard) out of the way, Deadpool tries to befriend Spider-Man. It works about as well as you might as imagine, with Spider-Man being simultaneously offput by Deadpool’s ethics and insanity and unwilling to give up on anyone, especially not someone as earnest as Deadpool. Kelly allows Deadpool’s assassination attempt to go farther than I would have imagined, playing it for the trademark combination of pathos and dark humor that marked his initial Deadpool run. It remains to be seen, however, whether the partnership can find a reason to last, other than to hunt down the man who hired Deadpool.

Kelly also has no trouble with Spider-Man’s character; like Deadpool, he’s a wisecracker, although his jokes aren’t as pop-culture saturated, and they lack Deadpool’s darker, more demented edge. Mostly, Spider-Man stands as a moral contrast to Deadpool, with his unbreaking ethical code set as either a goal or unattainable height for his co-star. Kelly seems more willing to play with Spider-Man’s character than Deadpool’s, which is strange given Spider-Man’s iconic status; I don’t think Peter’s darker turn will last or bleed into Dan Slott’s Spider-Man titles, but Peter’s first meeting with Mephisto since he traded away his marriage could be an important point in this series.

Patient Zero was created for this book by Kelly; the scarred, emaciated villain claims both Spider-Man and Deadpool did him a wrong. Kelly also uses Styx and Stone as villains; the pair are throwaway ‘90s villains who disappeared from Spider-Man’s life before the clone nonsense. They are a good choice for this book: visually interesting, with a vague connection to Spider-Man (albeit a connection not really exploited in this book), and they give each hero someone separate to fight. The book’s other villain is Mysterio, beautifully drawn by McGuiness. (I’m a sucker for the fishbowl; sue me.) Mysterio doesn’t do much, but the narration makes it clear he knows Peter’s secret identity. I don’t know if that's what was intended, though, and I have a feeling it will be quietly forgotten.

Although I had some worries about Bromantic, the book’s name turned out to be the worst part of it. I have doubts whether McGuiness will be on the book consistently, but he left the original Deadpool early in the run, and that title maintained a high level of quality afterwards. I’m looking forward to the next volume of this book, which should be out sometime in the first quarter of 2017.

And best of all, it won’t have Bromantic in its title.

Rating: Spider-Man / Deadpool symbol Spider-Man / Deadpool symbol Spider-Man / Deadpool symbol Spider-Man / Deadpool symbol Half Spider-Man / Deadpool symbol (4.5 of 5)

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30 September 2016

Conan the Barbarian, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #250-8 (1991-2)

Released: July 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 240 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558666

What is this?: After losing the princess, Conan is tormented by

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and penciler Mike Docherty

In retrospect, it’s obvious Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories collects stories from a title heading for its end.

Even more than the previous volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories, Second Coming uses continuity to give stories more weight and more interest than they would usually have. In fact, Thomas is so invested in using previous Conan stories — usually stories that he himself wrote — that in Conan the Barbarian #254 he completes a Savage Sword of Conan story he wrote in 1979 that never got an ending.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories coverThe continuity Thomas is calling on should be in service of the main story, in which Conan travels back to his home village in Cimmeria to see if it has been destroyed, as he has seen it destroyed in his dreams. Unfortunately, the continuity is of dubious value.

Thomas scatters footnotes throughout the book. Almost every Conan story has some reference to Conan continuity, which, before Thomas took over this time, was rare. But as I said, this is the sign of a title that’s about to wrap things up: As he retraces his path back to Cimmeria, Conan revisits the signposts he encountered when he first journeyed to civilized lands. And that’s a good idea! If the story were more focused, if the overall structure of the Second Coming storyline fit together better, it might work. But it’s hard to see, for instance, how #253 does anything but divert Conan’s journey home momentarily; yes, it reintroduces the wizard Kulan Gath, whom Conan and Elric of Melnibone killed in Conan #15, but surely Thomas could have integrated Gath into the storyline more elegantly, rather than having Conan encounter him while visiting old friends. And why resurrect Kulan Gath at all? He’s not an iconic villain; rather, he’s a magical speedbump in Conan’s early career.

