Axis #3: Lots of Noise with Little Defintion

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Axis 3 - Cover - Marvel

The first act of Avengers & X-Men: Axis, “The Red Supremacy” is complete. Although there’s still a lot of story in this mini-series left to be told, it’s a good point to stop and assess the event so far. In my reviews of Axis #1 and Axis #2 I addressed the series lack of focus and inability to craft conflict. The third issue continues to trend along the same lines as the previous ones. Although Leinil Francis Yu’s artwork provides some exciting individual panels, the issue is a mess when read as a whole. The action sequences are often underwhelming and the inks appear rushed. The problems with the first act of Axis are not created by the art though, they come from a complete lack of direction in the story.

Axis is an event comic. It features over the top action, big consequences, and loads of characters. It’s a fever dream of superheroes paced at the speed of insanity, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Event comics are a very, very specific sub-genre. Although not everyone enjoys them, there’s nothing inherently wrong with their scope or style. Whether a series is or is not considered an event, doesn’t excuse a lack of quality though. Event comics are every bit as capable of telling compelling stories as anything else. To see that, you don’t have to look any further than the master template for them all: Crisis On Infinite Earths (henceforth referred to as COIE).

COIE is an excellent comparison for understanding why Axis #3 doesn’t read very well. They both feature an enormous antagonist being confronted by a vast number of heroes with the entire Earth at stake. The goals of the two series may vary, but the narrative vehicle is the same make and model. Axis #3 suffers from a lack of definition in its problem, solution, and why anyone should care about the consequences; those three components are never in doubt when reading COIE.

The central problem of “The Red Supremacy” seems obvious at first. The Red Skull has gained an inordinate sum of power and plans to use it. What he plans to use it for is less tangible. There is certainly a lot of bad stuff occurring in Axis #3. People around the world are attacking one another and the heroes are being handily beaten by a pair of Sentinels. There’s no urgency to their fight though. The events leading to this battle have occurred over an indeterminate frame of time. Readers are unaware how long the Red Skull has been wreaking havoc or what the results of the havoc have been. What is the Red Skull’s ultimate objective? How does he plan to achieve it? These are no satisfactory answers to these questions.

Compare this to the antagonist of COIE, the Anti-Monitor. Despite a goofy name and appearance, this character works as a great engine for conflict and narrative. He is driven by a singular goal: to eliminate all existence. His means for achieving this goal vary, but are always clearly explained. For example, he must construct an anti-matter cannon to overcome the defenses of the five remaining universes and destroy them. The threat of the Anti-Monitor is clear because his goals and plans to achieve these goals are clear. Story’s require a conflict that can be understood. They must be able to answer the question: what happens if the heroes fail? In COIE the answer is plain: the multiverse is destroyed if the Anti-Monitor constructs and activates his cannon. In Axis #3, the only answer available is “bad stuff”.

Without a clear objective, time table, or detailed plan, there’s no way to craft an understandable solution. Readers want to root for heroes. They want to cheer on the defeat of the bad guys and cringe when a potential route to victory is blocked. For that to be possible, there has to be an understood path to that victory. Axis #3 presents a solution, but it happens so quickly that there is no space in which to build tension. Most of the issue is a throwdown between Red Skull and Magneto’s villainous reinforcements. The closest semblance to a plan here is to hit the bad guys until they fall down. When a magical solution is discovered, readers are never actually shown why or how it will work. It’s simply a matter of telling. Magic happens and then the Red Skull is defeated. Although it’s possible to understand what happened, the experience of reading it is anything but exciting.

COIE again provides an excellent example of how to set up and implement a solution. The construction of the anti-matter cannon makes it clear that the device is absolutely necessary to complete the Anti-Monitor’s plans. Therefore the heroes devise a plan to attack in the hopes of destroying the cannon. The problem and solution are rudimentary, but easily understood. That simple plot allows for exciting drama to unfold though. When the massive group of heroes are unable to reach the cannon, it feels as though everything is lost. Then The Flash manages to reach it and devise a new plan to destroy the weapon. The conceit is uncomplicated, yet it creates big shifts in momentum and drama.

That’s the reason that an understanding of the problem and solution in Axis #3 is important. Conflict is the key to drama. Without being able to understand conflict, readers cannot invest in the drama of a story. The mayhem and pandemonium of an event comic should inspire excitement and reactions to rival their sweeping scope and impacts. Drama isn’t born from scope and shocks though. In the world of superhero comics, it’s impossible to find stakes bigger than what has come before or or even convince that anyone will stay dead. Drama in events comes from the same place it does in every story: characters.

The most dramatic moment in Axis #3 arrives after the Red Skull has been defeated when the X-Men and Avengers argue over what is to be done with him. The conflict seems to be grafted on to the characters, a necessary disagreement for the plot to move forward. It is over something so minor (where to take the Red Skull before he awakens) that it’s hard to believe no one is willing to offer a compromise. Havok and Wasp’s marriage breaks apart as part of the argument and it is treated like a significant and emotional moment, but it feels meaningless. Axis has lacked any legwork to invest the marriage with value (or to even clarify that the characters are married), so the lowest point of the issue falls flat. That marriage and a few smaller dramatic beats are based upon events from other series written by Rick Remender like Uncanny Avengers and Uncanny X-Force. Still, the motivations for the dramatic choices made here seem farcical even with that added context.

