Marvel Month in (P)Review: January and February 2008

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Editor’s Note: With the first month of the year over, Dave Wallace and Luke Handley take a look at the Marvel books that caught their attention in January – and which ones they’re most looking forward to in February.

January Review

Ultimate Human #1:
Dave: When Marvel's Ultimate imprint was first launched, there was a real sense that the publisher was trying to encourage the steady growth of a more modern, viable alternative to the regular Marvel Universe, with quality creators assigned to a small core of ongoing titles. Over the last couple of years, however, the Ultimate titles appear to have gone completely off the rails, with only Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimates maintaining anywhere near the same standard of storytelling that they enjoyed in their early issues (and only then because the original writers and artists were retained on the books for so long). Ultimate Power and Jeph Loeb's Ultimates 3 have been the worst recent offenders, but there's a general lack of energy in the Ultimate Universe all round, with rumours that both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four are facing cancellation.

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing Ultimate Human, the only Ultimate title for a few years that has really given me cause to celebrate the existence of the imprint. Warren Ellis shows that he understands what makes Tony Stark and Bruce Banner tick, and throws them together in the first issue of a four-part story in which the two genius scientists try to find a cure for the Hulk's condition. With the Ultimate Leader - Pete Wisdom! - also tossed into the mix, this promises to be a book which takes advantage of the opportunities offered by the Ultimate Universe for fresh interpretations of established characters and concepts, without running against the spirit of previous creators' work in the young Universe. Cary Nord's artwork brings the story to life perfectly. If you had lost faith in the Ultimate Universe, you could do a lot worse than to give this book a try.

She-Hulk #25:
Luke Handley: It’s with a heavy heart that I write this, but issue #25 is to be my last of She-Hulk for now. I want to make it clear that I am not dropping this title purely because Dan Slott has left. Writers come and go, and as a reader, you just have to deal with it. However, I originally started reading this book not because of the title character -- I couldn’t care less about She-Hulk three years ago -- but because of the craziness of Slott’s stories. Peter David made a wise choice not trying to copy Slott’s style and took the title in a different direction. It must have worked for some since issue #23, David’s first, pulled in more readers than Slott ever did (not counting the Civil War tie-in), but it hasn’t for me. I stuck around for three issues to see where things were headed but after three issues I’m still uninspired, so I feel it’s time to call it a day. Jen’s current status quo isn’t working for me, and neither is her Skrull partner. The fun has dropped out of the title and the “funny” is no longer funny. Here’s to hoping David makes me regret my decision.

Amazing Spider-Man: "Brand New Day"
Dave: Amazing Spider-Man's "Brand New Day" is a relaunch which has been partially, but not wholly, successful. Marvel have established a new status quo for Spidey, but whilst Peter Parker has forgotten about his previous, married life, fans haven't been able to let go quite so easily. Marvel's schizophrenic approach to the reset hasn't helped, lacing the first couple of issues of the relaunch with sly references to the old continuity, and constantly encouraging readers to "look forward" at the same time as the book is contriving to include so many elements which throw back to the old '60s and '70s status quo of the title. Joe Quesada has wisely kept a fairly low profile during the past month, occasionally popping his head above the parapet to answer a few questions, but preferring to let the new issues of Amazing Spider-Man speak for themselves.

In fact, asking readers to judge "Brand New Day" on its own merits is probably the wisest approach for Marvel to take, as the first three issues provided a good old-fashioned Spidey story (i.e. no "event" storylines, no crossovers) of the kind that hasn't been published in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man since early 2005. Slott's breezy, fun writing style combines with Steve McNiven's clean, bright artwork to provide a tale which felt like a blast of fresh air - but I can't help but wonder whether that's only because the book has been stale for so long.

Messiah CompleX
Luke: No review of Marvel’s January output would be complete without at least a mention of “Messiah CompleX.” The most important event to hit the X-Universe in years (yes, more important than “Decimation” in my opinion) has been met with wild acclaim from most fans; check out some of the reviews of the individual issues in ComicsBulletin’s review archive section.

