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

29 June 2013

Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap

Collects: Demon Knights #0 and 8-12 (2012)

Released: May 2013 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401240394

What is this?: Medieval heroes head to Camelot. Camelot? Camelot? Camelot! (It’s only an alternate version.)

The culprits: Writer Paul Cornell and artists Diogenes Neves and Bernard Chang

Following the fantasy protagonists’ defeat of an army in Demon Knights, v. 1: Seven against the Dark, the book’s seven heroes head to Alba Sarum to receive their reward in Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap. Well, “reward”: it’s not so much compensation or perquisites as it is another mission. This time, the group is sent to Avalon to rescue the spirit of Merlin, who has been murdered in Alba Sarum.

So: fantasy quest. Writer Paul Cornell gives us Fantasy Quest #28b, the one with a crumbling castle, a trap, and a double cross; the “b” denotes the variant where the characters are given their fondest desires, but it come with a price. In truth, the quest is not as cookie cutter as I’m making it seem, but it does lack heft. The trap is set by the obvious culprit, and the trap itself lacks any subtlety or hint that it is anything but what it is. The double-cross comes from the person Cornell has already told readers is a double-crosser.

Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap coverThe plot’s predictability isn’t Avalon Trap’s only weakness, however, and it isn’t even the plot’s only weakness. It story is also slow, with the quest creeping through a landscape filled with giant, distorted animals that are eventually shown to have little relevance to the villain's plan. And then there’s the question of Camelot and King Arthur …

Three of Demon Knights’s protagonists were at Camelot when it fell: Jason Blood (who shares his body with Etrigan the Demon), Madame Xanadu, and Shining Knight. Jason and Xanadu were sweethearts, but they and Shining Knight have no knowledge of each other. To rectify that apparent contradiction, Cornell posits a multiplicity of Camelots and Arthurs. It solves the problem with the Shining Knight neatly, but it robs the fall of Camelot and the death of Arthur — the heart of the Arthurian legend — of some of its narrative heft. What does it matter that those characters’ Camelot fell? Camelot is always falling, Arthur is always dying and returning. Camelot is significant to the world of Demon Knights, but Camelot’s devastation and Arthur’s transformation in issues #9-12 aren’t a tragedy or even especially sad; each fallen Camelot is just a set with different dressing, starring a different actor as Arthur with a slightly different costume.

The ensemble approach to character development Cornell used in Seven Against the Dark is put aside in Avalon Trap in favor of an emphasis on Xanadu and Etrigan. Issue #8 goes into the history of their love triangle with Jason Blood, and #0 follows Etrigan’s rise through the demonic ranks. Given the large cast, concentrating on a few characters seems wise; Xanadu and Jason Blood / Etrigan are the book’s most recognizable characters, so starting with them makes sense. The other characters get only a few chances to shine; Al Jabr is distrustful of Vandal Savage, who gets the best lines (“I will not die so a woman with no face can gain different genitalia!”), and Shining Knight displays some impressive swordwork. Those moments do not dispel the “Etrigan, Madame Xanadu, and Friends” vibe Avalon Trap has, though.

A few notes strike me as false, even after suspending my disbelief. First, the characters use the British insult “swivers” a few times; the word is roughly from the right time, dating back to at least 1440, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It means “someone given to sexual indulgence.” That doesn’t seem like much of an insult to characters like Etrigan or Vandal Savage, and the term looks self-consciously strange to Americans. Secondly, Alba Sarum is ruled by a pair of princesses who hope to marry each other. While royal lesbians surely existed, by the laws of averages at the very least, the medieval protagonists’ and townsfolk’s acceptance is strange. Stranger still is Xanadu’s thinly veiled plug for gay marriage.

Diogenes Neves provides most of the art, although on more than half his five issues he has to have an assist. Neves differentiates the characters well, and his storytelling is good. He draws some excellent monsters as well. However, the extent of the characters’ transformations in #11 is a bit unclear. Bernard Chang draws #0 and does a very good job as well. If only Marvel had demons as fearsome as the ones Chang draws!

The visuals aren’t enough to save Avalon Trap, though. The setting is disposable, the plot is slight, and most of the cast is underused. The promise of Demon Knight has faded; I don’t know if I’m going to pick up v. 3.

Rating: DC logo DC logo (2 of 5)

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21 June 2013

Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5

Collects: Avengers Academy #29-33 (2012)

Released: March 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785165811

What is this?: While the Avengers and X-Men squabble over the Phoenix Force, Wolverine places his students with Avengers Academy.

The culprits: Writer Christos Gage and artists Tom Grummett and Timothy Green II

In Second Semester, v. 4 of Avengers Academy, I complained of an overly large cast and a lack of action. Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5, does nothing to remedy that.