Sometimes these callbacks are necessary; for instance, a brief flashback in #252 to Savage Sword of Conan #2 is used to explain why Conan is no longer a general and secret consort to Yasmela, whom he had been serving since #246. (Both Savage Sword #2 and #248-9 are adaptations of the Robert E. Howard story “Black Colossus,” with SSoC continuing a little farther forward in time.) I’m thankful for the footnotes, even though I’m not sure half these references and flashbacks serve any purpose other than Thomas shouting, “Hey hey hey — these stories are important!” But they aren’t. The purple plague in #255-6 is a distraction easily disposed of, a fillip meant to disguise that the story’s only purpose is to revisit the Lost City of Lanjau from Conan #8. A stopover in Numalia gives Thomas a chance to mention a few characters and places from Conan #7. An old lover (from Conan #48) rescues Conan from the snow and the walking dead in #258; their dead son, who grew to an accelerated adulthood after Conan sired him with an uncanny northern woman, is mentioned, even though he appeared in a non-Thomas story (#145). All these old stories add up to a bunch of distractions bolted onto a plot that needed to be leaner to succeed.

It’s a shame, because the storyline has some entertaining — even chilling — parts. Queen Vammatar of the Hyperboreans, who opposes Conan’s return to Cimmeria, commands the dead and men’s loins; in many ways, she’s the standard sorcerous femme fatale, but Thomas and artist Mike Docherty sell her resurrection power as something truly dangerous and chilling. The creators don’t make the dead as powerful a threat as well as the best zombie tales do, but they can’t, given the Code-approved nature of a serial book. The design of Vammatar’s servitors, the Witchmen of Hyperborea, is almost effective, as their featureless white masks are unnerving, but they seem to be wearing black bodystockings, which makes them look like semi-villainous Mummenschanz.

Cona’s lieutenants, Zula and Red Sonja, exit this story early, having had enough of Conan’s love affairs and desiring more exciting work now that the peace has been won. Thomas evidently agrees with me that Conan works better with a sidekick, though, so he assigns Conan a new one: Hobb of Anuphar, a fat sybarite whose cowardice is supposed to work as comic relief. It doesn’t work, since Hobb’s competence is marginal and his one-note bumbling grows tired quickly. By the end of the story, we don’t know much about Hobb other than he’s Volstagg the Voluminous, except without the charisma or strength.

And we don’t even get the second coming in the title! That doesn’t happen until the next volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 33: The Mountain Where Crom Dwells and Other Stories. (To be fair, #252-8 are the first seven parts of the Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath storyline.)

Docherty’s art, other than the disappointment of the Witchmen design and the too cartoony skeletal warriors in #255-6, is solid as always. His work looks strongly influenced by John Buscema, although that might be traced to the finishes by long-time Conan inker Ernie Chan. His art is detailed enough to show the rough edges and grime of a time undreamed-of, but it’s never so fussy or confusing that it’s hard to follow. I have gained an appreciation for artists who can draw a clear battle scene, which is a must for Conan; Docherty does a great job with action, and I never have to ask how a character gets from point A to B. If I had to find a flaw with Docherty, other than the occasional design misstep, it would be that his art doesn’t inspire ecstatic praise; he’s solid, not transcendent.

Hoover's cute horrorDale Hoover fills in on #253, and although I’d admire his clean, unfussy work on a number of other titles, it just doesn’t fit with the dirty, blood-stained world of Conan. The depiction of the mutilation of a prince whose life-force was drained, turning his extremities to bone, suffers from being too clean and too neat; the panels have little chance of communicating the horror of seeing someone’s hands and feet reduced to bone. Also, I’m not a fan of the cheesecake design and poses of Imojen, a Kothian rebel leader. Still, his cartoony flashback drawing of the Dweller in the Dark is adorable.

I enjoyed this volume, even if I can see the flaws — the irrelevant fill-in flashback in #251, the Thomas-ian obsession with resurrecting stories and characters that no one finds as interesting as Thomas himself does. But Second Coming does feel like it has a direction and a point, even if that point is to get closer to the end of this series.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Conan symbol (3 of 5)

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23 September 2016

Weirdworld, v. 1: Where Lost Things Go

Collects: Weirdworld v. 2 #1-6 (2016)

Released: July 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900434

What is this?: Becca, a teenager from Miami, survives a plane crash in Weirdworld, a magical realm separate from Earth; with the help of a transformed wizard and a wizard slayer, she looks for a way home.