I consider myself very much an X-fan and have followed the franchise for as long as I’ve been reading comics. I thought “Messiah CompleX” was good but not quite as amazing as some people felt it was, as the crossover definitely had its ups and downs along the way. However, the last third of the arc, released last month, really did pick up the pace and upped the stakes with every issue. I don’t have room here to go into a detailed analysis of the event, which is a shame as there is a lot to talk about. Suffice to say that the conclusion was satisfactory in that there was an actual conclusion: the baby was secured and left in the care of Cable (neatly setting up his own upcoming title), the bad guys got their due, Mystique and Gambit’s puzzling behaviour was partly explained, and Professor Xavier was shot in the head. Yes, Charles Xavier, the X-Men’s lynchpin, appears to have been killed by rogue X-Man Bishop. But how many people truly believe old baldy bought it? His role in the crossover was minimal and as such, if this was indeed his death scene, it felt tacked on as an afterthought. And I doubt Marvel would go to all the trouble of depowering then re-empowering him just to have him die so swiftly. But this still lead to Cyclops dramatically announcing that he’s disbanding the X-Men. Why? Charles has been missing or presumed dead several times before, the last one only a couple of years ago in the wake of House of M, yet still the X-Men soldiered on. Though I recognise the need to give the individual X-books more focus, this explanation doesn’t work for me. Also, I read the Ultimate X-Men Vol. 16 tpb this week and, low and behold, it features Cyclops deciding to disband the X-Men following the apparent death of Charles Xavier at the hands of a rogue time-travelling X-Man. Hmm, maybe Robert Kirkman should have been acknowledged in the credits of that final issue.

Mighty Avengers #7 & #8
Dave: With Mark Bagley on board as artist, this book has finally managed to catch up with the rest of the Marvel Universe after suffering severe delays due to Frank Cho's tardiness in delivering the first arc. Thankfully, Brian Michael Bendis also seems to be picking up the pace, offering more plot and character development in one issue than we saw in the entire first arc, and moving quickly past his "symbiote invasion" subplot to push the characters into conflict with yet another classic Marvel villain next month. Bagley's artwork is far more suited to the book than Cho's, delivering subtle emotion and strong visual characterisation to go along with the bigger moments of action and drama.

For various reasons, I never thought I'd enjoy Mighty Avengers more than New Avengers - but after the weak finale to the Hood's storyline in New Avengers, it was certainly the better Avengers title published this month.

The Order #7
Luke: It was announced last month that The Order will be ending with April’s issue #10. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever been so utterly disappointed by the cancellation of a comic series. Why is it facing the axe? Simple answer really: it’s not selling well enough. Now, it would be foolish of me to claim that The Order is the best title Marvel is producing right now; it isn’t. But it is good and it is unique. The concept of “normal” heroes being granted superpowers with which to save the world for one year immediately grabbed me and the title has been one of the better things to come out of the Superhuman Registration Act. Matt Fraction had, over the course of the first six issues, introduced a team of completely new characters (with the exception of Pepper Potts) and made each and every one of them unique and interesting and juggled about five different ongoing subplots.

Issue #7 was an odd one though. Whenever a series is struggling, there’s one thing readers can count on: guest stars! In this case Prince Namor, ruler of Atlantis. However, as is so often the case, the guest appearance occurs after the title is already slated for cancellation. Fortunately, Namor’s role here didn’t feel contrived and may well have been planned by Fraction since issue #1. The verbal jousting between the Prince and Anthem, set against the backdrop of The Order’s evacuation of San Francisco, is interesting, but the issue failed to actually grip this reader or make him care. Issue #6 had left one of the team captured and two others wounded and hounded in the middle of the desert. Yet they weren’t heard from or even mentioned here. With only three issues left, this felt like a bit of a wasted effort as it’s certainly too late to draw in new readers. However, if you haven’t been reading this book, I strongly recommend you pick up the trade when it’s eventually released.

Dave: Yeah, I’ve been loving The Order too, so it was unfortunate that this weaker-than-usual issue came along in the same week as it was announced that the book was ending soon. Hopefully the next few issues will be a return to form.

