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

30 July 2016

Avengers: Scarlet Witch by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Collects: Scarlet Witch #1-4, Avengers Origins: The Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver #1, and stories from Marvel Team-Up #125, Solo Avengers #1, Marvel Comics Presents #60-3 and 143-4, and Mystic Arcana: Scarlet Witch #1 (1994, 2012; 1983, 1988, 1990, 1993-4, 2007)

Released: April 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 232 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785193357

What is this?: Wanda battles a counterpart from an alternate world in the main story, then encounters a bunch of forgettable obstacles in the rest.

The culprits: Writer Andy Lanning, Dan Abnett, and many others; artist John Higgins and others

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I’m going to dig into my reading history and bring up Avengers: Scarlet Witch by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. And just to be clear: that’s a metaphorical digging, not a literal one. Scarlet Witch isn’t so bad that I’d literally bury it in the earth to protect myself and others from its contents.

I mean, it’s not Luke Cage: Second Chances.

Avengers: Scarlet Witch coverScarlet Witch is a bit of a mess, though. The Scarlet Witch — Wanda Maximoff to her friends — is a character with a complex history, but this volume addresses little of it. The collection is built around the Scarlet Witch limited series from 1994, but “limited series from 1994” gives you a good idea of that title’s level of quality. The rest of the book is made up of non-feature stories from a couple of ‘80s titles, Marvel Comics Presents serials, a continuity implant focusing on Wanda’s mysticism, and a story that tries to present a coherent origin story for Wanda and her brother.

Let’s start, then, with the Scarlet Witch limited series; the book does, after all. Despite the title, the four issues are writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s only contribution to the book, and it’s not their best work. The Scarlet Witch has to battle Lore, an alternate version of herself. Like Wanda, Lore is a Nexus Being, someone who serves as the anchor of their reality. Each Nexus Being has a different flavor of power; while Wanda uses her hex powers, Lore is a necromancer. After exhausting her world, she went to other dimensions, using their nexus beings to exhaust that dimension’s resources. When Lore fixes her attention upon the 616 Universe, she frees Master Pandemonium, who has become “romantically” fixated on (read: stalkerishly obsessed with) Wanda, to help her defeat the Scarlet Witch.

What results is standard ‘90s chaff. The plot has no lasting consequences, which is a bit of a shame: of all the interdimensional meddling the Marvel Universe has had over the years, this one would help explain Wanda’s more destructive forays over the past two decades. The issue count is padded, and the story is more confusing that it has to be. The art by John Higgins is occasionally slick but often soulless, with plastic figures standing around. (As this was a ‘90s limited series, it will not surprise you that the women’s poses accentuate their, ah, assets.) Higgins does do a decent job with Wanda’s Avengers West Coast teammates, whom Lore transformed into monsters to battle Wanda.

Are Abnett and Lanning trying to elevate the limited series above the standard Marvel miniseries? The plot is inconsequential, and as a character exploration, it’s thin. But the story hints at something more consequential than an interdimensional madwoman behind this nonsense. The abandoned town of Unity and the catacombs under them in #1 and 2 have definite Lovecraftian touches, but those elements are abandoned in later issues for a Marvel Universe superhero battle with slight horror touches. I can’t decide whether Abnett and Lanning tossed the Lovecraft hints or whether they tried to develop them further, but either they or Higgins failed to make them more obvious.

So the limited series is, at best, a missed opportunity. The rest of the collection is an opportunity to take a nap.

The two stories that follow Scarlet Witch seem randomly chosen. The one from Marvel Team-Up #125 is a six-page back-up in which Dr. Strange could have literally teamed up with anyone, since Strange does all the work. Solo Avengers is a story more about death than Wanda, who briefly battles an incarnation of death until the person for whom she’s fighting decides she loves the current incarnation. (The story references Marvel Fanfare #6, which might have been a better choice to reprint than some of the others.)