The culprits: Writer Sam Humphries and artist Mike del Mundo

Weirdworld is a Marvel ‘70s concept, of course. It started in Marvel Super Action #1 (1976) as a fantasy world unconnected to the Marvel Universe. The Weirdworld stories, which were published between ’76 and ’82, starred a couple of Elves with a Dwarf sidekick on a quest. There were wizards and dragons, magic and Evil; the land masses took the shapes of stars and dragons and skulls. That’s the kind of place Weirdworld was. You can find the ten or so issues that featured Weirdworld in Weirdworld: Warriors of the Shadow Realm.

Those stories have nothing to do with the book I’m reviewing.

Weirdworld coverIn 2015, Marvel resurrected the name for one of the worlds in the Secret Wars catalog. That Weirdworld gathered together some of Marvel’s fantasy / magic characters, like Arkon, sorceress Jennifer Kale, and Morgan le Fay, along with some leftovers from weird books, like Skull the Slayer and Man-Thing. That five-issue series was collected in Weirdworld, v. 0: Warzones!

I’m not going to be talking about that book either.

Following Secret Wars, Marvel decided to make Weirdworld an ongoing book, with a new writer, Sam Humphries, assigned to the book. (Mike del Mundo remained the artist.) The first collection — and the only collection, since the book was stealth canceled after six issues — is Weirdworld, v. 1: Where Lost Things Go.

Lost Things owes much more to books like Marvel’s glorious failure Skull the Slayer than the original Weirdworld stories. Teenager Becca is the lone survivor of a plane crash on Weirdworld; the airplane was heading from Miami to Mexico, but the wizard Ogeode was able to pull the passenger jet into Weirdworld using his magic MacGuffin, the Wuxian Seed. To survive, Becca falls in with wizard slayer Goleta just after she kills Ogeode. Like Skull, Becca is mystified by this strange world she finds herself in, part fantasy and part remnants from Earth, and she just wants to get home. Unlike Skull, however, Becca has no survival skills, relying on Goleta and other companions to survive.

I don’t know if that should be a problem, but I think it is. Despite not being able to fight her way out of a wet paper bag, Becca is not useless — she usually rises to the occasion, whatever the occasion is, in her bumbling way, although I have trouble remembering her contributions. She’s lacking as a protagonist, generally playing the part of a mopey teenager or screaming bystander with a weird haircut. The only time I felt any real resonance with Becca was when she thought about her mother, who committed suicide and whose ashes Becca was transporting to Mexico. Becca’s struggle to forgive and love her mother, coming to grips with her decision to commit suicide, is by far the strongest part of Lost Things. Becca’s grief, in all its expressions, feels real, and exploration of suicide’s effects on survivors is rare in comics.

My ambivalence over Becca is a result on Weirdworld’s lack of focus on its viewpoint character. That’s emblematic of the series as a whole; Humphries is concentrating on world building in the early issues, mentioning a lot of details that might have become important in the long run. Given the limited amount of time the book had, though, his time would have been better spent elsewhere. In six issues, Lost Things has subplots including a war between Morgan le Fay and Jennifer Kale (of all people), a Grand Mechanic (who has a past with Morgan and perhaps Goleta), Wild Men (who are wizards), all sorts of Earth tech and culture that has bled into Weird World, a random Watcher, and Morgan’s attempts to heal her sick best friend. That’s added to the quest Goleta, Becca, and Ogeode (resurrected in a flying cat body) are on, the importance of the Wuxian Seed (which is an Infinity Stone with — oh, yeah, forgot to mention — a dragon trapped inside), Becca’s desire to leave Weirdworld, and Goleta’s obsession with killing wizards. I have a feeling I’m missing something by not having read the Secret Wars version of Weirdworld — it too featured a war between Morgan le Fay and Kale’s Man-Thing army, and Skull shows up in both — but the text itself doesn’t give any indication of whether that’s the case.

Humphries seems to have had a long-term plan for Weirdworld, but now that that plan will never see the light at Marvel, it makes Lost Things look incohesive. Humphries is now a DC-exclusive writer, so it’s unlikely the book’s loose threads will be picked up in another title, like Skull the Slayer was finished in Marvel Two-in-One or Nova was finished in Fantastic Four. So despite it being the most intriguing part of Lost Things, it’s unlikely we’ll see the implications of Ogeode declaring Becca a wizard at the end of the book. (Is that a thing wizards can do — just declare other people wizards? Maybe only under certain circumstances? I would have figured being a wizard requires study or a special aptitude, but what do I know?) Having Becca learn about her sorcerous potential earlier might have made her (and the book) more compelling.

