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

25 May 2012

Young Allies, v. 1

Collects: Young Allies #1-6, Firestar (v. 2) #1, and the Gravity story from Age of Heroes #2 (2010-1)

Released: February 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 192 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785148685

What is this?: A bunch of young heroes loosely collaborate to battle the Bastards of Evil.

The culprits: Writer Sean McKeever and artists David Baldeón and Emma Rios

I was tempted, given my recent glowing review of Nomad, to give Young Allies a 4-of-5 rating and call it a day. After all, it has the same writer (Sean McKeever), the same artist (David Baldeón), and features one of the same characters (the eponymous Nomad). But unfortunately, Young Allies is not the unqualified success that Nomad was.

Young Allies is not quite a team book; as McKeever points out in his afterword, which serves as an epitaph for the series, the book was supposed to be an ensemble piece. A non-team, if you will. It was a way, according to McKeever, to set this book apart from other books. But ensemble books have to work hard to establish their own character, and in a book with Firestar, Nomad, Araña, Gravity, and a new Toro, there aren’t enough strong characters or interesting interactions to give the book a strong identity. Team-up books and books with rotating casts are hard sells these days without a strong brand identity. Even back when comics sold hundreds of thousands of copies per issue, the Defenders (the original non-team) survived on its strong central characters, endearing yet slightly creepy weirdness, and inertia. Young Allies has none of that. Maybe McKeever could have made it work; I would have liked to have seen him try. But none of these characters gave the series the oomph it needed.

Young Allies coverThe name didn’t help. The heroes aren’t officially ever called the “Young Allies,” but McKeever works hard in #5 to get the name to stick: Captain America compares the youngsters to the Young Allies he knew in World War II, and Nomad mentions founding a Young Allies team on her homeworld. And there is a bit of sense to it; the book does have a Toro and a (former) Bucky, just like the original Young Allies. But then you wonder what the rest of the group has to do with a team name that last had an ongoing series in 1946. Araña, who becomes Spider-Girl by the end of the book, is present because she’s friends with Nomad, but Firestar and Gravity … they have nothing to do with the Young Allies concept or even Toro, Nomad, or Spider-Girl. They’re in their own plotline, and it almost feels like they’re in their own book.

That’s the problem with Young Allies, I think. In Nomad, McKeever showed he had a handle on teenagers and high school, and in Gravity, he did a good job with a newbie college hero. But if Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us anything, it’s that the problems (and metaphors) of high school aren’t the same as the problems (and metaphors) of college. Nomad and Araña, high schoolers both, feel like the central characters of the book. Certainly Nomad is the pivot the Young Allies name is supposed to turn on. But the problems and feel of this book is more collegiate, more Peter Parker in college than Peter Parker in high school. It doesn’t have that structure, that feeling of constriction that high school has. All the kids have freedom, which would play to Gravity and Firestar’s setup rather than the high schoolers’. But Firestar’s too wrapped up in her own problems of identity and recovering from cancer to add much to the ensemble, and Gravity’s sudden infatuation with Firestar (and his deep-seated desire for heroism) keep him from being very interesting.

I had trouble figuring out Gravity’s status quo at the beginning of the book. I’ve read his previous appearances in his own mini, Beyond!, and Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four. Still, I couldn’t figure out why he was in Wisconsin again at the beginning of the story (because McKeever, I suppose) or what his relationship status with Lauren, the girlfriend who meant so much to him in Gravity and Beyond!, was. Nor was I clear about when Araña and Nomad became crimefighting partners, although that was less important. The disappointing thing is that there are summaries of Gravity’s, Nomad’s, and Araña’s histories included in the book; unfortunately, they are at the end, where they aren’t obviously useful. If you want readers to know about the characters they’re going to be reading about, background information needs to be up front. The Firestar one-shot does a good job of setting up her status quo, though — so well the character background at the beginning of the issue is almost redundant. Almost. It’s still appreciated, although issue numbers would have been nice in all of the character summaries.

So, to sum up: McKeever has given us a book with an unclear and not quite compelling hook, with characters who aren’t quite strong enough to support a book. What does he do well, then?