The Marvel Comics Presents stories are forgettable. In MCP #60-3, an anti-mutant scholar catches Wanda off-guard and sends her spirit back in time to the body of her 16th-century pirate ancestor, Red Lucy Keough. (Does Lucy look exactly like Wanda? Of course she does!) Although a pirate tale could be interesting, the story doesn’t have enough room to do anything innovative, exciting, or unusual. MCP #143-4 was also reprinted in Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird, which is a curious decision, given that the murkily drawn story of demons and computers didn’t deserve to be reprinted once.

The last two stories are better fits (and better stories) than what came before. Mystic Arcana: Scarlet Witch tells the story of Wanda’s first encounter with magic: she’s introduced to a scantily clad coven of witches that features Margali Szardos, Nightcrawler’s not-yet stepmother; Maria Russoff, Werewolf-by-Night’s wife; and Lilia Calderu, witch-queen of the gypsies. The story is a continuity implant, of course, with Wanda getting a brief glimpse at the mystic life that she would eventually dabble in. The story is full of mystic doodads like the Serpent Crown, Darkhold, and the Book of Cagliostro, and the witches battle sorcerers Damballah and Taboo. Frankly, the story does more to set up Werewolf-by-Night’s origin than the Scarlet Witch’s. It does establish the dark god Chthon’s interest in Wanda, though, if you’re interested in that.

The collection is capped by Avengers Origins: Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver. It retells the story of the Maximoff twins from the day they were almost murdered by an angry mob but rescued by Magneto to the day they joined the Avengers. The issue does a good job of recapping the story for readers don’t know it, but it’s inessential if you are familiar with the bare bones of the story.

Oh! And if you miss the ‘90s, the book includes a bunch of Scarlet Witch pin-ups from the Marvel Swimsuit specials from the early part of that decade. You’re welcome.

I can appreciate that organizing the book is a bit difficult for the reprint editor, Mark D. Beazley. The Scarlet Witch limited series is the most coherent, longest story in the collection, so it’s logical that it leads off the book. On the other hand, readers would probably benefit from putting the limited series last: it’s the last story in continuity, and it’s nearly the last in publication order, with the two stories published later than the limited series (Mystic Arcana and Avengers Origins) being set much earlier in continuity. But if the limited series were at the end, who would read through the filler in the middle to get to it?

I can appreciate why Marvel might have thought to publish this book, but in retrospect, the decision seems like a poor one. Even if they’d renamed it to something to suggest the obscurity of some of these pieces — Scarlet Witch Rarities, or Scarlet Witch Archives — and de-emphasize writers who provide less than half the page content, only the limited series really has any reason to be reprinted. Cutting the price and including only the limited series and one other story — I’d choose Avengers Origins — would have made the book more attractive and would have made the title more accurate. Adding more material and keeping the price commensurate with the page count has made the collection much less appealing.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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22 July 2016

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America

Collects: Captain America: Sam Wilson #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196402

What is this?: Sam Wilson lets it be known he has political feelings, then takes on the Serpent Society — I mean, Serpent Solutions.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer, artists Daniel Acuna and Paul Renaud, and penciler Joe Bennett

First things first: if you are offended, as some reviewers on Amazon are, by politics in your Captain America comics, you should not be reading Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America. Sam Wilson was a social worker while he was Falcon, and he has had a vastly different upbringing from Steve Rogers. To not have Sam be more political than Steve would be a poor reading of the character, and writer Nick Spencer is completely right to have Sam take a stand on issues such as immigration.

The funny thing is that other than supporting the human rights of illegal immigrants, Sam doesn’t make any controversial pronouncements. We’re just told people are mad that he has. Spencer fills the book with anti-Wall Street sentiment, but honestly, I’m not sure many people get mad at the idea that investment bankers and stock traders are out of touch with the rest of society, often make amoral decisions more concerned with gaining money than acting ethically toward lower economic classes, and are often out of reach of the law. I think people don’t like being told that by people who have “agendas,” though, and comic-book writers who are too transparent are probably seen as people with agendas.

