Marvel Comic Capsule Reviews

It’s been a few months since my last round of comic book capsule reviews, and there are several more miniseries and new titles that I’m ready to discuss. This one will focus on some recent Marvel comics, since none of my new independent comics are far enough along for a review. (DC comics is currently in the process of winding all its titles down, rather than starting new ones up. I plan to look back at some of these soon, once their big reboot happens.)

It’s interesting to see Marvel branching out more and more from superheroes. In addition to four new superhero series, this article takes a look at two new titles in the Crossgen line.

FF #1 variant cover

FF

FF

(Based on issues 1-7)

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this starts with issue #1. This is a continuation of the Fantastic Four epic that Jonathan Hickman has been writing for the past couple years. While there may be an in-story justification for the new title (the group becomes the “Future Foundation” after the death of Johnny Storm), it picks up in the middle of several long-running plot threads. I thought this was a good time to check out the work of a promising new comics author, but it turned out to be pretty overwhelming. The cast page features twelve characters in addition to the four that I thought this was based on, and I had known nothing about the group’s recent adventures meeting the Reed Richards of infinite universes.

Sometimes, though, that drinking-from-the-firehose feeling is one of the thrills of comics. Hickman’s writing explains just enough to keep me involved, and the story is undoubtedly compelling. Those people who were reading Fantastic Four all along are the lucky ones, but if you are comfortable enough with superheroes to dive into the middle of a story, the first few issues of FF are a great place to start.

Unfortunately, the comic does have some setbacks after those initial issues. The most recent ones, #6 and #7, abandon the Future Foundation entirely to advance a long-running Marvel Universe plot about The Inhumans and the alien Kree Empire. These characters are an important part of the Marvel cosmology, and it makes sense for Hickman to pull their recent exploits into the FF storyline, but still… two whole issues about nothing but the Kree and the Inhumans? With the implication that more will probably be coming? I’m just going to come out and say it: The only Marvel group that people care about less than the Kree is the Inhumans. I know, I’ll probably make some enemies by saying that. Not too many enemies, though, because it’s the Kree and Inhumans. The fact that these two issues were boring and stilted makes the bait-and-switch aspect of this much more annoying. I was just starting to get a handle on the core plots of the FF title when this two-month pause derailed it all.

I had been prepared to recommend FF as a very good title, albeit best for the hardcore Marvel fans who are probably already reading it. But after the recent detour, I’m not sure if this will keep holding my interest or not. I hope so, but the title will need to become interesting again very fast.

Grade: C

Herc #1 cover

Herc

Herc

(Based on issues 1-6)

Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have been writing about the Marvel version of Hercules for a few years now, unexpectedly turning him into one of the funniest, most exciting, and legitimately heroic of the current crop of superheroes. Recent events have left Hercules depowered and mortal, but with incredible strength and some mythical items of power to give him an edge. Unlike FF, this title’s #1 is a true jumping-on point for new readers; It’s helpful to have some vague understanding of Greek mythology, but the recent Marvel stories are hardly mentioned at all.

This new status quo drops Hercules in modern-day Brooklyn, where he immediately makes some friends in the Greek community and runs afoul of a gang with connections to Herc’s ancient enemies. Only a few issues in, Pak and Van Lente have started to build a cast of supporting characters that promises to make the personal subplots as interesting as the battles with the villains. It’s reminiscent of the Spider-Man formula, except that Hercules is completely open about his heroic identity, and his valor and confidence is the opposite of Spidey’s angst. Six issues in, this seemingly has the best of both worlds: It is has dialogue and character-based melodrama without letting up on the action, and manages to be fun and humorous while still being as gritty and violent as modern-day comic fans expect.

The title barely had time to establish itself before issue #3, which began a four-part tie-in with Marvel’s current “Fear Itself” event. It is a testament to the authors’ skills that Herc managed to pull this off, incorporating some themes and events from Fear Itself without forgetting its own nascent plot. This tie-in has left me a little confused about the series’ intended direction – the first two issues introduced a “street-level” hero, while the later ones were much more epic – but makes it obvious that whatever path this title takes will be satisfying. That is good, given that Herc is going straight into a tie-in with the “Spider Island” event next. The only thing better than a superhero comic that manages to tell good, stand-alone stories is one that can tell satisfying stand-alone stories while connecting to the greater story of the superhero universe. Herc is a very different sort of story than the Incredible Hercules title that preceded it, but the quality is unchanged.

Grade: B+

Power Man and Iron Fist #1 cover

Power Man and Iron Fist

Power Man and Iron Fist

Power Man and Iron Fist have been a superhero duo for decades now, but this recent miniseries introduces a younger, hipper character into the role of Power Man. The usually reliable Fred Van Lente attempts to make this work, but doesn’t pull it off.

Most of the problems are centered around the new Power Man. This rebellious attempt at a cool new made-by-committee hero has all the problems that one would expect from a middle-aged white guy writing a streetwise black teenager. He has the power and fighting skill, but Iron Fist needs to help this kid overcome his self-centered, unfocused tendencies to save the day.