And once again COIE offers an example of simple, character-driven drama. In order to destroy the anti-matter cannon, Barry Allen has to sacrifice his own life. It’s easy to view a superhero’s death with skepticism, but the reaction of Wally West to discovering his mentor and best friend’s costume is heart breaking. It’s built on a connection that any reader can understand, one that is set up in the preceding pages, that Wally really cares for Barry. The connection between their costumes and names alone is enough to understand the significance. There’s no nuance to the scene drawn by George Perez. Wally’s cries accompanied by the disheartened faces of those around him are pure pathos, but it’s very,very effective.

The problem with Axis #3 is not that it is an event comic. One of the most absurd and busiest event comics of all time has managed to remain a fan favorite after thirty years, one that still holds lessons in storytelling. The problem is that Axis is lacking a clearly defined story. There are emotional beats and action sequences, but they never combine to create a clear sense of momentum. Axis #3 doesn’t give readers a good reason to care about what characters do or what happens to them. It never bothers to clearly define the problem, the solution, or why any of it should matter. It focuses on the scope of the comic while ignoring the narrative. Even in the most convoluted of events, it is possible to construct simple, effective stories.  Axisdoesn’t.

Despite all of the cynicism and skepticism from readers about events, “The Red Supremacy” was not destined to be a bad comic. The fault for that lies with the storytelling.

Grade: D

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Arkham Manor #1 Presents a Fascinating New Premise for Batman (Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Arkham Manor 1 - Cover

Arkham Manor #1 acts more like a prologue than a first issue. It sets up the series as it spins out of Batman Eternal #30. The premise of Wayne Manor being transformed into a replacement for Arkham Asylum is woven into the narrative in a surprisingly tactful manner. The exposition is neatly presented, so that the necessary housekeeping reads naturally.

Although this issue may only serve to lay the framework for the story to come, that’s not a bad thing. Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal use these pages to beautifully construct a fascinating premise, one that has me hooked.

The story focuses around Batman, but here is a character that is almost unrecognizable when compared to appearances in Snyder and Capullo’s Batman and Brian Buccelatto and Francis Manapul’s Detective Comics. Here he is defined by his anger and violence. Batman goes beyond being a fearsome vigilante to being someone who is often selfish, unlikable, and sadistic. There is a sequence in this issue where after successfully stopping a pair of muggers and forcing them to apologize, he continues to brutalize them as their victim runs in terror.

Arkham Manor - Batman Torture

Duggan and Crystal do not present this scene as being cool or the act of a just superhero. It’s mean spirited and ugly. Here they are removing some of the allure of Batman in order to get at the interesting conflicts that exist within the character’s basic mythos. Batman has always existed as a member of America’s wealthiest. His origin is steeped in money, as are his powers. Without the immense Wayne estate, the orphaning of Bruce would not be presented as special and there would be no Batman. Removing that estate and forcing him to view the criminals he terrorizes as peers seeks to explore the nature of Batman’s privilege and its troublesome nature.

There is a murder mystery at the heart of this story, but that’s not the driving conflict ofArkham Manor #1. Instead, it is choosing to address the issues of class and recidivism that are perpetuated in all Batman stories, but almost never addressed. The potential in that concept alone is good reason to read Arkham Manor.

Crystal’s art is an equally good reason to seek out this comic. Arkham Manor #1 marks his debut at DC Comics and it is an impressive start. His work here contains strains of Sean Murphy. Sharp, plentiful line work is used not to create overly detailed images, but ones that strike a powerful atmosphere. His compositions are tense and angular, but never cramped or overly busy. Some of his lines are so taut that it’s possible to imagine playing the violin across them.

Arkham Manor - Shawn Crystal

In the panels above it’s easy to see how naturally Crystal’s style fits (and creates) the tense, moody atmosphere of Arkham Manor. In the top panel, he places Batman at a distance from the reader and steeps him in shadow. It’s a technique used throughout the issue to make Batman seem antagonistic and intrinsically different; he is made to be the other. His long outstretched arm creates a stressed, rigid line across the panel. Even when the panel below creates a close up, it focuses on his gritted teeth and jaw line. His face is composed of sharp angles and signals stress and anger. Even when close to Batman, his appearance seeks to drive the reader away.

Arkham Manor #1 is an exciting start to a series that is packed with potential. Duggan and Crystal have created a scenario that gets at the very heart of this 75 year old character, touching upon ideas that are rarely recognized in Batman comics. Just as important, here they show the skills to tell that story in a way that is visually striking and always engaging. This could be the beginning of a beautiful series.

Grade: B+

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Rasputin #1 Reintroduces One of History’s Strangest Villains as a Hero (Advance Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Rasputin 1 - Cover

Rasputin #1 introduces one of history’s favorite villains as the protagonist of a new series. It’s far from the first time that Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin has been reinvented for a comic, but this new take does stand out as something unique. The first issue uses the infamous night of his murder as a framing device to introduce the character as someone more sympathetic and human than the bogeyman presented by history and Hellboy.

Riley Rossmo’s depictions of Rasputin as both an adult and child craft a one-act play that works based on the power of its visual language alone. Almost the entire story occurs in the past, with adolescent Rasputin growing up in the harsh climate of Siberia. No more than four words are ever spoken on any 1 of the 19 pages set in the past. Rossmo crafts characters, setting, and action without the help of any words and there is never a lack of clarity or understanding. For that alone, Rasputin #1 is worth examining. It is a beautiful example of how to tell stories with images.

