Several weeks away for a variety of reasons no one else will care about…and at last I’m back. Stopped into Whatever Store and walked out with four from the pull list and two store picks—a helpfully light week since I’m still wading through weeks of books I need to catch up on. The first review is a touch longer than usual, so I’ll dive right in. Spoilers of varying degree may follow.
Sam Wilson: Captain America #2
Book of the Week
“Because Steve Rodgers, in his heart, believes that when the chips are down, when its values are at stake—his country will do what’s right. And me? In my heart? I can only hope it will.”
Something a little different with this issue. It doesn’t take top spot because I particularly cared for it. I likely will not pick the series up again.
This issue continues the missing person case that Sam embarked on last issue and, after a brief delay, picks up with Steve Rodgers interrupting Sam’s border skirmish with Serpent Supreme. We also learn about a Snowden-type character who blew the whistle on a secret SHIELD and NSA program. This provides the explanation for Sam’s estrangement from Steve and from SHIELD. Sam, viewing the whistleblower as a patriot, opposed SHIELD’s attempt to arrest and try him for breaking the law by revealing classified information. There’s also a twist where Serpent Supreme is working with a mad scientist—providing the kidnapped illegal immigrants to him for experimentation. Misty Knight has a cameo where she looks a little too much like the heroine in a blacksploitation movie.
The narrative is what it is. For my money it’s the least interesting part of the issue. What’s really worth discussing here is what Marvel (at least as evidenced by these first two issues) is attempting with the series.
This year saw DC and Marvel incorporate greater diversity into their title characters. People are free to debate whether that’s out of an optimistic view of making the books more representative, a pragmatic effort to appeal to a wider audience, or some combination of the two. Midnighter and Iceman are gay. Thor is a woman. Captain America is black. Moves like these aren’t uncommon. Both companies have spiced things up with such moves before; several years ago there was a stir when Batwoman was revealed to be a lesbian. But it does feel like this wave of diversification hit critical mass lately, and a fair question is: Will any of it last?
Will Sam Wilson remain Captain America? Smart money is probably on “no” since there’s another Captain America movie coming out staring Chris Evans. Will Thor remain a woman? Also probably no (or at least not as the only Thor) and likely for the same reason. As for Midnighter and Iceman…it’s harder to make characters un-gay if you can’t swap out different characters in their places.
Assuming, however cynically, that some of these changes aren’t permanent, the next question is: Will any of them have consequence? Northstar being gay affected his entire disposition (retroactively justifying his douchebag qualities). It’s great that Midnighter is gay. Does this affect his interactions with others, and why or why not? It’s great that Thor’s a woman. Is there any difference within Asgard society with respect to how women are treat, and does it change how Thor as a character views and is treated by humanity?
In the case of Sam Wilson, we have our answer. Forced by circumstances to leave the cocoon that Captain America historically operated in—government sponsored and often in league with SHIELD—Sam’s perspective changes. He’s community driven. He’s appealing to the people. He’s solving the small problems. And he is most decidedly not seeing the same world that Steve Rodgers saw because he is not Steve Rodgers. Nick Spencer does a great job building Sam’s motivation and making a case for why this kind of Captain America is at least as valid as the one Marvel’s offered for several decades. This Captain America is grounded in the real world. We have the Snowden stand-in. We have the skepticism of government (name dropping the NSA, even). We have a story that wades into illegal immigration with a desert border crossing.
So, after just saying how much I appreciate what Spencer’s doing, why am I dropping the book? If you checked out past reviews, you may have noticed my praise for several Secret Wars titles that folded in metaphors for real-life issues. I like a good metaphor. As a science fiction junkie, I love a good metaphor. In my comic books, though, I kind of want them to stay that way. I come to these universes looking for fun and entertainment, and if I get to think a little that’s a bonus. The closer the story gets to real life, the harder it is to have the fun that is my primary pursuit. I have to wonder, therefore, how sustainable a comic book is over the long haul if it’s going to confront issues that polarize its readership on a regular basis. But that hurdle does not invalidate the attempt.
I will be curious to see what people make of Marvel’s approach and Spencer’s execution, especially the real world sensibility. But at least in the end—whether the reason for a black Captain America was appreciation of diversity or smart business decision—we may actually see some consequence and meaning behind what otherwise could have been nothing more than a token character change.
Art Ops #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
“It felt like one of those bad trips where you should’ve used mouthwash before dropping.”
Indeed. The guys at Whatever Store don’t often miss, but they whiffed this time.
The concept: Art is real and people in paintings are real and they can be removed from a painting—replaced with look-alike stand-ins. A team called Art Ops does this to protect the paintings from theft or destruction. In the issue’s opening pages, Art Ops removes “Lisa” from da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because the painting is in unspecified danger. Eventually the entire Art Ops team vanishes and an operative’s no account son (head operative maybe—it’s not quite clear) has to take over.
The story never grabbed me because it never answered the question I asked as I was reading the first three pages (the Mona Lisa “rescue”): how does taking the people in a painting out of the painting safeguard the painting if the rest of the painting is lost or destroyed? If Art Ops has “Lisa” out walking around but Mona Lisa gets stolen, that’s still a whole lot of Mona Lisa that’s missing.
The issue’s main character is the son, Reggie, who ends up inheriting the responsibilities of the entire organization. The reader is treated to a lot of internal monologue from Reggie, and it felt like it was aiming at hardboiled or noir but missing wide every time. I didn’t relish the amount of time I spent with him.
As for the art (which I kind of have to talk about since it’s a comic book about art), at times I was reminded of the animation in Archer. At other times less so. Reggie was often off-putting; his constant expressiveness from panel to panel left me thinking that Allred just didn’t have a great handle on his face.