The villains — the Bastards of Evil. Even beyond the name, they stand out. Second-generation supervillains with a different sensibility than their parents, the Bastards are easily the highlights of the book, and I wouldn’t mind seeing these characters (or the concept) brought back in some other seires. The bastards are just as prone to grandiose grandstanding as their forebears, but they are Internet savvy and have daddy issues. The Bastards are teens, and McKeever gives them the casual cruelty of teens — stereotypically so, at times. Their attitude toward technology and the world set them far enough apart from the rest of Marvel’s villains to give them a feeling of uniqueness and makes them a good foil for the Young Allies.

I praised David Baldeón’s work in Nomad, and it’s much the same here. The feel is a little different, though; for some reason, his art works better in a high-school book than with the freedom the characters in Young Allies possess. Perhaps it’s because the similarity of his facial types emphasized the conformity of high school in Nomad. Perhaps it’s because his characters have a restrained sexuality, which works well with high school students but not so well with Emma Frost — or college students, really. (My God — I can’t believe I’m complaining about a lack of cheesecake. This is a very sad day for me.) Still, he’s an excellent artist, able to handle conversation and action easily. I wasn’t blown away by his designs for the Bastards, but since he’s working from their parents’ design, I wasn’t expecting to be. I was disappointed that he contributed none of the covers, which were each in a very different style than his interiors. I really didn’t like Emma Rios’s art for the Firestar one-shot, but that might be my prejudice against manga-influenced art. Or it could be the faces — no matter how strong an artist’s storytelling chops are, looking at weird faces on every page eventually wears away the pleasure centers of my brain. It’s a problem with Frank Quitely for me, and Angelica’s widely set, dead eyes are the problem here.

I want to like Young Allies, but after setting aside the Bastards of Evil, I’m left with a feeling of absence, sensing a lack rather than a presence. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps the book is missing a heart, something that will take its not unpleasing parts and make them into a satisfying whole. Whatever the reason, though, Young Allies falls short.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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18 May 2012

Pop Quiz: Essential Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, v. 1

Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, v. 1 coverI’ve just read the Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, v. 1, and boy, did it raise some questions. Lucky you: I’m going to share some of them, and I’ll even add a few of my best guesses for each. But I don’t know which is right. For the answers, visit your local Army recruitment office, which will be glad to educate you on all manner of topics related to national service. (You may have to sign some paperwork before they give you the answers. Please do so without annoying the nice recruiters by reading it.)

1. When during World War II do these issues take place?

a) 1942. The missions in North Africa means everything must happen before the Afrika Korps surrendered in May 1943 and more probably before the climactic battle of El Alamein in fall 1942.
b) Late 1943 or the first half of 1944. Many mentions of the future D-Day landing are made, and planning for that operation took place between late 1943 and the invasion date of June 6, 1944.
c) Yes.
d) The Silver Age of World War II. Excelsior, True Believers!

2. The Howling Commandos go on at least one suicide mission per issue, but after the 23 issues in Essential Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, v. 1, the seven-member squad loses only one man. Why can’t the Germans (and occasionally the Japanese) kill the verdamnt Howlers?
a) For dramatic purposes — if the book were more realistic, the series would have been a miniseries, and everyone would have been dead at the end of it.
b) No one dared tell Stan Lee that “suicide mission” didn’t mean what he thought it meant.
c) The German soldiers were actually time-lost clones of Jango Fett, which is why they have to share six names (Otto, Fritz, Siegfried, Ernst, Ludwig, and Baron).
d) Well, judging from the art, the Japanese suffered from some unfortunate eye condition that probably hampered their aim. The Germans were probably too busy learning English to practice their marksmanship.