Rossmo’s character designs tell the reader everything they need to know about these people and their relationships before the story even begins. His father Efim is a gigantic bear of a man. He towers above his wife and son and possesses absolute power over them. His unkempt beard and withdrawn eyes reveal him to be a cold, pitiless person. Even without the scenes of abuse, it would be easy to infer that Efim beats his wife and child. His unnamed wife is a much meeker figure, composed of limbs and a torso that might as well be sticks. The hard angles of her face show her to have enough willpower to stand up to Efim, even if she cannot hurt him. Rasputin resembles his mother. He is clearly part of her and opposed to his father’s ways. Like her, he possesses no physical strength, but great resolve.

Alex Grecian’s plot is a simple one-act play presented in three scens. It could easily be adapted to the stage as a brief production. The drama is clearly presented with easily understood characters, motivations, and choices. Rasputin is transformed from villain to misunderstood hero through this brief reflection on his origins. His situation and upbringing makes sense of his future and adds an ironic twist to his death. The only problem with this concise story is that it provides no hook to compel readers to seek out more. Rossmo’s art and storytelling may be enough to bring back some, but there is no cliffhanger or grand premise to capture fans of episodic narratives.

Grecian’s presentation of Rasputin’s father is almost comically evil. He is the caricature of an abusive paternal figure. More archetype than character in this issue, everything he does acts to inform the reader that he is a cruel, loveless man. While this may function for a short parable, it’s unlikely to hold up under scrutiny as the series continues.

Rasputin #1 is a very well told single issue. It presents a short and (not so) sweet story about the tragedy and irony of life. Grecian and Rossmo use one of history’s most interesting characters to craft a tale that fits perfectly into the Halloween season as well. Whether they can build this story into something larger has yet to be seen.

Grade: B

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Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1 – “Imagination Without a Budget” (Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 23, 2014.

Doctor Who - Twelfth Doctor - Cover

Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1 is striking while the iron is hot, following the debut of BBC’s eighth series of the beloved character by less than two months. That quick proximity presents both a risk and an opportunity to writer Robbie Morrison and artist Dave Taylor. They can help define what makes this version of the Doctor special, but are also relying on very limited source material to capture the right tone for fans of the series.

The tone of this issue suits the character very well though. Taylor recognizes what makes the mythology of the Doctor special and emphasizes it on most of his pages. The wild imagination of the series and creative scenarios are a consistent presence in his art. He details wide jungle landscapes, creating images that would be unconvincing on a television show’s budget. The flora and fauna that occupy the setting is fascinating. Although many animals are roughly based on those occupying Earth (for a good, plot driven reason), they are all unique. The inclusion of Skunkies (Skunk-Monkeys) is amusing and shows off what a Doctor Who comic can do better than a television show.

That is to say, Taylor is not restricted by technical limitations. He can add quirks and aliens wherever and whenever he wants. The inclusion of random alien cast members help to make the comic feel more diverse based on Taylor’s whims alone. He conjures up creatures and robots that contain their own unique histories, but act only as extra bodies here. In this, the comic feels much more like a bar in Star Wars than a typical episode of Doctor Who.

Taylor’s art sometimes suffers when focusing on the characters of the Doctor and Clara. Their faces appear less naturally constructed than his original creations. He does not appear to have quite made these imitations of the actors his own yet, and is clearly working to mirror their on screen appearances. As a result, they often appear stiff, almost statuesque.

Morrison seems to have a firm grasp on the Doctor Who property as well. He understands both the attractiveness of the concept and the attitude behind Peter Capaldi’s performance. Both Clara and the Doctor are fully realized as individuals within the script. The banter between the two reads naturally and is funny without ever feeling forced. Their voices are consistent and it is easy to get a handle on who they are, so much so that someone unfamiliar with the newest Doctor could get a solid impression of his personality from this comic alone.

The biggest problem the script suffers from is an overabundance of expository dialogue. Skimming the pages of The Twelfth Doctor #1, it’s easy to detect that word bubbles cover many of these pages. Between discovering problems, discussing past events, and humorous banter, there are plenty of pages that consist only of figures standing around talking to or at one another. It slows the pacing of the story and sometimes avoids showing off Taylor’s imaginative vistas.

Overall, The Twelfth Doctor nails the tone of the show and it’s newest cast of characters. Fans of the show will doubtless enjoy seeing more of what they love on television, but in a medium that doesn’t restrict imagination based on budgets. It manages to provide points of interest beyond simple imitation. Taylor’s art allows for scenes and effects that would be impossible on the BBC, and if the series focuses more on this strength, it will be better for it.

Grade: B

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Starlight: Resilience, Hope, and Optimism

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 23, 2014.

Starlight - 1

Resilience. Hope. Optimism.

These are not words that I associate with the works of Mark Millar. Comics like Kick-Ass,Nemesis, Wanted, The Ultimates have defined Millar’s style. They are comics defined by cynicism, ugliness, and a disdain for readers. Millar’s scripts have brought us fine moments like an incestual baby bomb, gang rape with plenty of wisecracks, and ending a comic by giving the reader a middle finger while anally raping them. Even his more light-hearted recent works like Superior and Super Crooks have not been able to resist the temptation to play in the muck, cracking lewd jokes and including ample gore.