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America cover And let’s face it: in accordance with Marvel’s “More than One of Everything” policy, you don’t even have to read this book if you want to read a Captain America title. Just read the other one, and you’ll be fine. Now, as for whether you should read Not My Captain America

Sam Wilson is a likeable hero, not quite at ease with his new role, and Spencer mixes Sam’s doubts with his determination. Sam is someone I want to read about, someone whose elevation to perhaps the premiere Marvel hero identity seems earned without the character being conceited about it. Spencer gives Sam a sidekick, who, despite his silly origin, seems to be the kind of sidekick Sam should have: someone with ties to Sam’s legacy and who comes from a disadvantaged and non-privileged background.

A likeable hero and the promise of a good sidekick is an excellent start, but the other choices Spencer makes are less promising. The series begins with Sam sitting between two bros from New Jersey on a commercial airline, recapping and reminiscing about what has happened in the eight-month gap following Secret Wars. OK, fine — being in public gives readers a chance to see how normal people react to Sam. But it still involves Sam spending two issues spending non-flashback time between two bros, and I think Spencer could have chosen a better venue to show the public’s opinion of Sam.

The two issues of flashback prevents the book from gaining any momentum. The first issue has non-talky bits, like Sam and his team wrapping up a Hydra cell, but it isn’t satisfying. It’s a taste of action — inconsequential, not even complete enough to intrigue. Interspersing the story with things I don’t care about, like a detailed account of Sam’s falling out with SHIELD, waters the story down; if you can’t tell an interesting story about the conflict, mention it briefly and add more depth to Sam’s battle vs. Armadillo. (How Sam handles himself against a real heavyweight brawler should be important, given that unlike Steve, Sam’s best physical attribute is agility, not strength.) If I had been buying single issues, I would have abandoned the series after one issue. It’s not until Not My Captain America’s overarching storyline begins, five pages into #2, that the book starts to capture my interest.

Sam is working with Misty Knight, a private detective who used to date Iron Fist. As far as I can tell, Misty has never associated with Captain America or Sam Wilson in the past; she has usually worked with her long-time partner Colleen Wing or some iteration of Heroes for Hire. Why is she working with Sam Wilson now? It isn’t really answered; given that we learn a great deal of stuff that isn’t all that important, why couldn’t Spencer have mentioned Misty’s motivation? Despite how great Misty is, I get the feeling she was chosen as a race-appropriate romantic interest.

Spencer also brings back two characters from Ed Brubaker‘s last run: D-Man and Diamondback. D-Man, who is generally portrayed as a goofy but usually competent hero, was killed by Brubaker in a gritty story that was uniquely unsuited for D-Man. I’m glad he’s been brought back to serve as part of Sam’s support staff, a role he fits admirably. Diamondback, an ex-member of the Serpent Society who became Steve Rogers’s girlfriend and a hero, has fallen on hard times after her fiancé died of cancer, forcing her to become a stripper to make ends meet. But she was a SHIELD agent during Brubaker’s run. Couldn’t she have fallen back on that … ?


Oh …

This is something that got wiped out in the reordering of universes after Secret Wars, right? I … I need a moment. To think about … about the fragile nature of continuity, even in Marvel. Just … just give me a moment.

Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.

Well, I still think “stripper” is a bit too obvious of a profession for the founder of a mercenary group called “Bad Girls.”

The villains in Not My Captain America are quite a bit better. Spencer’s decision to transform the Serpent Society into Serpent Solutions seems exciting; rather than a brawling collection of snake-themed villains (which I like), he’s turned them into a group that leases evil intellectual property to unscrupulous businessmen. Unfortunately, the idea has several holes in it, the largest of which is that most of the seventeen or so members don’t do anything other than participate in the final battle with Sam and his allies. Instead, Serpent Solutions is reduced to Viper spouting One Percenter catchphrases to executive boards of amoral corporations. Spencer gives no indication that any Serpents have created the IP Viper is peddling.

Instead, some of that IP is being produced by mad scientist Karl Malus, an old Captain America foe who recently was been eaten and crapped out by Carnage; because of that, Malus has his own symbiote. This should make him terrifying, but instead, Spencer decides to defuse the tension by having Malus turn Sam into Cap Wolf. (Steve Rogers was turned into a wolf in one of the silliest storylines of Captain America, v. 1.) It’s a dumb joke, although given that Redwing, Sam’s falcon, has a sonic weapon, I’m not sure how much of a threat Karnage Malus should present.