I found the amount of Earth culture that had bled into Weirdworld to be a distraction rather than enhancing the setting. Goleta, for instance, drives a turbo-charged muscle car, albeit one powered by emerald fuel injectors. She has stickers on her mirrors that say “Keep Calm and Kill Wizards” and “N.W.A.” (“No Wizards Alive,” in this case). Goleta fists bumps Becca in approval, seeming to know the gesture without Becca’s help. Kale’s army has airplanes, although they don’t seem to be using them for anything. Perhaps most distractingly, Goleta uses a Tribe Called Quest lyric as her battle cry at one point. How would Goleta have heard of A Tribe Called Quest? Humphries might have been trying to add a disconcerting touch of dissonance to the story with these modern details, but instead, they removed me from the story.

“Weird” and “disconcerting” are adjectives that cover Lost Thing’s color scheme: pinks and purples and yellows and greens. Frankly, given the retina-searing hues of Weirdworld, I feared for Becca’s eyes. Why did del Mundo and co-colorist Marco d’Alfonso choose these colors? Is it to give the impression that Weirdworld is different? That it’s injured, out-of-phase, wrong? Or is it just to link the book somehow to Spider-Gwen?

I can’t decide what to think about del Mundo’s art. He exhibits a great deal of imagination in his designs, although he does seem to rely on horns, spikes, and other projections to spice up his character designs. His character work is very good, especially when the characters are experiencing grief; del Mundo makes the already affecting scenes between Becca and her mother even stronger. However, his fight scenes are frequently unclear or underwhelming; I imagine the garish colors and the watercolor-like effect they frequently impart limits the amount of detail he can communicate. Goleta and Becca’s battle with sand sharks and the war scenes are unimpressive, given what they could have been.

To Weirdworld’s credit, it’s rare to have an adventure or fantasy book in which all the important humanoid characters — even its Watcher — are female. All of those lead characters have unique designs, and none of them — not even Morgan le Fay, the evil queen — relies on sex appeal in any way. For many readers, this may be enough to make Weirdworld a success; for almost every comics reader, this might be the weirdest part of Weirdworld. I’m a little surprised that Humphries chose to cast Goleta, the strong, large warrior woman, as a lesbian (or bisexual); it seems a bit stereotypical. On the other hand, if he wanted sexual diversity among the cast, Goleta or Becca were his best choices, since they were leads.

Lost Things had potential, and for those readers who enjoy books that have potential but may not reach it, this book is worth reading. I found the book’s lack of focus and inability to connect on anything but Becca’s grief too disappointing, though.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol

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11 September 2016

The Eltingville Club

Collects: Stories from Instant Piano #1 and 3, Dork #3-4, 6, and 9-10, Wizard #99, Dark Horse Presents v. 2 #12, and Eltingville Club #1-2 (1994-2015)

Released: February 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 144 pages / mostly black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616554156

What is this?: Four devoted, terrible fanboys form a club —probably because no one else will associate with them, as they are horrible human beings.

The culprits: Evan Dorkin

The Eltingville Club is another book I’m reviewing months after it came out — to be clear, many months after it came out, not a few months, as is my custom — because Diamond evidently hates the comic shop I patronize. After giving up on Diamond, I bought Eltingville online.

The Eltingville Club follows the four members of the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club. Bill, Josh, Tony, and Jerry (well, maybe not Jerry) give fandom a bad name. They are thoroughly repugnant people — again, excepting Jerry — who are violent, foul-mouthed, unempathetic, misogynistic, selfish, and probably a few other reprehensible things I can’t think of at the moment. Readers who have spent any time around fandom, online or in person, will find something uncomfortably familiar here.

The Eltingville Club coverIn many ways, the Eltingville stories, which began in the mid-’90s, anticipated the Internet trolls and Internet / fan controversies of the 21st century, and I’m not sure whether that adds an intriguing element to the collection or if it’s just depressing.

Writer / artist Evan Dorkin is a true fan; the depth and breadth of the references made by his characters proves that. But he hasn’t mythologized any of the aspects of fanaticism. Dorkin is unflinching in his examination of all the stupid things fans do: obsess about minutiae, exclude others (especially “cultural immigrants,” as Bill calls them), buy all manner of collectibles, and waste tons of money. It takes a fan to recognize and out such cankers on the face of fandom, and Dorkin finds every hyperconservative flaw and brings them out for examination.