His Millarworld comics have built a wide audience though. They sell and sell well, and there’s nothing wrong with Millar making these comics. Millar’s adolescent sense of maturity appeals to audiences. While his books  are obviously entertaining for many;they’re too often racist, sexist, and hateful tracts that play to the lowest common denominator. Millarworld specializes in trash entertainment, which can be enjoyable when read for what it is. It’s not for me and that’s fine.

Then Starlight came along and forced me to reevaluate my thoughts about Mark Millar’s comics. Starlight is written by Millar, drawn by Goran Parlov, and it is everything that Millarworld comics typically are not. It is sincere instead of cynical. It is beautiful instead of ugly. It is authentic instead of disdainful. It’s a comic defined by a sense of resilience, hope, and optimism.

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Starlight is the story of Duke McQueen. Duke is an homage to Flash Gordon. He is a man who was transported across the galaxy to fight an evil dictator and free the subjugated people of the planet Tantalus. This story starts almost forty years later though. Duke returned to Earth with no proof of his alien adventures and was berated and mocked for his stories. Instead of living the life of a hero, he lived a much more humble existence with his wife and two sons. Now his wife has died from breast cancer and his sons are too busy with their own lives to pay attention. Old and alone, he is called to return to Tantalus to save the alien world once again.

The conflict is the same as before. Duke must confront a tyrannical dictator with superior forces, weapons, and innumerable other advantages. This time, Duke is an old man. He may still be strong, but the years have their toll on his body and confidence. Flashbacks to his old battles in Starlight #1 show him as a man in his prime filled with jokes. The man remembering these moments is hunched and lacking in the same wit. It is as if a light has been turned off.

This contrast between classic Duke and modern Duke makes for a striking comparison between legends and reality. Duke is brought back to Tantalus by a child, Krish Moor, who has heard tales of Duke and believes him capable of saving the world once again. On Tantalus Duke has not aged at all. He is still remembered as a brave hero capable of conquering the most fearsome of foes. A massive statue of him rests in the center of the capital city. The years have taken a toll on the man, but not his legend.

Starlight - 3

Krish is not deterred by the obvious aging of his hero though. Even after seeing the aged Duke, Krish is entirely confident the “two-fisted pilot” can save the world again. Duke’s tired, world weary demeanor is placed into conflict with the boundless optimism of youth, and Krish is certainly a child. He comes off his starship assured that with Duke, saving his planet will be an easy jaunt. When Duke attempts to dissuade him, Krish responds by throwing a tantrum. He throws Duke’s reluctance back in his face and pouts. Millar creates a dichotomy between Duke’s pessimism and Krish’s optimism, perspectives that could also be seen as realism and idealism respectively.

This duality of perspectives can be applied to the stories which provide the inspiration forStarlight. Heroes like Flash Gordon and Superman in their original stories were uncorrupted ideals of heroism. In the decades that have followed their creation though, that spirit has been corrupted. The terrible treatment of creators, propagation of characters as nothing more than corporate property, and urge to make superheroes grim and gritty have created an environment in which it is easy to be cynical. The heroic social ideals originally found in these fantastic characters have been undermined by their status as money making machines and the trend of making children’s comics grittier and faux realistic.

That history doesn’t appeal to the imagination of children, however. No matter what has happened to heroes since their inception, Flash Gordon is still capable of providing an inspirational ideal to a child. Duke’s physical limitations and world weariness are unimportant to Krish. He has complete faith that Duke is a hero. That faith is ultimately rewarded. Duke decides to pick up his old mantle and return to fight for Tantalus again. The ensuing conflict is not fought by Duke alone. He becomes a figurehead for the resistance. In the end, he is just as valuable as a source of inspiration as a fighter.

Starlight builds to a final issue that is everything that is expected from a Flash Gordon story, and then something else. It’s a battle against the evil dictator Lord Kingfisher, his terrible minions, and entire army under the worst possible circumstances with every hero but Duke captured and ready to be executed. Starlight #6 is high action in the classic pulp tradition. Of course, Duke wins the day. He defeats Lord Kingfisher in a suitably ironic way. Krish avenges his parents. The people of Tantalus overcome their oppressors and take back their planet. It’s an outlandish, impossible comeback, and it is absolutely thrilling.

Starlight - 4

Everything about the finale is big, bright, and bold. It’s good defeating evil writ large; there’s nothing subtle about it. That’s okay. Millar and Parlov embrace the optimism of this victory and let it play out according to genre tropes. Yet their presentation of Duke and Krish are so endearing that it never feels cliched or naive. Instead, it feels exciting and inspiring. It’s an uplifting battle because it is wish fulfillment. You want Duke and his companions to win the day with wit and style, and they do. It presents itself as what it is: a fantasy.

And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s enough to find some bit of hope and consolation, a bit of inspiration where heroes do win the day no matter how great the obstacles they face.

The most significant victory in Starlight is not Duke’s defeat of Lord Kingfisher, but his choice to return home once more. Millar and Parlov begin Starlight by separating Duke as far from Earthly concerns as possible. He is retired and disgraced. His wife is dead and his children distant. Yet he chooses to return home rather than remain on Tantalus where he is celebrated as a hero.