(I do admire that Serpent Solutions is very professional about how it handles Misty’s attempt to break into their office building: She has to sign in, and a group of thugs are sent to the first floor to meet her.)

The art is uniformly good, although having three different artists on the initial arc is never a positive sign. All three have similar restrained styles that work well together. Daniel Acuña draws #1-3, which means he’s saddled with a lot of boring flashback work; he does his best, but I’m not sure anyone could make it interesting. In #3, I wish he would have played up the visual elements of Malus’s symbiote more, since the writing fails to make Malus the creepy adversary he should be. Paul Renaud manages to make the Serpents impressive, and I enjoyed the incongruity of Viper playing golf (wearing his mask) with other executives. His Diamondback is a bit too cheesecake, but then again, she is supposed to be a stripper. Joe Bennett gets the big fight scene at the end, but even though it’s certainly competent, it doesn’t exactly answer the question of how Joaquin, a nascent superhero, can evade the Serpent Society. (Given his wings, you’d think the answer would be “flying out of reach.” You, like me, would be wrong.) It also doesn’t have the impact a storyline ending brawl between a bunch of snakes and heroes should have. Also: Whoever gave Misty that open-midriff costume — probably Acuña — has a lot to answer for.

Oh, and one last thing: If you are a publisher of superhero comics coming out of an event that frelling reorders reality, consider putting some frakking footnotes into the text so readers have an idea about what comes from previous issues (which readers can probably buy in book form!) and what the writer is creating at this moment. It seems only considerate (and an opportunity to huck your damn product).

Rating: Captain America’s shield Captain America’s shield Half of Captain America’s indestructible shield (2.5 of 5)

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15 July 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #241-9 (1991)

Released: March 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 224 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558659

What is this?: After avoiding a demigod’s son’s revenge plot, Conan and his cohorts join the Khorajan army.

The culprits: Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gary Hartle and Mike Docherty

Since the next volume of the Chronicles of ConanChronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories — is scheduled to come out next week, I thought I’d review the most recent volume as a warm-up.

Is Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories better than the preceding volume? Oh, Crom, yes — it would be almost impossible for Roy Thomas, Conan’s first writer, to conceive of anything as dire as The Death of Conan and Other Stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories coverWith that low bar cleared, it’s time to look at whether Empire of the Undead is good. That question is a bit more complicated …

Those who know Thomas by his superhero work probably realize Rascally Roy never met a bit of continuity he didn’t think he could mine for a story. That’s the case with Empire of the Undead, where Thomas follows Michael Higgins’s continuity-ignoring implant with a storyline that brings back old friends and old rivals. Red Sonja returns, but that’s not so unusual: she pops up every now and then. Thomas also reunites the surly Cimmerian with Zula, one of the pirates who sailed with Conan and Bêlit in Conan the Barbarian #84-94 — a deep cut, to be sure.

Zula is a welcome addition — I’ve said before that Conan works better in the long term when he has allies to work with. But the returning villains … I’m not sure. Thomas introduces El-Ron, the son of Zukala, whom Conan fought in #5 and #115 and allied with in #14, and reintroduces the bat-like Afterlings, which appeared in #43, Stygian wizard Shu-Onoru, Zula’s old master who appeared in #85-6, and Stygian prince Katuman, who appeared in Savage Sword of Conan #2 and 3. (Other characters from the past also pop up, but I’m not going to list them all.) Thomas also uses Varnae the Vampire, who has long been established as the most ancient vampire lord in the Marvel Universe, as a villain for the second storyline in Empire.