This is one of those times where I think a fun idea just needed a better execution.
Black Magick #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
“What the hell is that? Is that incense? You smell like a headshop, partner.”
I love black and white comics. There’s something in the shading that I just don’t often get to see in colored comics. That’s probably an unfair generalization—and it may have as much to do with the relative novelty of black and white versus color as with any actual style differences. All of this is a long lead in to me saying that I love the art in this book. Scott’s panels are detailed. Her characters are expressive—especially Rowan Black, the main character, and the man who takes her hostage—and that expressiveness tells so much of the story in the silent panels that Rucka and Scott use to develop the moments within the story.
As to plot, Rowan Black is a detective who happens to be Wiccan. She’s called to the site of a hostage crisis; a man in a diner has taken four people hostage and will trade them for Detective Black. The detective makes the trade. The hostage taker knows Black is a Wiccan and is being controlled or coerced into—you guessed it—burning her alive. This is when we learn that Black can do magic and she uses it to save her life. The mystery created is who was behind the hostage taker’s actions.
This issue is masterly paced. Rucka could easily have ended it on the jeopardy facing Black rather than resolving it—certainly so many first issues do that these days. Instead Rucka develops the narrative on a slow burn, beginning with a great set piece in a Wiccan circle that disarms the reader in advance of the magic reveal near the issue’s end, while still telling a complete tale that fits in quick moments of development for Black.
This book was such a winner for me, and I’m so curious about where Rucka’s going with the story that it pretty much makes up for that unfortunate other recommendation.
"I did everything the Al Ghuls demanded! I passed your stupid trial and for what? To gain the world and forfeit my soul?”
Robin Son of Batman #2 makes it okay to like Damien as a hero because Nobody has the opportunity to let him die and she chooses not to. The sworn enemy that wanted him dead saves his life. That happens after it’s revealed that all those artifacts Damien’s been taking from Al Ghul Island were binding a great evil—preventing it from attacking and destroying the Al Ghul line. Oops. Talia, Damien’s mother, tells him he needs to get the artifacts back. Damien refuses. And in the end it’s too late. The ensuing battle sees Den Darga, the aforementioned great evil, wipe the floor with Damien, Nobody, Talia, and Goliath. Before Talia interrupts and the battle begins, there’s a great moment—the implied impetus for Nobody’s decision—where Damien and company run into discarded Batman clones; they’re mentally handicapped and physically disfigured and Damien sees them as family. It happens fast and little is made of the moment, but it might be the best glimpse into Damien as Damien (not as Robin, not as an Al Ghul) that Gleason has written yet.
“Well, he wasn’t Doctor Doom back then. He was Victor von Doom. Which, now that I think about it, makes me wonder when he ever studied for his doctorate. If he’s not really a doctor, someone should look into that.”
I have surprisingly little to say about Spider-Man 2099 #2. The book landed on my pull list thanks to a combination of nostalgia and Peter David love. Miguel starts the issue out in a blind rage after he learns about Tempest’s death (a consequence of the exploding truck at the end of last issue). The rest of the book is Miguel putting pieces together in pursuit of vengeance. Standard stuff. David writes a man possessed very well, but I find myself longing for the casual moments and random dialogue that he so often hits out of the park. It’s still so early that I don’t know what to make of Miguel or his supporting cast. I think I’m waiting to find out who this Spider-Man 2099 is. Which may be fair because I’m not even sure if the character knows. So far Miguel hasn’t been much of anything.
“Invaders come from out of space, and the country’s first recourse is to consult the imagination of a man who couldn’t imagine his way out of a cupboard.”
In case the first issue wasn’t punny enough, Wild’s End: The Enemy Within #2 gives us a mink named Mr. Minks. Cornfelt and Runciman, the science fiction writers brought in last issue to help understand the alien arrival, interview the eye-witnesses in this issue. At first Cornfelt’s pressing for traumatic details comes off as insensitive until it’s revealed that several of his books were ghost written by his ex-wife who just so happens to be one of the interred eye-witnesses. Was Cornfelt looking for another story? And will that be a problematic motivation now that he’s been dismissed from his position and interred with the eye-witnesses? There’s also an escape attempt at foot in the issue. But the fun, of course, is the animals. Culbard’s ability to impart emotions on animal faces of relatively limited expression is fantastic. The show stealer for me was Laidlaw, the squirrel who is the government agent overseeing the whole thing. I’d have never expected that someone could draw a squirrel and make it look like an asshole. But that’s exactly what Culbard does. I really wanted to punch the squirrel.
Art Ops #1
Shaun Smon: writer
Michael Allred: artist and cover
Laura Allred: colorist
Todd Klein: letterer
Black Magic #1
Greg Rucka: writer
Nicola Scott: artist
Jodi Wynne: letterer
Chiara Arena: color assists
Robin Son of Batman #5
Patrick Gleason: script & pencils
Mick Gray: inks
John Kalisz: colors
Tom Napolitano: letters
Gleason, Gray & Kalisz: cover
Sam Wilson Captain America #2
Nick Spencer: writer
Daniel Acuna: artist
VC’s Joe Caramagna: letterer
Daniel Acuna: cover
Spider-Man 2099 #2
Peter David: writer
Will Sliney: artist
Frank d’Armata & Andres Mossa: color artists
VC’s Cory Petit: letterer
Francesco Mattina: cover artist
Wild’s End: The Enemy Within #2
Dan Abnett: writer
I.N.J. Culbard: illustrator and letterer
Nik Abnett: additional material
I.N.J. Culbard: cover