Starlight - 5

The fantasy that occurs on Tantalus is the centerpiece of Starlight, but it is framed by Duke’s life on Earth. That life doesn’t involve planetary dictators, starships, or epic struggles. It’s defined by far more real struggles: the loss of a beloved wife, distant relations with children, and finding purpose in the world. Duke chooses that mundane and ordinary world with its mundane and ordinary struggles. He chooses the world with his children and grandchildren over the one that could give him an endless fantasy. What he accomplishes on Tantalus serves as his inspiration to return home and continue the same fights he was fighting as the book began. His actions as a grand fantasy hero give him the urge to keep fighting, to reconnect with his children and honor his wife. The romanticism of Duke’s life on Tantalus provides inspiration for his real life on Earth. Krish’s belief in heroes is the fuel that makes Duke’s more subtle heroism possible and reveals the unending potential of characters like Duke.

On Tantalus Duke is a symbol. He is valued for what he represents, for being a legend. At the end of Starlight though, Duke is not a hero because he of his impossible feats and bigger-than-life heroism. He is a hero because he is a good husband, father, and grandfather. He is a hero because he is human.

Starlight - 6

Starlight is unlike anything in the Millarworld line of comics, and almost anything Millar has scripted before. The shift in tone and theme is so drastic that it is almost impossible to reconcile with Millar’s previous books, and that’s a very good thing. What Millar and Parlov have crafted together is a comic that embraces its operatic, pulp source material and provided a new life to it. They have discover what makes these stories and heroes valuable and presented that value in a thrilling, new adventure. Starlight is a comic without a hint of cynicism. It believes in heroes without being naive, and presents a beautiful portrait of resilience, hope, and optimism.

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It’s Not Easy Being Green: She-Hulk Cancelled

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 22, 2014.

She-Hulk - A Toast

Marvel solicits for January have been released bringing news of new series and cancellations. There’s excitement (at least for me) for a new Ant-Man series by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 by Ryan North and Erica Henderson. However, there’s also plenty of disappointment to go around as well. She-Hulk has been cancelled alongside All-New Ultimates and All-New X-Factor.

For my money, Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk has consistently been one of the best comics coming from the House of Ideas for the past year. It has been Soule’s most entertaining and interesting work in one of the busiest schedules in all of comics. The New York lawyer understands the self-contained structure that makes courtroom stories so compelling and captured them in bite-size one to two issue tales. He used Jennifer Walter’s unique role as a superhero attorney to explore a wide variety of intriguing corners in the Marvel universe, crafting small dramas with unique characters, odd problems, and even odder solutions. Throughout it all there was always a sense of joy and humor that could leave readers with smiles wider than Jen’s.

She-Hulk - Smile

Javier Pulido was introduced to many new readers in his first American work since the “Brand New Day” phase of Amazing Spider-Man. Pulido’s sense of design and layout are almost peerless. In the very first issue of the series, he composed pages to emphasize the length of hallways and long elevator rides that separated She-Hulk from her goal. While completely eschewing standard panel layouts, he still managed to create a sense of flow that was natural and intuitive. That creative approach to page design has been present in every issue of She-Hulk he has drawn. His emphasis on emotion and shape have cultivated a style that is completely unique amongst the Marvel line, telling more of the story in images than words could hope to convey.

She-Hulk - Hallway

Unfortunately, the series has failed to strike a chord with superhero fans. Atypical art, the courtroom style drama, a lack of marketing… Whatever the reason, She-Hulk never managed to discover a large enough audience despite the talent brought to bear on each and every issue of the series. It’s all the more saddening because the series read as if it was just beginning to hit its stride, preparing for a long run. Jennifer Walter had established a new law firm, assembled a fascinating team of co-workers, and was preparing to take whatever new cases the world might throw her way.

There are reasons to not fall too deep into despair though. The solicit for She-Hulk #12 mentions that “when one door closes, another one opens, and Jen finds herself face to face with her most important case yet.” This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Marvel has cancelled a low-selling series in order to continue it with the sales bump from a new number one. The same strategy managed to secure ten more issues for Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker’s Avengers Arena in the form of Avengers Undercover.

It’s also clear that Marvel is not giving up on titles headlined by the women of their universe. Although She-Hulk is gone in January, Spider-Gwen, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Gamora, and Silk are all debuting over the first few months of 2015. Those four, along with the continuation of Storm, X-Men, Thor, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Elektra, and Ms. Marvel makes for an ever-expanding collection of titles focusing on women.

She-Hulk Goodbye

Shulkie appears to be without a title for now, but in an era of superhero comics defined by relaunches, reboots, and all-new beginnings, there’s little doubt that the jade giantess won’t stay out of the spotlight for long. We can only hope that her next series will be half as good as this one.

And in the meanwhile, we can all be excited to share the inevitable over-sized trade paperback with everyone who didn’t read this great, but all too short, series.

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DC Comics Presents: Representation

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 22, 2014.

Diversity - 1

Warner Brothers’ CEO Kevin Tsujihara released the biggest movie news of 2014 at a meeting for investors. He revealed a film schedule leading to 2020, which included a minimum of two superhero films every year starting in 2016. In addition to the specific films listed on the chart, Tsujihara also mentioned that there could be multiple additions including Superman and Batman who were notably absent beyond the upcoming Batman v. Superman. It was and still is a lot of information to take in.

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People have been talking and they have been talking a lot about this announcement. Discussions vary between subjects like how all of these films will tie together, what other characters will be featured, the notable divide between Warner Brothers’ television and film properties, and a million other details. However, the thing that may be most intriguing about this lineup of superhero films is the diversity present within the list.