These villains fall flat, though. The returning characters don’t serve much narrative purpose, as each of them — save for Shu-Onoru, who has a strong connection to Zula — could have been a new character without sacrificing any effect on the plot. Varnae is particularly out of place, as the story he’s in has none of the traditional vampire trappings, and he’s defeated by the clichéd “one thing that can defeat him” — a magic spell that Zula reads, in this case. Also, the Conan editorial staff was lying down on the job; other than Zula, the book contained few footnotes stating which issues these characters came from. Strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary, but it would have been nice to give readers some context.

Despite Thomas’s determination to link everything in his latest run to something he did more than a decade before, the book largely succeeds. The first story, a three-parter called “The Sorcerer and the She-Devil,” is fine, with Red Sonja’s feisty return mostly managing to hide the plot’s unwillingness to let either her or Conan affect it. (Does Thomas have something against Scientology? Naming the villain El-Ron tends suggest he does, but I can’t find anything online about it.) The following two-parter with Varnae the Vampire is notable only for the return of Zula; otherwise, #244 and 245 is a series of fights, usually with the heroes losing, interrupted by monologues.

The book finally gets into gear with #246, when Conan, Sonja, and Zula arrive in besieged Khoraja. Conan begins to ascend the Khorajan military ladder, as he has done in many other cities and states, and helps the Khorajans defeat the desert nomad wizard who threatens the city. Thomas gives the story a little nuance, showing the Khorajans are not completely innocent: their high command is just as stupid as the generals Conan usually serves under, and the city has an oppressed minority that Sonja is ambivalent toward, even when they try to kill her. I also appreciate that Thomas ignores Conan’s final fight with the uncanny leader of the nomads — we all know Conan’s going to win, right? — and instead concentrates on Zula and Sonja’s battle with demonic underlings. I admit laughing out loud when after the battle Sonja and Zula found Conan in post-coital bliss with the Khorajan princess.

Additionally, Thomas gives more depth to Sonja than I anticipated he would. At first, Sonja displays her customary rivalry with Conan, although she lacks the usual camaraderie she usually has with him. (It turns out Sonja was hired to assassinate El-Ron, and Conan kept getting in the way of her plan.) But as the book goes on and she continues to adventure with Conan, her rivalry continues, although Conan is mystified at why she’s so angry about his successes. When Conan quickly becomes a captain in the Khorajan army, Sonja bristles. It’s easy to see why: in Empire, Sonja is every bit the warrior Conan is, but it’s always Conan who gets credit for being the superior warrior. Her resentment cools a bit at the end when Conan, elevated to general, promotes her to captain. Overall, Sonja is more insecure than usual, but I can live with that, given how difficult it must be to live, even for a while, in Conan’s shadow.

Artists Gary Hartle (#241-7) and Mike Docherty (#248-9) are solid artists, and I have no complaints about them. They aren’t superlative stylists like Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema, but both know how to draw Conan and his world, telling comprehensible stories. More importantly, in my eyes, they give Sonja more clothing than a chainmail bikini. Hartle’s one-piece swimsuit with lapels and a fur-trimmed cape is only a moderate improvement, but Docherty gets rid of the lapels (and cleavage) as soon as he can, adding leather armor around the neck and shoulders and a loincloth. It’s not practical, but it’s nice to see someone moving her in a more sartorially useful direction.

More amusing than Sonja’s clothing is the contrast between Conan’s interior and cover artists. Hartle and Docherty, as I mentioned, are good, but they never were considered “hot” artists; on the other hand, the covers are contributed by artists who were the most sought-after pencilers of the day. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, a trio that would help found Image Comics the following year, contributed the covers for #241-3, and Art Adams drew #247-9. Those are impressive artists to line up for a title that was aimlessly wasting readers’ time in the previous collection.

No one’s going to pick up Empire if they haven’t been reading Chronicles of Conan for a long time. But if you made it through Death of Conan without your interest in Conan being extinguished, then you might as well pick up Empire, especially since Thomas seems to be adding a little more depth than he has to to the stories.

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

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08 July 2016

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF

Collects: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900052

What is this?: A girl with the Inhuman gene finds a Kree device coveted by time-lost cavemen, who are pursued by Devil Dinosaur, a literal dinosaur.

