Saturday, July 14, 2007

Stripping Down #24

Essential X-Men #153 (Panini UK)
“Chasing Hellfire!” by Chris Claremont & Andy Park
(Uncanny X-Men #454)
“World’s End” by Chris Claremont, Alan Davis & Mark Farmer (Uncanny X-Men #455-456)

It’s been a busy year for resurrections (or should that be resurr-x-ions? Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Following Colossus, Marvel Girl, heck, even Donald Pierce last issue, we now welcome back Betsy Braddock, aka Psylocke. Fittingly, Alan Davis, who drew her first adventure as an X-Man two decades ago, is back to chronicle her return. Ahead of that, Chris Claremont wraps up his rather yawnsome reunion of The Hellfire Club, assuming that anyone’s still interested. Andy Park’s art has been decent enough, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t race through the issue to get to the first part of World’s End. As you’ll expect from Alan Davis and long-time collaborator Mark Farmer, each page appears to be effortlessly eye-catching. In fact, Davis and Farmer’s work is so consistently good that it’s easy to overlook how good it really is and Dean White’s colour art only enhances the visuals with effective use of palette. As for the story itself, Claremont uses a favourite device in an early scene to set things up. During a Danger Room session, Wolverine tests the team’s non-super powered combat skills, a sure indication that this will prove to be a life-saving exercise mere pages later. However, the spotlight is on Psylocke and her inexplicable return. The team are understandably sceptical, given that they’d cremated her corpse (though, interestingly, this seemed to be less of an issue when Colossus return in similar circumstances). New recruit X-23 also gets a look in, treading the same path of the enigmatic wild card as Rogue, Marrow – whatever happened to her? – and Sage before her. The pair inevitably team up to rescue their captured colleagues at episode two’s cliffhanger. New alien race The Hauk’ka, basically dinosaurs in human form, are well realised by Davis and Farmer; Claremont is usually good at developing this type of would-be world beater so I’m intrigued to see where he goes with this. World’s End is not an edge-of-your-seat read, though Alan Davis does seem to bring out the best in his jaded writing foil, so it’s satisfying fare at least.

Ultimate Spider-Man & X-Men #70 (Panini UK)
“Silver Sable” by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley & Scott Hanna (Ultimate Spider-Man #87)
“Breaking Point” by Robert Kirkman & Salvador Larocca
(Ultimate X-Men Annual #2)

Wow, what’s happened to Mark Bagley? After seemingly constant criticism of the uniform, inexpressive faces of his character art, I was a little taken aback this issue. Mary Jane looks like Mary Jane! Kitty Pryde looks like Kitty Pryde! Silver Sable looks like…oh, you get the idea. The point is, at long last, the characters in the story are distinct from one another, rather than generic mix’n’matches that rely overly on the colour artist to distinguish between, say, the blonde or the redhead. Bagley’s clearly honed his craft over the years but his figure art has always seemed to lag behind, say, his work on buildings and hardware. Not so here. I mean, we’re not talking about radical, cutting edge stuff here but credit where it’s due. There’s an awkward exchange between Peter and MJ – the latter having just discovered his relationship with Kitty Pryde – that captures MJ’s emotions perfectly. That said, it’s difficult to identify the narrative spark that ignited this creative blast as this is arguably one of Bendis’ dullest Ultimate Spider-Man scripts to date. It’s a riff on 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man #5, with Silver Sable (in place of Dr.Doom) kidnaps Flash Thompson, mistakenly believing him to be Spider-Man; the romantic sub-plot involving Peter, MJ and Kitty Pryde also steps up a gear. This is the second of five chapters, and it’s difficult to say at this stage whether the plot will pick up or be stretched even more thinly. Silver Sable’s a rather inconsequential adversary so far and although I’m pleased to see X-Man Kitty as Peter’s romantic interest, I hope she’s used more effectively in upcoming storylines. Here’s hoping that next issue’s script is on a par with the surprisingly good art in this. In the X-Men strip, the good news is that Dazzler, comatose since being impaled by Lady Deathstrike ages ago, finally wakes up. The bad news is that, following Magician’s betrayal of the team in the last few issues, Nightcrawler has flipped his wig. Kidnapping Dazzler from her hospital bed, he transports her to an isolated cavern, convincing her that he is rescuing her from an attack that has devastated the team. Just in case you’re wondering why the furry blue German has cracked up, the story kicks off with a flashback to a Weapon X mission, where Nightcrawler was used to depose the leader of a small country with extreme prejudice. Of course, given Dazzler’s somewhat abrasive relationship with her team-mates, the X-Men aren’t entirely surprised by her sudden disappearance and Nightcrawler’s suspicious behaviour goes unnoticed by all but Wolverine. Robert Kirkman’s run so far has been good, but this is disappointing; like Nightcrawler’s play acting, there’s a lot about this story that fails to convince. Guest artist Salvador Larocca is also below par: the minimal layouts here match the Ultimate X-Men house style yet are a pale reflection of his far superior work on the mainstream series currently appearing in Essential X-Men. Unusually, it’s Spider-Man that nudges ahead as the most enjoyable strip in this issue.