Of the seven films announced that do not feature an ensemble cast, at least three will be headlined by a character who is either a woman or a person of color. There also remains the possibility that Green Lantern may opt to feature John Stewart, Simon Baz, or Kyle Rayner (Kyle is latino, although many writers and artists tend to ignore his heritage). Warner Brothers’ plans are diverse not only for superhero films, but for blockbusters in general. It’s worth walking through the multiple noteworthy choices among the larger announcement individually.

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Although Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman in the Batman v. Superman movie last December and revealed in costume at San Diego Comic-Con this summer, there was no announcement of a solo film until now. Slated for summer 2017, Wonder Woman will be the first and last solo superhero film Warner Brothers releases before Justice League. It will be the first superhero film headlined by a woman since Elektra in 2005. Gadot is also the first Israeli actress to be cast as the lead in a superhero film.

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Jason Momoa was also cast in the role of Aquaman earlier this summer and will receive his own solo picture in 2018. Momoa’s father is of native Hawaiian descent. He will be the first Pacific Islander to ever be cast in the leading role of a superhero film. This marks a change in appearance for Aquaman, who has been traditionally portrayed with an Aryan appearance. Fans have responded with overwhelming positivity to his casting, though, noting how his appearance is much better suited to a character who rules over the seas.

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Cyborg is one of the last films on the roster, scheduled for 2020. No director or writer has been attached with the film, but Ray Fisher has been cast in the role of Cyborg. Based on the currently available information, Cyborg will be the first superhero film to feature a black man in the lead role since Hancock.

Diversity - 6

The ensemble movies are worth noting as well. Justice League will be featuring all of the characters mentioned above, and the surprise announcement of Suicide Squad be even more diverse. Although very little is known right now, rumors have surfaced about both the roles and casting of the film. There is little doubt that Amanda “The Wall” Waller, one of the most enduring creations of John Ostrander’s original Suicide Squad comic will make an appearance. Since her debut, she has been praised as one of the most diverse characters in mainstream superhero comics, a large black woman from South Side, Chicago who is both a wife and mother. There are also rumors that Vixen, Bronze Tiger, and Mindboggler will all play significant roles in the film.

These four films all represent a lot of significant firsts, or at least recent changes in the landscape of the superhero genre. For the past decade, every superhero film has been headlined by white men. These movies will be more reflective of the wide variety of people who love superheroes, not just the stereotypical race and gender associated with their comic book origins. The closest a woman or person of color has come to the enormous boom has been in ensemble casts like those found in The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy.

That leads to the obvious comparison to Marvel Studios. Marvel has been the leader in superhero films for the past five years. Starting with Iron Man they have had a string of successes and built an unprecedented expanded universe weaving together all of their films and television productions. All of their films have been headlined by white men. Women and people of color have featured prominently in supporting roles and in ensemble casts, but they have never once been the feature of a Marvel Studio’s film. Black Widow plays a significant role in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it’s no larger of a part than that of a talking raccoon in another feature.

Marvel Studios has a diverse set of characters to pull from, some who have already been introduced and others who are rumored to be coming soon. The Falcon, War Machine, and Black Widow have all been positively received by audiences, but still left in supporting roles. Other characters like Captain Marvel and Black Panther have been consistently rumored to be making appearances soon (as soon as The Avengers: Age of Ultron post-credit sequence according to some). Yet no formal plans have been announced to give any of these characters their own film. The closest the studio has come is with plans to launch series focused on Luke Cage and Jessica Jones on Netflix.

Diversity - 7

When asked about plans to introduce a franchise led by a woman Kevin Feige, President of Production at Marvel Studios, has responded by saying, “I hope we do it sooner rather than later.” He has explained his thoughts on diversity saying, “the responsibility is very big for anyone in a position of the ability to make product for the masses.” Feige is clearly interested in telling stories that include a diverse cast, but has still failed to launch a franchise focused on anyone who is not a white man. Major announcements, like those coming from Warner Brothers, are making the reasons for not launching a Black Widow or Captain Marvel or War Machine or Black Panther franchise seem more and more like poor excuses.

Marvel Studios is the studio that proved audiences can be relied to support all sorts of superhero stories. They’ve transformed C-lister Iron Man into one of the best known characters on the planet and D-lister Groot into the most beloved character of 2014. If they can make a movie featuring a sentient tree, then there is no reason that they cannot make a movie that focuses on a woman or black man.

It’s important to remember that this is not a battle though. Dozens of articles have been written in the last few days with the headline “Superhero Diversity Race is Over”. That headline is complete and utter nonsense. It completely misrepresents the issue in an attempt to create fake competition and clickbait.

Diversity is not a race.

Diversity is not a competition.

Diversity is not something you can win.

Diversity is a goal, but it’s one that should be shared by everyone. Diversity reflects the incredible variety of humanity. It not only includes quantifiable concepts like race, gender, and sexual orientation, but the wide collection of perspectives, thoughts, and ideas that make us human.

It does not matter whether Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers, or another studio produces a film headlined by a character who helps to expand representation in superhero films. When we are given a greater variety of experiences to share in movies and other stories, no one loses. The source material doesn’t matter, only the results.

Warner Brothers’ announcement provides a lot of reasons to get excited. Wonder Woman,Aquaman, Cyborg, and even Suicide Squad all have the potential to reflect a wider range of human experience. They are movies that will better reflect the society which we all share together. This isn’t the end of some imaginary race though, it’s just another step forward.