3. Hmm … Well, why don’t the Germans speak German?
a) Comic book conventions for foreign languages, such as brackets and footnotes, were not common at the time.
b) They were so poor they had only this outrageous accent!
c) The German language was taken by the Allies after World War I as part of reparations.
d) German and Japanese didn’t exist as languages before the end of World War II. They were inflicted upon the defeated Axis powers by the Allies as their cruelest punishment.*

4. This is World War II. Where are all the dead bodies?
a) These particular battles were fought under the GI Joe / Hardy Boys rules. Deaths are for exceptional, dramatic reasons only, and injuries can’t actually cause anything more than general weakness, holes in clothing, and mild blood stains. Soldiers being knocked unconscious and / or suffering head wounds (especially if bullets “graze the temple”) are acceptable.
b) These particular battles were fought under the video game rules. Dead bodies disappear a few seconds after they collapse, leaving occasional power ups such as health packs and grenades.
c) The dead bodies are immediately swept under the Comics Code of America symbol.
d) People died in World War II? Oh my God! Why didn’t anyone tell me?

The Nazi Hop5. What is Baron Strucker doing in this panel?
a) Spoken-word performance art titled “For the World Is Hollow, and I Have Committed Genocide against the Lesser Races.”
b) Breakdancing to a funky groove being laid down by DJ Nazi Jeff.
c) The latest dance craze to sweep the Fatherland — either the Hitler Stomp or the Nazi Hop.
d) Waiting for his turn to dance with Mary Jane Watson down at the Coffee Bean. She’ll dance with anyone … and I think you know what I mean by “dance.”**

6. In #17, why are the Howling Commandos, who have just finished a mission in the Sahara Desert, said to be only “a few miles” from a jungle?
a) Because the lush, tropical rainforest is right next to the arid, sandy desert. Duh. That happens. It’s like asking why someone would say you’re only “a few miles” from New York if you’re in Weehawken, N.J.
b) Nazi super science.
c) As every American knows, it’s only about 100 miles or so from Cape Town to Cairo. How far from one another can things in Africa be?
d) Because Stan Lee — that’s why.

7. What does the narrative box mean when it says Dum-Dum Dugan took care of the German guards “Commando style”?
a) He slit their throats, dispatching them silently.
b) He shot them both with a single bullet to the back of the head, killing them quickly and professionally.
c) He knocked them unconscious, then stole their underwear. The Allies wanted to bring freedom to all men in Europe!
d) He confused them with an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation, shot them, then made a horrible pun about “not seeing” (“Nazi-ing”) them again.

Really?8. Fury and the Howling Commandos was published in the mid-‘60s, before the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in popular media, and it depicted an era when Americans dehumanized their war-time enemies with ethnic slurs. So just how racist is this book? (Please see #10, iii, before answering.)
a) More nationalistic than racist. Like most comic books of the time (and even up to the present day), other nationalities are reduced to quaint stereotypes. These are meant to be shorthand for “different” rather than demeaning, no matter how outdated or simplistic they are. The Howling Commandos are more ethnically diverse than most comic book teams of the time, and they were definitely more diverse than the actual US Army during World War II, which was still segregated.
b) As above, but still kinda racist.
c) Pretty racist.
d) This is a book in which Gabe Jones cows a bunch of African tribesmen with the jitterbug, crappy magic tricks, and a Masonic ring. What do you think?

9. Each combat mission, no matter how involved or difficult, takes place entirely in one issue. How many issues would each mission take to tell in a decompressed 21st-century comic?
a) Two or three issues each. These stories don’t leave much room for things like subtlety or, you know, characterization.
b) A mission could be spread over three issues, but you need downtime issues — these are soldiers; they need to, well, decompress.
c) Each Silver Age issue probably could sustain a whole storyline — one trade paperback per mission.
d) Brian Michael Bendis has just announced that Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 will form the basis of the first two years’ worth of stories in Ultimate Sgt. Fury and His Howling Ultimates.

10. Consider the following four statements, each of which happened in Essential Sgt. Fury I:
i. The Germans attempted to tunnel from France to Britain, secretly, as an invasion plan.
ii. A submarine fired the Howling Commandos out of torpedo tubes, which should have crushed their spines like soda cans.
iii. Izzy Cohen passed himself off as a Japanese officer with a little tape and mud.
iv. Fury led a mission (without orders) against a German bomber squadron base to get revenge for one person killed in a bombing raid.
Which of the above is the most ridiculous?
a) ii.
b) iv.
c) i and iv, tied.
d) iii and iv, because ii happens in movies and books often enough we’ve become used to the idea.
e) This book has infantrymen shooting down enough German planes — with machine guns — to qualify as aces; one squadron performing missions in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific (always returning to England); suicide missions on which no one ever dies; and missions with no logical chronological order. But you’re concerned with these four things? Really?