Although the Eltingville Club’s interests largely intersect with those of the book’s readers, we do not sympathize with these jerks, nor are we supposed to. Dorkin does not give us any reason we should like the club members, no redeeming features whatsoever; as a character implies in the final story, it’s hard to believe they even like each other. The more time we spend with them, the more we are sure they are irredeemable. Dorkin’s art — usually black and white, although one story (“They’re Dead, They’re All Messed Up” from Wizard #99) is colored by Dorkin’s wife and collaborator, Sarah Dyer — does not spare the characters either. At times, they seem to be made up entirely of flaws: they are sweaty, pimpled, fat, squinty-eyed, have unruly hair … The simple panels in the book’s first half are dominated by oppressively dark backgrounds. Later, the art lightens up a little, but the overwhelming feeling of darkness remains.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the book is the truly trivial things the club members collect: fast-food toys (and associated licensed soda cups), trading cards sold in Wonder Bread bags, licensed canned food, QVC tchotchkes, crappy toys that can only be acquired with upmty-ump mailed-in UPCs from packaged foods … These aren’t even primary collectibles. They are secondary merchandise, issued by corporations who don’t care about the characters or source material, created only to get people to buy other stuff they don’t need. Yet the Eltingville Club eats it up — literally, in Josh’s case.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are funny; if they weren’t, Eltingville would be insufferable. Fortunately, the characters’ loathsomeness means the physical comedy (usually in the form of assaults) is even funnier than it would be if readers liked the club members. That each character deserves the humiliation and insults they endure gives a pleasing edge of schadenfreude to the cutting remarks, and Bill, Pete, Jerry, and Josh deserve the consequences of their actions: the hallucinations that result when they take Josh’s mother’s medication to stay up to watch the entire Twilight Zone marathon, the destruction of a 12-inch mint-in-package Boba Fett at the end of “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett,” Josh’s arrest after ripping open bread wrappers to find the Batman Forever card he wants, etc. Sometimes the fat jokes directed at Josh get a little uncomfortable (albeit not as uncomfortable as the casual misogyny), but they are realistic.

As I said, Dorkin is a fan, and Eltingville is filled with nods and references to everything the club follows. The trivia contest in the second story, “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett,” is filled with a dizzying amount of obscure info, and the characters make frequent (and impressive, to be honest) references to the hobbies they love. The stories themselves echo classic comics; in “This Fan … This Monster,” the first full-page panel of the story copies the first page of Fantastic Four #51, from which the story takes its name. Later in the story, Dorkin’s homage to Amazing Spider-Man #33, complete with Ditko fingers when Bill finally escapes from under a bunch of comics longboxes, is a thing of beauty.

Strangely, the overall storyline is satisfying, and the longer pieces, the ones that are allowed to go beyond a single joke or theme, are the best, going beyond mere jokes and unpleasantness. In those issues, Dorkin piles on more and more awfulness, taking the characters and events beyond reality into a kind of fannish hyperreality. The stories have some continuity, and in keeping with the comics the club enjoys so much, it has a sliding time scale (the kids are teens in stories from 1994 and 2014). The epilogue — appropriately titled “Lo, There Shall Be an Epilogue” — wraps up Eltingville, showing how each turned out as an adult, ten years after the group dissolved. Encouragingly, being in the Eltingville Club does not sentence its members to lifelong misogyny or misanthropy, and some of its members become functional adults. On the other hand, the epilogue shows how hard it is to wash the stink of being such an asshole off; you have to work at it.

And for those of you who wondered what the deal was with the Welcome to Eltingville pilot that aired on Adult Swim: Dorkin has an afterword that gives the entire story.

I thoroughly recommend The Eltingville Club, but some readers might find it less enjoyable than I did — it can be rough reading about such awful people, especially if you have run into them during your trip through fandom. And it’s even worse if you realize you have something in common with them.

Rating: Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Half Eltingville symbol (4.5 of 5)

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26 August 2016

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man

Collects: Vision v. 3 #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196570

What is this?: Vision creates a synthezoid family in his own image, and while they try to assimilate into suburbia, it all goes wrong immediately.

The culprits: Writer Tom King and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man is one of the rare dramatic superhero books that lives up to its hype.