The culprits: Written by Amy M. Reeder and Brandon Montclare and penciled by Natacha Bustos

I can’t say I’ve ever been enchanted by the idea of Devil Dinosaur.

I mean, yes, I get the appeal: giant red T-Rex. But I’m not a big fan of high-concept ideas that go nowhere, and eventually the appeal of what amounts to a giant carnivorous (within the bounds of the Comics Code Authority) horse / dog has to wear thin after a while. It’s not like Devil Dinosaur has a huge range of emotions by himself (herself?).

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF coverBut I decided to give Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF a shot, and I’m glad I did.

Writers Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare create a sympathetic lead in Lunella Lafayette, a grade-school genius (her age is unclear) who is trying to keep her Inhuman gene from expressing. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by those not only of lesser intellect but also of much greater obliviousness. Her parents want her to be normal, which she clearly is not; her science teacher (or maybe her only teacher, who knows) teaches the students as if they are half-wits and is not prepared to deal with a gifted child. The token jock, Coach Hrbek, picks up an alien artifact as if it is a basketball.

It’s always easy to make the smart, picked-on kid sympathetic, and Lunella is no different. She has been rejected by the Future Foundation and other gifted schools, showing that while she’s very smart, she’s not considered Marvel Universe elite yet. Those schools would be Lunella’s ticket out of the unfair world she lives in, where she has to endure her underprepared teachers and classmates’ taunts (including the convenient nickname “Moon Girl”) in class. Outside the classroom, she retreats into her own world. It’s all by the book, but damned if I didn’t fall for it.

Lunella’s antagonists, the Killing Folk, are the standouts of the book. The Killing Folk are primitive humans who are the archenemies of Devil Dinosaur’s original sidekick, Moon Boy. In the distant past, Moon Boy manages to send the Killing Folk away, saving his people — the Small Folk — as he himself dies. Moon Boy has only delayed the problem, though, as the Killing Folk appear in the present and continue their dominance displays as soon as they acclimatize to the modern world. They are ridiculous — there’s no way they should dominate the Yancy Street Gang and New York police so quickly — but Reeder and Montclare use that to their benefit. To the people of Lunella’s neighborhood, the Killing Folk are just another gang, and the Killing Folk do their best to fulfill that explanation: after all, they’re terrorizing the Small Folk again, just like they did in their own time, and if that requires wearing hoodies and flashing gang signs, they are up for it.

The Killing Folk are in pursuit of what they call “the Nightstone,” although Lunella, who found it before they arrived, surmises it’s a Kree Omni-Wave Projector. Lunella hopes she’ll be able to use the projector to somehow suppress her Inhuman genes. This quest is a tricky point, literally and figuratively, that the writers don’t engage with. Twenty or more years ago, Lunella would have been afraid her mutant gene would express. That’s an easier metaphor for the reader to parse: as mutant powers come out in adolescence, mutancy goes along with puberty, a general change from child the person was to adult they will become. But the Inhuman gene might not ever express if the bearer doesn’t come in contact with Terrigen mist. Does that make the Inhuman gene more like a gene that triggers cancer, something that should be avoided if possible? Or is it still like the X-gene, a natural part of personal evolution?

How am I supposed to feel about Lunella’s quest? I don’t know. Lunella simply doesn’t want to go through the Inhuman change, which doesn’t clarify matters, and her parents don’t seem that troubled by it. Lunella’s motivations seem reasonable — I don’t know that I would want to be radically changed — but if Inhumans are the 21st-century mutants, then she should make her peace with it. Man, I’m confused, and not in a good way.

Devil Dinosaur makes his appearance pursuing the Killing Folk from the past into the present. Unfortunately, Devil Dinosaur is the book’s weak point. The scenes with Devil are the weakest — except perhaps his fight with the Hulk in #4 — in the book. Nothing is surprising about his meeting with Lunella or their interactions after that; of course Lunella dislikes him at first, and of course they become friends. After the Hulk captures DD, of course she springs him. It’s Buddy Cop 101, and it’s a bit tiresome. DD is at best a friendly dog, but he has little character beyond that.