*As for Italy, there is no such language as Italian. It actually is heavily accented English and wild hand gestures.

** The mashed potato, perhaps, or the cool jerk.

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11 May 2012

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5

Collects: Detective Comics #391-407 and Batman #216-227 (1969-70)

Released: December 2011 (DC)

Format: 448 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401232368

What is this?: Batman starts swinging into the Bronze Age, packing his sidekick off to college and hitting the mean streets of downtown Gotham.

The culprits: Writers Frank Robbins, Denny O’Neil, and Mike Friedrich and artists Bob Brown, Neal Adams, and Irv Novick

I read Showcase Presents Batman v. 1 and v. 2, but I had to give up reading the series. Unlike some, I have little tolerance for Silver Age stories from the DC Universe; I don’t care that the original writers and artists knew they were creating comics for kids or that the stories were unapologetically goofy. The stories are still goofy, and that does not amuse or entertain me.

So I decided to hop back on bard the Showcase train only when it hit Denny O’Neil Station, which it did in Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5. Not all of these issues are written by O’Neil (his first is Detective Comics #395), and Frank Robbins wrote more, by a 2-to-1 margin. (Mike Friedrich contributed three back-ups.) O’Neil does pen the most lasting contribution to Bat-lore in this volume — the creation of the League of Assassins in Detective Comics #405 — but I was surprised to discover Robbins co-created the Man-Bat (in Detective #400).

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5 coverO’Neil’s writing … it’s hard to call it “realistic,” but his stories are less prone to the Silver Age flourishes that characterize the previous volumes in the series. O’Neil’s writing will occasionally indulge in asides to the reader, asking if she has spotted the key clue to a mystery, but his stories feel more modern. On the other hand, Robbins opens the volume with “The Girl Most Likely to Be — Batman’s Widow” (Detective #391) and “I Died … a Thousand Deaths!” (Detective #392). Those titles would have fit right into Showcase Presents Batman, v. 1, although the stories aren’t as hokey as their titles (or their punctuation) would lead you to believe. By the end of the volume, O’Neil and Robbins aren’t aping each other’s style, but there isn’t a tonal clash between their stories either — Robbins drifts toward the science-fictional, O’Neil toward the supernatural, but they generally restrict themselves to one major speculative element per issue.

The stories in v. 5 are obviously Batman stories, but they disdain a lot of the Batman trappings. Readers will probably be surprised that none of Batman’s impressive rogue’s gallery makes an appearance in this book. There’s no Joker, no Two-Face, Catwoman, Riddler … Even Robin leaves for college in the fourth story (Detective #393) after seemingly aging three years between issues. Batman abandons Wayne Manor for a downtown penthouse, the flashy Batmobile for a less noticeable muscle car. Bruce Wayne gets involved in victim services, helping those affected by crime with philanthropy and Bat-punches. The only freaks he encounters are Man-Bat (the scientist who turns himself into a man / bat hybrid) and the Man with Ten Eyes (a veteran whose ocular nerves are re-routed through his fingers). Both are good men driven toward bad deeds by madness or false information — very much in the Marvel vein of this time. Batman’s opponents are generally grandiose tugs, blackmailers, kidnappers, and thieves graduating to murder or attempted murder. All these gangsters give the book slight blandness, which makes the occasional note of goofiness a welcome bit of flavor. Had this been another, less-popular hero’s adventures, I doubt the stories here would have saved him from cancellation, let alone have supported two titles.

Still, there are some points of interest, even beyond assassins and Man-Bat appearances. O’Neil uses the ghostly Enemy Ace in Detective #404, which must have thrilled literally tens of readers. The Muertos, an immortal husband-and-wife team of villains, clearly presage O’Neil’s later (and much more important) Ra's al Ghul. Robbins’s most interesting story comes from his twist (ha!) on the “Paul is dead” hoax in Batman #322, in which Batman and Robin try to discover whether Saul Cartwright, a member of the Beatles stand-ins Oliver Twists, is an imposter.