Avengers Academy’s contribution to the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover is to pit Avengers Academy vs. Cyclops’s students in Avengers Academy #29-31. Well, “vs.” is putting it strongly; the two sides pose and gesture at each other, but just as in Second Semester, calmer heads prevail before things get out of hand … or even before they threaten to get out of hand. Thank Odin! If there had been a fight, something might have happened to the dozen or so new Academy or X-students I don’t care about.

Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5 coverThe main antagonist is Sebastian Shaw, who has lost his memory of his villainous history. He battles his way through the Academy’s teachers and adult guests, taking out Tigra, Madison Jeffries, and a powered-down Hercules. Even that momentary excitement fizzles after a decent start.

Writer Christos Gage and artist Tom Grummett make a few nods to the original Dark Phoenix Saga, which is appropriate since Avengers vs. X-Men was kicked off by the return of the Phoenix Force, and Shaw had a pivotal role in the Dark Phoenix Saga. But after putting Shaw into a sewer, a la Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men #132 — Grummett does a nice homage to the final panel in #132 with a full page-illustration in Academy #29 — there aren’t many other parallels. Shaw does fight his way to the surface, as Wolverine fought his way to where his teammates are held, but it’s a different kind of fight, with Shaw having the guile and subtlety of a rock thrown through a window.

The payoff for the story is supposed to be X-23 making a difficult moral decision and not believing what authority figures tell her, which his fine as far as it goes. But X-23 has not been a part of the cast long enough for her epiphany to be a satisfying payoff for Avengers Academy readers, and her pronouncement is part of the book’s overwhelming and frustrating aura of reasonableness. Gage seems determined to undermine the idea that moral conflicts in comics are thrashed out with fists, segueing conflict from nominal battles to discussions / lectures that avoid violence at all costs.

The final two issues pursue a far more interesting idea than X-Men students throwing angry words at Avengers affiliates. Emma Frost, empowered by a fraction of the Phoenix Force, arrives at the Academy compound to destroy Juston Seyfert’s Sentinel. That’s a plot thread that needed to be explored; when Juston was in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, his pet Sentinel can function as a faux-Iron Giant, but when they interact with the rest of the MU, which views Sentinels as weapons of genocide, madmen, and governments, the Sentinel seems far less innocent.

Gage tries to frame the Sentinel as a loyal pet, and the effort is partly successful. Juston’s grief at the beating the Sentinel takes is affecting, but Hank Pym’s amazement over the Sentinel overcoming its prime directive — he says it should be impossible — comes across as hollow, considering how often the impossible happens in the Marvel Universe. (Also, if that’s impossible, how did Ultron become what he is? What did Pym make its prime directive?) The Sentinel itself is still the most problematic part of the story; given its still extant anti-mutant programming, the Sentinel at best is a dangerous dog that has been leashed. Sooner or later, that leash won’t be enough, and there will be a tragedy. As clichéd as that sort of story is, the tragedy of the Sentinel attacking mutants might have been a better way to resolve the Sentinel plot, especially given the number of mutants wandering around at the end of Avengers vs. X-Men.

The two stories leave little for the original cast to do. Finesse talks to Quicksilver; one of the X-students’ powers allows Mettle to surf on dry land, making Hazmat, his girlfriend, happy. Whee. As usual, the guest stars get the best lines, and Emma Frost is no exception. Hercules’s dialogue also stands out, making him seem at times both a buffoon and an actual hero.

The price is outrageous: $25 for five issues? In paperback? That’s an insult to the buyer. I could buy the single issues and pay a professional bindery to make them into a hardback book for about the same amount of money. This is probably a cash grab based on the Avengers vs. X-Men name, since the price for Second Semester, the previous volume, was $20 for eight issues, and the next (and final) volume, Final Exams, has six issues and sells for $20.

The artists for this backwater of the crossover don’t interest me much. Grummett does a solid, if unexciting, job. I appreciate his Dark Phoenix reference, but something about his style feels hesitant, as if he doesn’t want to cut loose. Timothy Green II, who draws the two-issue Sentinel story, draws in an exaggerated, manga-influenced style that clashes with the prevailing art style of the series, but I suppose it is appropriate for a giant-robot-vs.-cosmic-powerhouse fight. Not my cup of tea, but it’s fine.

Gage manages some nice jokes with the guest stars, but that’s not enough. Avengers Academy needs more plot, more conflict than Avengers vs. X-Men and Second Semester give. After these last two volumes, it’s hard to argue with Marvel’s decision to cancel the series with Final Exams. Hell, it’s hard to argue Marvel should have given Gage and Co. another arc after Avengers vs. X-Men.

Rating: Avengers symbol  symbol (1.5 of 5)

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