The Vision is a synthezoid, an artificial life form. He tried to have a normal family decades ago with the Scarlet Witch. It did not go well, for various complicated and retconny reasons, but that experience makes the Vision one of the superheroes who is best adapted to domesticity. It’s little wonder, then, that in Little Worse he has decided to create a new family, and rather than wander down the biological road again, he has created a family — wife, teenage daughter and son — in his own synthetic image.

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man coverWhat follows is a fascinating and complicated look at the Vision and whether it’s possible for someone like him to be normal in any way.

The problems that beset the Visions do not feel contrived. An attack by the Grim Reaper is the inciting event of the breakdown of the Visions’ suburban life; given the Reaper’s hatred of Vision — the Vision’s brains patterns are based on Reaper’s brother, Wonder Man, and Reaper believes Vision to be an impostor — his assault is a logical starting point for any title featuring Vision. The rest of the story follows from there, with the goal of normalcy dropped in favor of being a functional family. Each complication in the story is compelling, leaving the reader waiting for the next calamity to befall the protagonists.

Writer Tom King does an excellent job giving each of the Visions a distinct personality and arc. Well, Vin, the son, doesn’t have much of an arc; he ruminates over equality and his own nature in somewhat awkward but not implausible ways, and I don’t believe the one plot-related decision he makes. But Vision, Virginia, and Viv each have their own separate troubles, despite all their similarities. The Vision thinks the situation he has created is controllable, and despite the difficulties, he can make things right. Virginia, his wife, has made decisions calculated to keep her family safe, but they have all gone wrong. Viv, the daughter, comes closest to fitting in because one person values her differences and isn’t intimidated, not because of anything she does.

Striving for normalcy isn’t unusual, but it’s a self-defeating proposition in this case. The Visions themselves make no attempt to disguise their non-organic nature, nor do they attempt to assimilate; they buy a suburban house, go to suburban schools, and imitate suburban domesticity, but that isn’t enough to gain them acceptance. They stick out like walnuts in banana bread, and they are about as welcome. The house tour Virginia gives the neighbors at the beginning of the first issue shows a house filled with exotic memorabilia from the Vision’s life and career: a stringless Wakandan piano, a flying water vase from the planet Zenn-La, an everbloom plant from Wundagore, a lighter used to read a map before D-Day, a gift from Captain America. Extraordinary furnishings of an extraordinary family.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta makes these fantastic artifacts look quite normal. The piano has no expensive fillips (except perhaps for a lid shaped like a panther); the everbloom is a shaggy evergreen, and the lighter is just a dented lighter. The vase is a floating blob, barely recognizable as a vase. Give that the water vase and everbloom are, in essence, useless, this decision to make them look mundane makes sense. Why would anyone want to own these things?

Everything in Walta’s work is muted, partially because of the restrained color palette used by colorist Jordie Bellaire. The restrained artwork — no superhero excesses for Walta — and the washed-out colors help give the book a feeling of a ‘50s sitcom, which goes along with the nuclear family that the Vision has constructed to live in his oversized suburban house. Walta draws Vision’s perfect suburban world — perfect house, perfect teenage kids, and a perfect Martha Stewart housewife, complete with an apron — with little embellishment. Walta and Bellaire’s work cast a pall over the book; it’s not hard to believe that the people in this ostensibly perfect world are all trapped and depressed, and escape is the only way to be happy again. Despite the synthezoids’ blank eyes and robotic features, their emotions — sadness, isolation, confusion — are plain to see, and that’s to Walta’s credit.

Should the Vision and his family try to fit in more? That’s not a question Little Worse tries to answer, unless that answer is found in the racism that surrounds the Visions. Many of their neighbors are uneasy about them because they are different; some of them couch this in a fear that the Visions are “dangerous.” The temptation to make a parallel between white-bread communities fearing “dangerous,” darker-skinned newcomers is obvious, but the locals have a point: the Visions are dangerous, in their way. Still, the community is primed to be fearful of the Visions, or at least to not accept them. A pair of local kids, for instance, spraypaint robot slurs on the Visions’ garage, even though they have to research which obscure slur to use. The local high school’s previous nickname, “Redskins,” operates in two different ways: the word is an insult toward Native Americans, yes, but it also foreshadows the locals having trouble seeing the Visions (who have red “skin”) as humans. Changing the school’s nickname to Patriots doesn’t change perception immediately.