The character of Iron Fist is a tricky one to write, as well. As a multi-millionaire kung fu expert, he only works when thrown into inventive, ridiculous situations. The recent Brubaker/Fraction series, which introduced supporting characters like “The Bride of Nine Spiders” achieved this, but this story about tutoring a clichéd teenager does not.

Van Lente tries, though. The five-issue series crams in twice as much plot as normal, from a conspiracy involving a private prison company to a flamboyant-but-cursed circus troupe named “the Commedia Dell’Morte”. The highlight, though, is the villain “Pokerface”, who not only runs an illegal underwater casino, but has, yes, a giant harpoon sticking through his head. Unfortunately, the death traps that he puts Power Man and Iron Fist in (along with their love interests), don’t have the same level of creativity. The end result is a jumbled, slightly confusing series that overcompensates while trying to make up for its mundane new hero.

Grade: C

Ruse #4 cover

Ruse

Ruse

Thanks to various corporate takeovers, Marvel now owns the rights to defunct comics company Crossgen. It’s difficult to say whether they will be able to successfully relaunch the brand, but it’s possible: Crossgen had devoted fans at the time, and it may now have the nostalgia that often draws the attention of comic fans. Besides, Marvel is rolling the titles out slowly, with a new miniseries every few months. In my opinion, this is a much smarter way to start up a new line than DC’s plan to flood the market with new titles.

Ruse is off to a promising start. The main character, Simon Archard, is a brilliant detective who seems to combine the most annoying qualities of Sherlock Holmes, MacGyver, and House. The twist is that it is set in Victorian England, and the story focuses most of its attention on his assistant Emma Bishop. Emma is Simon’s equal in many ways and repeatedly keeps his ego and social ineptitude from sabotaging his missions, but gets no appreciation in their sexist society.

As unpleasant as those characters and setting may sound, author Mark Waid makes it work. A dash of humor lightens the more grating aspects of the setting, and Emma’s point of view both makes her enjoyable to root for and humanizes Simon. Most importantly, each issue is crammed with an incredible amount of plot: In just four issues, it covers a gambling ring, an underground fight club, a plot against the crown, and attempts to murder Simon’s past assistants. These all weave together, along with several death traps and the suicide that Simon is investigating at the opening of the story. The breakneck plot is a lot of fun, and makes it easy to interpret the dialog as light and witty.

Grade: B

Sigil #2 cover

Sigil

Sigil

This is the less successful of the new Crossgen titles. Sigil is set in a multiverse in which two secret societies battle across time and space. With the Marvel relaunch, this series shifts its focus to highschooler Samantha Rey, who learns that there are powers beyond our mundane Earth life in the middle of issue 1.

Sigil is a decent series, but it never rises above the formulas of young adult literature. Sam’s problems at home, her initially-uncertain reaction to discovering her fantastic powers, and the point at which she takes over for the adults should be familiar to almost everyone. This series’ saving grace is that these stories are still much rarer in comics than prose, and if Marvel figures out how to market it, this cleanly-drawn and smoothly-written series could find a place. But this series has nothing especially interesting to make it stand out on its own (other than the Crossgen legacy, whose fans generally aren’t in the young adult demographic), and I expect it to get lost among the rows of other Marvel comics.

At least this series was done well enough to convince me that Marvel is serious about the Crossgen brand. A third series (Mystic) has already started, and I’m hoping for some sort of news about Abadazad soon.

Grade: C+

Venom #2 cover

Venom

Venom

(Based on issues 1-5, as well as the introduction in Amazing Spider-Man #654.1. #6 is now out, but since it begins a tie-in with Spider Island, it makes sense to consider the first five separately.)

The concept: Spider-Man supporting character Flash Thompson, who recently lost his legs in the army, is given a chance to become a secret agent. Wearing the Venom symbiote, he now has legs and Spider-Man-like powers. Of course, he also has to fight off the symbiote’s desire to take control and murder everyone, and his new dual identity brings with it the same problems that Spider-Man always has in his personal life.

The big draw for this series was supposed to be artist Tony Moore, whose command of monsters, gore, and facial expressions can elevate stories like this to a level of realism they rarely have. Unfortunately, Moore is not fast enough to keep up with a monthly schedule, and about half of the pages on these first five issues were instead drawn by Tom Fowler. Fowler’s art is decent, but it can’t save the story alone when the writing stumbles.

And the writing does stumble sometimes. Rick Remender is an uneven author. For the most part, he finds a lot of storytelling potential in this status quo of “Spider-Man as a government agent, who can kill”. Sometimes, though, he dials up the pathos a bit too much (such as issue #5, which reflects over an entire lifetime’s worth of angst about an alcoholic father) or lets the plot get too convoluted. But at its worst, this is like an average issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and at its best, it does manage to do new things with this different character. Remender’s skill lies in unpredictable long-form stories, so, despite giving up on artist Moore, I expect to see this series get even better over time.

Grade: B-

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