The Avengers United #81 (Panini UK)
“Sidekicks” by Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung & John Dell (Young Avengers #1-2)
“Death On The Hudson!” by David Michelinie, John Byrne & D. Hands (The Avengers (v1) #184)
“Set Sails!” by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Vince Coletta (Journey Into Mystery #120)

I have to admit that the very concept of The Young Avengers didn’t inspire confidence. However, a few pages in and any misgivings I had were promptly disspelled. In a smart move, the team themselves don’t appear until halfway through the first episode. Instead, the public reaction to the new team – ‘Who the #*&% are The Young Avengers?’ - is discussed by J. Jonah Jameson, Kat Farrell and Jessica Jones and, latterly, Captain America and Iron Man. Allan Heinberg cleverly uses this device to anticipate and address reader misgivings and it works. When The Young Avengers make their dramatic debut on page 12, crashing through the glass roof of a church, I was looking forward to seeing the characters in action. Characterisation and dialogue are real strengths; Heinberg doesn’t give away much, yet there are intriguing hints at Patriot’s focus-bordering-on-obsession, Hulkling and Asgardian’s mutual appreciation and the unveiling of Iron Lad as a teenaged Kang at the close of the first chapter. As the knowingly ridiculous aliases imply, the series doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides a welcome contrast to Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers series. I’m looking forward to seeing Cassie Lang (aka the deceased Ant Man II’s daughter) make her proper debut next issue, not to mention an appearance from big, bad, grown-up Kang. Back in the 1970s, the team continue to thwart The Absorbing Man’s efforts to flee the United States. As with The Korvac Saga, David Michelinie continues to question The Avengers’ right to act as both judge and jury, with a more empathetic impression of Crusher Creel emerging at the story’s climax. This period continues to be a rich vein of Avengers’ history and well worth mining. In Tales Of Asgard, I suspect that the Norse Gods are wholly dependent on their immortality as it takes them forever to get anything done! After several issues, the mission to save Asgard finally gets underway though not before Volstagg gets into trouble with his wife and Magrat The Schemer and Kroda The Duellist are put in their place by Hogun The Grim. Jack Kirby’s rough pencil art are crudely inked by Vince Colletta but that doesn’t impede the vague air of excitement now that Thor and his crew have set sail. Let’s hope that the quest lives up to prolonged preamble…!

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #6 (Panini UK)
“Skin Deep” by J. Michael Straczynski, Mike Deodato & Joe Pimentel / Mark Brooks & Jaime Mendoza (Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #517)
“Unusual Suspects” by Paul Jenkins, Phil Winslade & Tom Palmer (Daredevil/Spider-Man: Unusual Suspects #4)
“And Death Shall Come!” by Stan Lee, Gil Kane & John Romita (Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #90)

The vibranium-coated Charlie Weiderman goes over the edge as he blackmails Peter Parker and exacts revenge on his high school bully. The approximation of the Lee/Ditko-era’s Peter Parker – Flash Thompson – Liz Allen triangle in the ongoing flashbacks rather heavy handedly explores Spider-Man’s ‘path not taken’ through Charlie. The story itself is well paced, with typically good dialogue and impressive art… well, the Deodato/Pimentel portions, anyway. However, the concept is tired and Straczynski doesn’t add anything new, all the more disappointing given that he previously raised the bar on this series. After an enjoyable few issues, the Daredevil/Spider-Man series also wraps up in slightly underwhelming fashion, as Copperhead attempts to recreate hell on earth and humankind’s last hope is… The Owl?! My struggle with the story was the lack of information about the principal characters and an inability to place it chronologically. A prime example is The Owl, who bears little resemblance to the character who appeared in Break Out a couple of issues previously. The necessary exposition I’d awaited from part one never arrives, though I think writer Paul Jenkins could have incorporated it without slowing the narrative pace. Instead, I felt that I needed to have done my Marvel homework before reading Unusual Suspects in order to get the sense of it. Gripes aside, I did love the two ‘epilogues’ which see Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson get one up on The Kingpin and show that Spider-Man is not the only one with a sense of humour, as Daredevil proves at his expense. Phil Winslade and Tom Palmer’s art on Unusual Suspects is stunning to the end, with some wonderfully mind-bending panel layouts and one of the best renditions of The Owl to hit the comic page. Completing the issue as usual is the archive tale, featuring Spider-Man’s final battle with Doctor Octopus and the death of Captain Stacy. Printed out of context, it’s difficult to gauge the extent of Peter’s respect and affection for his prospective father-in-law and therefore the impact of Captain Stacy’s death is lessened somewhat. Still, in purely narrative terms, this story has it all: Stacy’s selfless sacrifice; his last gasp revelation that he’s known Peter is Spider-Man all along; an accusing anti-Spidey crowd, convinced that he’s murdered a public hero and, naturally, Peter Parker’s own guilty conscience that he is responsible for this tragic sequence of events. Add to that Spidey’s efforts, despite repeated pummellings, to bring Doctor Octopus to justice and this story packs a dramatic punch. The combined efforts of artistic heavyweights Gil Kane and John Romita should also be acknowledged. A rather patchy issue overall, story-wise, The Astonishing Spider-Man remains on the right side of entertaining, thanks to it’s consistently powerful visuals.

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