On the other hand, Vision uses his superhero privilege to escape trouble when dealing with authority figures. He tells the principal at his children’s school and a police detective that he has saved the world “37 times,” and when he’s being interviewed by the detective, the specific events are enumerated between panels. (Several are labeled “Ultron — again,” which made me laugh.) The two events feel different; with the principal, Vision is using his heroism to gain equal treatment for himself and his family, but with the detective, he uses it to assert his superiority — somewhere between “I shouldn’t have to answer your questions” to “My life of service should mean you believe me.”

King uses the final issue to discuss the central theme of the book: Can the Vision, a being ruled by logical, programmed responses to the world, create a family and be happy / normal in a human, illogical world? The narration frames this in terms of a computer programming concept, P vs. NP. P is all the problems a computer can solve in a reasonable amount of time, the problems that can be solved with an algorithm or shortcut or program. NP is all the problems that cannot be solved that way. Is the Vision’s quest P or NP? King asks. (He also answers it.) What happens if the Vision decides it’s NP?

It’s an interesting question, although it would have had more of an impact had it been made earlier in the book and not have been fairly convincingly answered. (This is more of a criticism of the trade paperback form; from King’s view, the question is asked halfway through the series.) On the other hand, King also identifies the narrator, who is explaining and answering the P vs. NP question, and it’s possible that we shouldn’t believe the cat-murdering old woman. Despite the omniscient tone of her narration, she doesn’t know everything, but I’m not sure whether King is trying to add a bit of ambiguity to the story. If not, I think making the narrator a character in the story is a bit of a mistake, but I’ll find out only by reading Vision, v. 2: Little Better than a Beast.

And I’m definitely going to do that. I recommend it — and this volume — to readers. It’s one of the rare lessons that despite the huge canvas that superhero comics gives creators, it’s often the smaller stories, the ones with lower but more personal stakes, that are the most satisfying.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (5 of 5)

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20 August 2016

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!, v. 1: Hooked on a Feline

Collects: Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900359

What is this?: After being let go from her private investigating job, Patsy Walker (the superhero Hellcat) comes up with a new business idea but has to deal with particularly feckless villains.

The culprits: Writer Kate Leth and artists Brittney L. Williams (#1-5) and Natasha Allegri (#6)

Last week, I praised Squirrel Girl in general and the latest volume of the series, Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, specifically. This week, I’ll go from one animal-themed Marvel superhero humor book to another …

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!, v. 1: Hooked on a Feline follows Patsy Walker, last seen as She-Hulk’s private investigator in the recent short-lived She-Hulk series. But at the beginning of Feline, She-Hulk has to let Patsy go, and to support herself, Patsy comes up with a new idea: a super-powered temp agency, matching those with powers with jobs that suit those powers.

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!: Hooked on a Feline coverPatsy triumphantly presents at the beginning and end of #1, at least, but we see very little of the execution in the rest of Feline, save for a recommendation to an adversary and a page of bookkeeping in #6. In other words, it takes five issues before she even begins working on her grand plan, and that’s indicative of the book’s level of focus.

Writer Kate Leth makes the wise decision to not get into Patsy’s history as Hellcat, since Hellcat continuity is a bit involved. After all, any story in which you say, “I spent some time dead” will tend to derail the narrative a bit. Leth leaves nothing relevant out and retains enough plot hooks to give herself a lot of potential storylines.

Unfortuately, Leth can’t seem to focus on any idea. As I mentioned, she avoids Patsy’s business idea — the idea presented in literally the series’ first panel — for most of the book. The book’s largest conflict is the decision by her former teen rival, Hedy Wolfe, to reprint the romance comics Patsy’s mother wrote and based on the lives of Patsy and her friends. This should be a story that develops throughout the book, but five issues after the conflict is introduced, I have no idea whether Hedy had any right to reprint the stories without notifying or gaining permission from Patsy. She-Hulk, Patsy’s lawyer, says Hedy doesn’t have a case, but Hedy clearly has a contract — literally, she possesses a piece of paper with “CONTRACT” written across the top of it — that she puts a lot of faith in. Then again, Hedy hires a private investigator (Jessica Jones) to dig up dirt on Patsy, so maybe she realizes her case isn’t so great. The one face-to-face interaction between Patsy and Hedy is a great moment of tension, with Hedy insulting Patsy and Patsy coming up empty in response. The book could have used more close-quarters conflict between the two.