The art in this book is top-notch. Bob Brown provides the art for early issues, and those stories have a stagy, first-generation Silver-Age style to them. But when pencilers Neal Adams and Irv Novick join the art rotation, his style gradually becomes more like theirs. And theirs … there are many valid complaints you can make about the Bronze Age — quality control for story content being foremost — but the emergence of the first generation of artists who were inspired by Kirby and other Silver Age greats make up for all of them. Adams is foremost among this group, and his art is wonderful: shadowy, evocative, action packed, pretty to look at. He also draws the majority of the covers in this book, and it’s jarring to see Silver Age copy on Adams’s more modern, hipper art. I was surprised how good Novick’s work was; not as graceful as Adams’s, but it’s an excellent complement: realistic while still allowing for some stylistic embellishments. He’s not someone who’s going to get much attention — today everyone remembers Adams, but no one talks about Novick — but his work is always enjoyable.

I enjoyed this far more than v. 1 or v. 2. Are these stories great? No; as I said, there is an unavoidable feeling of blandness throughout. Even Man-Bat, who alleviates this feeling in his appearances, is a somewhat bland (and obvious) idea. But given the art, the changes in the status quo, and O’Neil’s assassin stories, I get the feeling this series is on the brink of something exciting.

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

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04 May 2012

Wolverine: Evolution

Collects: Wolverine (v. 3) #50-5 (2007)

Released: February 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785122562

What is this?: Wolverine vs. Sabretooth, with dreams of prehistoric serial-killing furries.

The culprits: Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Simone Bianchi

The public library system I patronize has a small graphic novel collection — sparse, I’d say, but I haven’t found a good way to browse outlying branches’ collections using the catalog, so maybe there’s more there than I know about. In any event, I’m always interested in how the library chooses the few graphic novels it has — so interested, I wrote a book that was partially about that very question.

Which leads me to the question of why my local library chose to purchase Wolverine: Evolution. Evolution collects Wolverine (v. 3) #50-5, which is not exactly a standout storyline. The library does not have an extensive collection of Wolverine titles or X-Men books or even Marvel works. It isn’t literary enough to fit in the collection’s graphic novels, and it’s too violent to be a good fit for the Young Adult section (although that’s where it’s shelved anyway). Evolution came out in 2008, well before the Wolverine movie, and there are better Wolverine stories to choose from once currency isn’t a consideration. The only thing I can figure is that someone recognized writer Jeph Loeb’s name from Heroes or the book was advertised with that info, and some librarian latched onto it.

Wolverine: Evolution coverLoeb’s story will certainly win no prizes. The plot alternates between Wolverine fighting Sabretooth and Wolverine saying, “Huh?” to whatever nonsensical exposition Loeb has added to the story. At several points during the story, Wolverine admits his befuddlement or complains that whatever has just happened makes no sense. If only some editor had listened to Wolverine and forced Loeb to make the story more coherent, we’d all be better off. Alas …

Evolution decides to explore the mysteries of Wolverine’s past. I too thought we’d put all that behind us, after Logan was revealed as a nightshirt-wearing Victorian and Grant Morrison had Wolverine learn the secrets of Weapon X. But Loeb thinks that vein can still be mined for gold, adding not only a mysterious, powerful stranger who can blank Wolverine’s memory but also delving into the very secrets of the hero’s DNA. Yes, he proposes that Wolverine, Sabretooth, and other mutants with a feral nature could be descended from what Storm calls Lupus sapiens.

Because linking all the mutants with similar morphologies to a common ancestor worked so well for Chuck Austen. Also, binomial nomenclature doesn’t work that way; while biologists may be split on the fertile interbreeding of species (and where to draw the borders of species), breeding across genera is almost unheard of. (Certainly across orders; wolves and humans are in different branches of class Mammalia. Or is Loeb / Storm suggesting a Lupus is a new genus in family Hominidae?)

