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

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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