Leth and artists Brittney Williams (#1-5) and Natasha Allegri (#6) are trying for a breezy, fun tone, which explains why the story might lack focus. But for this concept to work, Feline has to be funny, and it just doesn’t.

Take, for instance, issue #2, in which Patsy gets a job working retail — for “research,” she says, although all I can see that she learns is that she’s awful at working retail. She can’t relate to the customers or the merchandise at the hip-but-cheap clothing store she works at; she’s baffled by the garments’ logos and the customers’ reasonable requests. She’s constantly interrupted by friends and enemies, keeping her from getting any work done. Her cluelessness and poor results are frustrating rather than funny. By the end of the issue, I would have preferred to follow the adventures of the supervisor who gave Patsy the firing she so richly deserved.

The closest thread Feline has to an overall arc is the threat of Casiolena, an exiled Asgardian who entices various low-powered superhumans into committing crimes. Casiolena is an ineffectual villain, and that’s supposed to be funny, but she comes across as more petulant than humorous. She wants inspire superhumans to sow chaos, destabilizing New York, but she’s too lazy to do a good job or research the Midgardian quirks she needs to know to be successful. Hellcat and Valkyrie don’t take her seriously, even when Casiolena has captured them both, and the villainess makes unachievable promises to her aspiring minions. As soon as the heroes reveal that Casiolena’s promises can’t be fulfilled, her movement falls apart, and she’s easily captured.

The superhumans who turn to crime at Casiolena’s call aren’t bad people. They’re just … well, maybe they are bad people, in a banal way. They turn to crime as a shortcut to making their lives better, and that’s a horrible choice. None of them seem to be in desperate straits; they appear to prefer to work legitimately, but if legal work is not simple to find, crime’s fine. Patsy goes easy on them, which I don’t mind; the more quickly they get off the page, the more quickly I can forget about them forever.

Well, maybe not all of them — I do like the design of Bailey, a minor adversary who has a handbag of infinite capacity. She looks like a cute witch wearing bike shorts, and while I’m not sure how that fits thematically with “bag of holding,” I’m not the artist! And it’s good that I’m not the artist because I’m bad at drawing.

On the other hand, I’m not fond of Williams’s art, either. In the one opportunity she has to cut loose, the book’s big fight scene in #5, she fails to make an impression. Her tight, careful line and cartoony exaggeration does seem well suited for broad character work, and if the book were funnier, perhaps the art would mesh well with the story. But her detail-oriented art often makes her panels seem to cramped, and I don’t understand her visual vocabulary, at times; for instance, I can’t figure out what it means when Patsy suddenly shrinks to two-thirds size and shows her pointed teeth. (Is she feisty? Angry? Adorable? All of these? What does it mean?) Her Howard the Duck is misshapen, and her Hedy … When she comes to mock Patsy at her retail job, Hedy does not dress in a way that says, “I have room to mock those who work at the mall.” Instead, she looks like she should be picking up the kids at soccer practice in 20 minutes. That’s not how Hedy would dress on her way to insult Patsy.

I won’t discuss Allegre’s art in #6, as it makes me irrationally angry. Let’s just say that any comic that makes Arcade look like a cute teenager and She-Hulk appear unimpressive has a problem.

I do like Williams’s She-Hulk, though: she’s large without being grotesque, physically impressive without losing her attractiveness. The supporting cast and cameos from the rest of the Marvel Universe are the most appealing part of the book, actually; She-Hulk is a great friend to Patsy while being allowed to get angry at her, and the scenes with Howard the Duck (art aside), Dr. Strange, and Jessica Jones are all effective. The scene in which Patsy texts all her female friends, leading them to believe she’s in danger when all she wants is a consolation burger with them after getting fired, is a good illustration of why I would prefer to read about almost anyone in this book other than Patsy: they all excuse her mistake with a shrug. They realize you just have to put up with that nonsense with Patsy, which I do not want to do. She has a good heart, but she’s not that interesting or fun to be around.

And honestly, what kind of person gets a tattoo of themselves? And not a representative one, but a sort of a manga-version of their alter ego? I mean, Alex Rodriguez, who just retired from his baseball career, was seen as a narcissist, but I bet even he did not have a manga-style tattoo of himself in his Yankees uniform.

Rating: Defenders symbol Half Defenders symbol (1.5 of 5)

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