And despite all the good things in BFF — and they are considerable — the big red doughnut hole in the center of the book holds it back considerably. I want to like the book more, but when Clifford Rex galumphs onto the page, the book’s development grinds to a halt for an action set piece, robbing Lunella’s story of momentum.

It’s not the artist’s fault those action scenes make the book drag, though. Natacha Bustos does a great job: her art is so clear, so precise, so … perfect. Her designs for the Killer Folk are great and make them a treat every time they show up. Occasionally, I find I have questions — how old are Lunella and her classmates, exactly? How did the fire at school start? (After I puzzled out that it was the careless use of matches in the girls’ bathroom, I was left with the question of how a porcelain floor catches fire and burns a classroom some distance away, but that’s a script problem, most likely.) Colorist Tamra Bonvillain gives the book a bright, optimistic color scheme that’s perfect for a young genius.

The brief appearance of the new Hulk in #4 is a separate problem from the rest of the book. Reeder and Montclare do their best to make the Cho Hulk unsympathetic: he’s vain, too cocksure, and learns nothing, which is always a problem for an intelligent protagonist. I realize they were trying to make Cho another adult who won’t listen to or help Lunella, forcing her to rely on her own wits to survive, but I’m also assuming their characterization of the new Hulk is accurate. If so, they considerably dampened my desire to read Totally Awesome Hulk, v. 1: Cho Time. I suppose Cho’s unappealing presence could be seen as a survival strategy for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, driving the audience away from a competing new book.

I want to like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, but I can’t help but think the book would be better off if Lunella was cut loose from the “Moon Girl” nonsense and Devil Dinosaur and left to her own devices. I’ll probably pick up v. 2, but that’s mostly because of the cliffhanger at the end of BFF

Rating: Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol (3 of 5)

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01 July 2016

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt

Collects: Howard the Duck #1-6, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6 (2016)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199380

What is this?: Howard looks for a way home but becomes a Living Nexus instead, with the entire cosmic pantheon searching for him; Howard and Squirrel Girl team up to defeat an insane cosplayer.

The culprits: Writer Chip Zdarsky, with help from Ryan North on both #6s, and penciler Joe Quinones, with help from Veronica Fish (#2) and Erica Henderson (Squirrel Girl #6)

Whenever I saw Howard the Duck was going to be revived, I had to remind myself that Steve Gerber’s not walking through that writing-room door. (Mostly because the creator of Howard the Duck has been dead since 2008.) Given that Howard has had received mixed reviews when not written by Gerber, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this new series.

It’s a relief to say that Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt is very funny and well worth a read. It isn’t Gerber-esque — little is — but it’s still funny.

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt cover(The first Howard the Duck collection from this run, the confusingly numbered Howard the Duck, v. 0: What the Duck, is also funny, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it; in any event, I think Duck Hunt is superior.)

While this Howard lacks the satiric edge of Gerber’s writing, writer Chip Zdarsky’s work is still very funny, mixing Marvel jokes, pop culture references, and outstanding comic timing. Duck Hunt does follow the Gerber template of putting Howard into absurd situations and letting him react to them. In Duck Hunt, for instance, Howard just wants to return to Duckworld but has to deal with female clones of himself and Rocket Raccoon, all the people who try to capture him after he becomes a Living Nexus, a wannabe herald of Galactus, a woman who decides to hunt anthropomorphic animals because she wants to hunt the most dangerous game, and anthropomorphic animals are a legal gray area …

Howard handles all of it with his trademark puzzlement, disdain, and fear. His tattoo artist sidekick, Tara Tam, provides a layman’s view of his adventures, which — when it comes down to it — isn’t all that different from Howard’s point of view, but she is allowed to be confused in situations Howard finds tediously complicated.