There’s still a lot of progress left to be made. There are currently no superheroes who identify as gay, bi-sexual, or transgender. There are no superheroes of Asian or Latino descent. The majority of superheroes are still straight, white men. But this Warner Brothers announcement is a good thing, something worth celebrating. It’s a step forward. It’s a step closer to a world where all of us can see ourselves reflected in the movies we share and love; it’s a step closer to a world where all of us can recognize ourselves in the heroes who inspire us to be better… together.

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REVIEW: Predator: Fire and Stone #1

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 22, 2014.

Predator Fire and Stone - Cover

Predator: Fire and Stone #1 is the final new series to be launched as part of Dark Horse Comics’ “Fire and Stone” collection of stories. It spins out of the previous events, but manages to find a starting point that is accessible without three mini-series of context. It picks up directly after the events of AVP: Fire and Stone #1 by transforming a loose thread into a feature story.

This issue plays out like a short Predator film. All of the components from the film franchise are present: a small group of well-trained men being hunted by a Predator in a dangerous setting. It’s a simple formula and one that has been proven to work. Rather than sticking to this format, Joshua Williamson compresses all of the beats of a Predator film into the first issue. It is a fast paced, self-contained story that ends with a new hook for the rest of the mini-series.

The pacing and plotting of the first issue work well, but it is not a compelling story. There are three characters and none of them are likable. Williamson may be working with an already established cast, but that cast is composed of selfish, mean spirited mercenaries. Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny Glover, it’s hard to care about whether any of these men make it out alive. The only hook to continue reading is the twist that comes on the final page.

Chris Mooneyham’s art is the highlight of the issue. Best known for his comic riff on the pulp genre Five Ghosts at Image Comics, he shows here that his style works just as well in space as on Earth. Mooneyham uses lots of sharp fast lines. His style lends itself well to action and chases. When characters are shown flying through space or trading blows with the Predator, there’s a visceral effect to the speed in the panels. The kills in this issue are excellent. Mooneyham makes the big moments land. Faces, body posture, and gore all make for horrifying moments that will please horror and Predatorfans alike.

Here Mooneyham pushes himself to apply his style in new ways. The sequences in which the invisible Predator silently stalks the crew are much slower in pacing. He builds tension in these sequences by focusing on the dark setting of the spaceship. Steep angles and deep shadows twist the ship into a maze where the Predator could lie in wait behind any corner. His construction of this creepy, science fiction setting reveals a great amount of flexibility. Mooneyham also plays on a classic part of the film franchise using heat signatures to present the Predator’s point of view. These panels effectively cue the reader into the invisible aliens position and increase the tension through dramatic irony.

Predator: Fire and Stone is a fine first issue. It accomplishes plenty, but doesn’t leave much of a reason to return besides its overall effect on the “Fire and Stone” collection. Mooneyham’s art helps to make up for what the characters may lack, creating tension and scares for men who may not deserve much attention. It’s a mixed effort, but one that may be worth paying attention to for Mooneyham’s blend of science fiction and horror tropes.

Grade: B-

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Starlight #6 Achieves Its Goals, Then Transcends Them (Advance Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 20, 2014.

Starlight 6 - Cover

Going into Starlight #6, you should know exactly what to expect. The series has made no effort to disguise what it is. Its tone, plot, and characters have all captured the essence of a pulp adventure. Duke McQueen’s adventure on Tantalus ends exactly how you would expect. Yet with its resolution, the story manages to evolve beyond being just an exciting homage to a classic genre.  It becomes something even more thrilling.

The conclusion of Duke’s adventure on Tantalus alone would be enough to make this issue a top pick of the week though. Mark Millar and Goran Parlov do everything they can to make the big finale gripping. They include massive set pieces, clever reversals, and loads of action. It is everything you could imagine wanting from the conclusion of a blockbuster movie.  The explosions, one liners, and punches are all presented with precision and allowed to settle with readers.

The emotional conclusions achieved in the final battle are just as satisfying. The conflicts that play out in this final battle have all been set up since the first pair of issues. Every protagonist is seeking a specific resolution. The reason that these resolutions are gratifying isn’t just that they are the ones desired by protagonists and readers, but that they are presented with style and panache. Dialogue and action beats in these conflicts hit with the skill of an expert boxer delivering a one-two punch. They land just where and how they should with explosive impacts. The big moments are absolutely obvious, but they don’t seek to be anything else. They work because they provide the desired ending in the most satisfying fashion possible.

It’s for that reason the first half of this comic works so well. It’s good at being what is and knowing what it isn’t. Millar and Parlov have succeeded in telling this adventure story by understanding the genre and what makes it work, not by attempting to reinvent or subvert it. The heroes are heroic and the villains are villainous. The action is exciting and the emotions are sentimental. The first section of Starlight #6 doesn’t work to be something it is not; it only aspires to be the best of what it is. Rather than pointing out the farcical nature of science fiction pulps, Millar and Parlov embrace what is great about Starlight’s influences.

Starlight 6 - Duke McQueen

Parlov is the real hero of this section. He has brought the world of Starlight to life, bringing an aesthetic that is perfect for this world. Starlight has combined two distinct settings into a single story. There is the aged vision of Duke and the ugliness of Lord Kingfisher’s despotism set side-by-side with the wonder and beauty of Tantalus’ palaces and terrain. Parlov has blended these two concepts seamlessly into a single story. The vicious moments such as executions and slaughter retain a hard edge. Duke too feels hardened.  It’s easy to see the age in Duke’s face, his stubble and hair give him a haggard appearance. He’s not a classic beauty (although he might once have been). Parlov doesn’t revel in the ugliness though, but brings it into existence alongside the transcendent spectacle of an alien world. His smooth linework and geometric designs bring forth wonders. Forests and palaces alike are made to be marvels.