February Preview

Young Avengers Presents #2: Hulkling
Luke: It was, without a doubt, the best thing to come out of “Avengers: Disassembled” and now, finally, Young Avengers is back on the racks of our local comic shops. After a fashion. Each and every one of the next generation of Avengers proved to be an interesting and fully rounded character under the pen of Alan Heinberg and now they individually get to shine in their own spotlight issues. However, how far the individual writers are allowed to take Heinberg’s creations is unknown. Though the first issue, focussing on Patriot, was on the throwaway side, this next one might prove a turning point for Hulkling. Brian Reed takes on writing duties, and since he writes the current Captain Marvel mini-series, it came as little surprise that he would cover the first meeting between Teddy and his “father.” Though I have remained less than enthused by Mar-Vel’s slightly contrived (and, I feel, utterly pointless) return, how he copes with the knowledge of having a son and how Hulkling reacts to meeting the father he never thought he would have the chance to could make this issue worthwhile. And check out the gorgeous Harvey Talibao art below.

New Avengers #38
Dave: With this issue, ominously titled "The Break-Up", artist Michael Gaydos returns to illustrate the next significant chapter in the life of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Anyone who missed Gaydos' work on Alias and The Pulse should go back and catch up now, because those books proved him to be the definitive artist for the two characters. Alias was arguably Bendis' best Marvel work (well, perhaps after Daredevil), and hopefully this issue will see him recapture the spark that has been notably absent from Luke and Jessica's relationship in the pages of New Avengers.

Clandestine #1
Luke: Clandestine. Now there’s a name that hasn’t cropped up on the Marvel Universe for a while. Alan Davis’ dysfunctional, superpowered, immortal family appeared in their own series in the nineties, and though the book was cancelled far too soon, the memory of that series is enough to make Clandestine #1 one of my most eagerly awaited comic books this month. Any book with Alan Davis art is cause for excitement and the preview pages (check them out in full here) prove that this series will not disappoint in the visual department. Judging by the preview, the first issue will cover the basics you need to know about the Destines, and I encourage anyone and everyone to give this title a try. Though it is to be a limited series, Davis has already hinted that he has plans for more, should sales justify another outing. So go reserve your copy now, and if you’re feeling flush, pick up the Clandestine hardcover also out this month. If memory serves me correctly you won’t regret it!

Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death
Dave: If you're not reading Immortal Iron Fist, why not? Orson Randall, one of the book's most enjoyable cast members, gets his own spin-off one-shot here, detailing several of his adventures with the Confederates of the Curious as illustrated by a slew of guest-artists. For those of us who are enjoying the regular Iron Fist series, this is a welcome treat; for everyone else, it's a chance to see what all the fuss is about, and get on board with Matt Fraction's crazy, ideas-packed brand of retro pulp heroics.

Uncanny X-Men #495
Luke: This issue marks the beginning of “Divided We Stand,” not a crossover but rather an umbrella under which all the X-titles will fall for the next half year or so. In the wake of “Messiah CompleX,” the X-Men are no more and this title, written by fan-favourite scribe Ed Brubaker, will explore what the central X-cast do with their unexpected downtime. This isn’t the first time that the X-Men have officially disbanded and gone their own ways, the most recent, I think, being during Alan Davis’ stint on the core books. Though Uncanny X-Men was my least favourite of the four core X-titles prior to the crossover, it’s now the book I’m most looking forward to as it promises to focus on most of the remaining “classic” X-Men. Thus, we’re getting Cyclops, Emma Frost and Angel in San Francisco (Order crossover anyone?) and Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine in Mother Russia. The re-teaming of those last three is more than enough to get me excited, and the preview art by Michael Choi looks pretty sweet too. “Divided We Stand” is, apparently, to last until issue #500, in which Scott will reassemble what he believes the X-Men should be, but until then I’ll enjoy seeing where Brubaker takes these merry mutants.

Fantastic Four #554
Dave: Millar. Hitch. ‘Nuff said.

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