But putting aside the vagaries of Marvel science and the patent inadvisability of this plot, there is still little to recommend this story, as the fights have no thrills, and most of the characters act like they want to be somewhere else. Wolverine picks a fight with Sabretooth at the beginning of #50, and the fight continues across three countries without much innovation or escalation. The fight peaks at the end of #51, when the two brawlers crash a Blackbird while scrapping. That may sound impressive, but they both barely pause in their fight, and there is no anticipation for the scene, which is barely set up. (Some might appreciate Sabretooth reattaching his own severed limbs as a high point … but when did Sabretooth become a D&D troll?) Storm and Black Panther pop their heads into the story to show Wolverine and Sabretooth an archaeological site relevant to Wolverine’s dreams and then do everything they can to avoid getting involved with the rest of the story in any way. Black Panther, just wanting his wife’s embarrassing mutant friends to go away, holds his temper when Sabretooth kills two of his soldiers. Feral, Thornn, and Wolfsbane show up to round out the ranks of L. sapiens, and only Feral seems eager to interact with Sabretooth or Wolverine. (Perhaps it’s because she’s been sidelined with her terminal non-mutancy for so long.) After being mostly ignored by Thornn and Wolfsbane, Wolverine seems so glad to have someone to talk to that he forgets all about Feral’s murderous, terrorist past. Even Sabretooth is tired of this story by the end, just waiting for Wolverine to kill him.

I think the worst part of Evolution is not its bad ideas but that he bad ideas are so unoriginal; unlike its name; Evolution refuses to move in an original way even incrementally. Fighting Sabretooth, mysterious masterminds, stupid science, Weapon X … Wolverine has done them all so often. For instance, selected events in the history of L. sapiens are revealed to Wolverine through dreams. Putting aside the stupidity of having “true” dreams about things he had no knowledge of, it is a hackneyed way of delivering unexpected exposition. The story starts at the X-Men’s mansion, ends at Logan and Silver Fox’s cabin, and wends its way through Weapon X and flashbacks to Japan and World War II with Captain America. This book shows us Wolverine’s greatest hits, although that greatest hits album should be named Tedium. (I will admit visiting Wakanda is novel for Wolverine.)

The lasting effect of Evolution is to introduce Romulus, the mysterious mastermind lurking behind Wolverine’s life, Weapon X, and the entirety of L. sapiens. He bedeviled Wolverine for a few years in Wolverine and Wolverine: Origins before being exiled to the Darkforce Dimension; here he’s shown only in outline. Wild Child, a L. sapiens who is Romulus’s agent of destruction, tells Wolverine that Romulus is orchestrating the current iteration of L. sapiens’s battle between the blonds and the brunets. (Honest to Thor: among L. sapiens, there’s allegedly always a blond and a brunet battling for leadership. Always, across millennia. Geez.) I — and the Marvel Universe — need another powerful, impenetrable cipher who has been manipulating people and events for decades like Brooklyn needs another hipster.

Mighty SasquatchaSimone Bianchi’s art is better than Loeb’s story, but only because it would be hard not to improve on such a dreadful plot. But his work is confusing, and his and Andrea Silvestri’s “washed halftones” give every page an unflattering murkiness it can’t afford. Bianchi’s choices don’t help Loeb’s story, although I’m not sure Leonardo da Vinci’s art would be much help. In one scene, Wolverine is revealed to be chained to an in-flight airplane, but the reveal has all the impact of a Nerf dart. When he’s supposed to draw a fearful Sabretooth, he settles for “contemplative.” He draws Sasquatch as Chewbacca — not merely similar to the Wookiee but a should-be-afraid-Lucas’s-lawyers-will-call copy. He designs Wild Child as a leather boy with multiple piercings, which is sloppy visual shorthand for either “badass” or “I don’t care about Wild Child.”

There are ways Evolution could be worse — Bart Sears‘s artwork comes to mind with a rapidity that shows all those hours of therapy were wasted. The reveal of Romulus’s name could have been strung out over a few more storylines. It could have featured Daken, Wolverine’s son, as well. Wolverine and Sabretooth could have shown no emotions, rather than the one they were allowed to share.

But if any of these had happened, you would have to expect an editor couldn’t have ignored how awful it was and would have been forced to do something. Because, otherwise, what is an editor for?

Rating: Half X-Men symbol (0.5 of 5)

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