Starlight 6 - Castle Without Doors

Parlov’s sense of storytelling is just as worthy of praise as is his style. All of the drama and action in Starlight #6 don’t function simply because they are part of a story well crafted in the tradition of pulp adventures; they function because they are perfectly told.

The pacing is spot on. There is a lot that occurs throughout the climax of the story, but it never feels rushed or slowed. It is the baby bear of comics action: just right. The key to this is that Parlov always provides just enough information to communicate changes in action and momentum. He never wastes a panel on an unnecessary action, nor does he ever provide too little information. The connections between each panel in Starlight are chosen with purpose and presented effectively. It is possible to study each transition and note how it informs the reader and why it is important.

Parlov makes use of single page spreads sparingly, but uses them to maximum effect. There is only one in the climactic battle sequence. Unlike many comics artists, he doesn’t use the page in the manner of a poster focusing on a single impactful pose that adds little to the story. Instead, he opts to make the scope of the story as wide as the panel. This page provides a lot of information. It details the state of the battle and the positions of the major characters. It is composed so that readers will naturally move from top to bottom and pick up on all of the necessary details as they do so. Every page of Starlight #6 reveals Parlov’s incredible instincts for visual storytelling.

The first half of Starlight #6 is a beautiful example of effective comics storytelling, but the second half is even better. Duke makes a decision and that choice transforms Starlight from a simple adventure homage into a commentary on the nature of heroism and the fictional heroes celebrated by society. It adds depth and meaning that is entirely unexpected based on previous Millarworld comics.

Parlov executes the transition from big action to a series of much softer, quieter moments. The big, obvious story beats that fill the comic’s front half are subverted with a series of much more genuine, human scenes in its end. The final two pages are some of the most striking and tear-inducing that have been published this year. It is a surprise to say the least. Parlov takes what could have been a jarring tonal shift and seamlessly connects the two narratives.Starlight #6 is telling two very different narratives, but they are part of a greater whole.

Starlight #6 is a beautiful story, wonderfully told and expertly crafted. It’s impossible to discuss the conclusion of Starlight #6 without removing some of its impact. As a final issue, it is honest and human in a way that very few genre comics are. It is a conclusion that not only manages to complete a story in a gratifying and deserved manner, but also transcends itself to become something very special.

Grade: A

Come back on Friday for “Starlight: Resilience, Hope, and Optimism” a deeper look atStarlight and its place in the Millarworld line of comics.

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REVIEW: Avengers & X-Men: Axis #2

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 16, 2014.

Axis 2 - Cover

Axis #2 is more of the same. There’s no significant difference between what happens here and in the first issue of the series. The Red Skull continues to be an overwhelming threat. Heroes continue to fall while attempting to combat his nefarious plan. The momentum continues to move in the exact same direction, at least until the very last page.

That creates a two-fold problem. First, nothing new happens in this issue. Drama comes from reversals and changes. Shifts in momentum build a story, but these two issues have continued to move in the same direction. More heroes arrive and are then defeated. Whatever effect this had when the Red Skull batted down heroes in the opening pages of the series is experiencing significantly diminishing returns. When a small group is presented as being the last hope of defeating the Red Skull, it feels no more desperate than the battle that came before.

Second, all of the flaws of the previoius issue continue to affect the quality of the story. The drama that is present within this series is grafted on from other series and previous events. Alex Summers relationship with his brother Scott and wife Janet are emphasized, but without the context of Uncanny Avengers their dialogue and actions land with little impact. Some shorthand could go a long way in investing value in these moments, but they are presented only as climaxes of ongoing stories. There is an expectation that readers will appreciate what is occurring without providing a reason.

The stakes of the series continue to be big, but entirely non-specific. There are mentions of worldwide war and the loss of heroes. These stakes are big, vague nouns. The world and humanity are at stake, but there’s no attachment to these impersonal ideas. What is needed is investment in characters. The risk of a single character who readers care about can mean significantly more than the potential loss of a fictional world.

Adam Kubert’s compositions continue to fit the epic scale that Rick Remender has created for this story. Red Skull in his Onslaught form towers over the field of battle and strikes sufficiently frightening poses. The pacing of this semi-weekly series has already begun to show in his work though. While the larger panels and big moments are given sufficient effort to breathe and be enjoyed, smaller moments often feel rushed. Kubert’s ink work is lacking, specifically in panels focused on dialogue. Faces are often left without depth or detail.

The last page presents the first significant shift in momentum of the series thus far and a reason to anticipate Axis #3. This series was marketed with a set of interesting hooks to alter the status quo and allow for some intriguing stories. That promise is finally being realized and may allow Remender to still make Axis an event worth reading.

However, this issue carries the multiple problems of its predecessor and, refusing to alter its course, reads like a continuation of an already unimpressive comic. Change may never be permanent in superhero comics, but that doesn’t mean it cannot occur within individual stories. Change is the lifeblood of drama and the quicker Axis focuses on altering the status quo, no matter how temporary it may be, the better the series will be.

Grade: C-

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