Duck Hunt ranges through the Marvel Universe, from its cosmic bourns to the swamps around Citrusville, Fla., and New York. Zdarsky pulls in numerous characters, and I find it interesting which ones mesh with Howard’s comic ethos: the cosmic entities, strangely, as well as Dr. Strange (an old Defenders friend), Squirrel Girl, and the Wizard and Titania. The contrast between the most powerful of Marvel’s pantheon of villains and heroes (Galactus, Silver Surfer, and the Collector) and a tired duck never fails to be absurd, and Howard always works best as a character fighting against villains who aren’t the strongest adversaries, like the Wizard. (Usually, though, Howard villains are the seriously incompetent, like Dr. Bong.)

Not everyone Zdarsky puts into Duck Hunt works, though. I didn’t care for the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who seem shoehorned into the plot; they aren’t very funny, and I’m not sold on their lineup (Thing, Shadowcat, and Flash Thompson-Venom on the same team?). Aunt May’s continued presence feels like a continuity error, but I’m willing to overlook it.

The two-part Squirrel Girl / Howard story that ends the book is a natural crossover. Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North and Zdarsky work flawlessly together, even to the point of writing dialogues in Squirrel Girl’s trademark page-bottom asides. The two issues are hilarious, with Squirrel Girl’s optimism and hypercompetence complementing Howard’s pessimism and … well, not quite competence. The villain’s concept — a cosplaying villain who has decided hunting sentient anthropomorphic characters, like Rocket Raccoon, Howard, and Beast, is her life’s goal — is terrific, although I question the wisdom of making her a southern belle named Shannon Sugarbaker. (I don’t need implied crossovers between the Marvel Universe and Designing Women.) I also have trouble with Kraven’s characterization in the crossover; Kraven is easily cowed by Shannon in the story, and even though he regains some of his élan in the final issue, it still feels weird.

Kra-Van!On the other hand, the crossover features Kraven’s airbrushed Kra-Van, and its presence forgives a lot of sins.

Artist Joe Quinones didn’t create the Kra-Van — that was Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson — but he is a solid complement for Zdarsky’s writing. Drawing Howard the Duck calls for a wide range; the book has both action and humor, and Howard himself needs a lot of subtlety of expression, which isn’t easy on a duck’s face. Quinones succeeds admirably, though. He has a tight line and he doesn’t exaggerate much, which I think is to the title’s advantage: the situations Howard gets into are absurd enough without the need for cartoon-y elements trying to ratchet up the silliness. Howard always has to be able to have a claim to keeping his dignity, and putting him in a story that turns him into a caricature robs him of that. The relatively realistic art makes Quinones sort of the book’s straight man, a role that is often underappreciated. Still, Quinones slips his own in-jokes into the story; for instance, Quinones places Soos from Gravity Falls into the book as an ignorant yokel. (Quinones changes the question mark on Soos’s shirt to an exclamation mark, but it’s definitely him.)

That being said, Duck Hunt is not all wacky adventures and jokes — and I mean that in a good way. I was genuinely moved by issue #2, drawn by guest artist Veronica Fish, which tells the life story of Linda (Howard’s female clone) and Shocket (Rocket’s female clone). It’s a tribute to Fish’s and Zdarsky’s skills that they could make me care about the distaff knockoffs of two second-tier characters within the space of a single issue, but it happens, and it doesn’t feel cheap. I never need to see the two again, but they work in this story.

As a side note, Duck Hunt does not have the three back-up Howard / Gwenpool stories that originally ran in Howard the Duck #1-3. As much as I might have appreciated the entirety of #1-3 being reprinted, I understand the space crunch the book was under: the book is seven issues long, and the Gwenpool stories would have added another issue’s worth of pages. But if they reduced the number of issues included, they would have had to remove the entire Howard / Squirrel Girl crossover. The lead Howard stories were full-length, anyway, so it’s not like readers are getting cheated.

On the other hand, cutting the book short after #5 would have left a heck of a cliffhanger … although one that wouldn’t be picked up again until the fourth story of the next trade. I suppose sometimes perfect choices are impossible.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend Howard the Duck to everyone, even those who don’t like the character. This Howard, although funny, is nothing like Gerber’s acerbic takes on ‘70s culture; this book is just trying to be funny — and succeeding.

Rating: Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Half Howard the Duck symbol (4.5 of 5)

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