Marvel Comics Capsule Reviews (And A Rant!)

After last month’s flurry of new DC reviews, it’s time to check in with Marvel comics. (Don’t worry: I plan to get to titles from other publishers in April.) In addition to the reviews, I also have some commentary at the bottom about the company’s apparent direction.

cover to Avengers: Children's Crusade #9

Avengers: Children's Crusade

Avengers: The Children’s Crusade

(A nine-issue miniseries, plus a tenth unfortunately named “Avengers: The Children’s Crusade: Young Avengers #1” special.)

Allan Heinberg’s Young Avengers series is remembered fondly several years later not only because he introduced new, exciting characters, but because he managed to keep the story clearly focused on them while wading through the messiest portions of Marvel continuity. A couple years after it debuted, I was still showing my friends issue #1 as an example of how a series debut could simultaneously be interesting to hardcore fans and accessible to new readers.

It’s hard to believe that the follow-up up series Avengers: The Children’s Crusade is even by the same author. Once again, it’s about a young band of optimistic heroes responding to the messes of the Marvel Universe, but this time, it’s clearly for completists only. When magic-user Wiccan loses control of his powers, the Avengers and X-Men converge on the team intending to shut down (and apparently kill) him. The young team escapes, and decides the answers will be found with the Scarlet Witch, Wiccan’s apparent mother. The search for her reopens plot threads from 2005’s House of M mini-series, as well as bringing in Doctor Doom, repowering a minor hero from another series, and plenty of drawn-out plot twists and talking heads taking the place of deep characters. It ultimately culminates in more fights with both the Avengers and the X-Men.

Well, more accurately, it culminates in a lot of talking. The entire last issue is the various characters alternating between crying and threatening to fight other heroes, in the easily-parodied style of modern “serious” superhero events. Several of the main characters lose faith in themselves in a way that seriously questions the entire point of the Young Avengers concept (and, in fact, the single burst of action in that issue occurs when a symbol of the original series’ optimism goes off the rails). A hasty conclusion tries to undo that, but in a way that feels unearned. The series manages not only to be disappointing, but to retroactively hurt fond memories of the original Young Avengers.

Grade: D+

cover to Avengers Academy #21

Avengers Academy

Avengers Academy

(Based on issues #21-26. #27 is out now, but it starts a new storyline.)

Those looking for a good series about child superheroes should check out Avengers Academy instead. Christos Gage’s writing fully embraces the soap opera aspect of the Marvel Universe that brought The Children’s Crusade down, but makes it work by putting the focus on interesting characters. The heroes of this series not only have distinctive and believable personalities, but they are evolving in ways that matter. That’s one of the features that is easiest to find in second-tier series like this: Since these characters are relatively new, with neither generations of fans nor a marketing department to appease, they really can change.

The concept is a school for young superheroes led by adult members of the Avengers. The two generations of characters make for an interesting comparison: The constant fights and emoting that we expect from Marvel characters make sense coming from teenagers, but the adults behave no more maturely. Putting that aside (yes, this series is silly and chaotic) the plots are well-constructed and the characters are great. They have legitimate worries about whether they’ll become heroes or villains, given the people out there who are willing to take advantage of powerful but naive children, and their responses to moral questions have as much variety as their different powers. Perhaps the high point so far has been not one of the battles, but a serious discussion of sexual identity from a closeted gay character.

My main concern about Avengers Academy is how closely it is tied into the comic book events that affect anything with “Avengers” in the title. I had wanted to start reading this series months before I actually did, because I needed to wait for the Fear Itself tie-ins to wind down. Now I just have another month or so before it gets tangled up in Avengers Vs. X-Men. But it manages to treat this continuity with a light hand, making it fairly straightforward for a reader to understand the events being referred to. (Similarly, this wasn’t too bad to start reading with issue #21.) Overall, this is a just another silly, exaggerated superhero book, but it’s an example of a silly, exaggerated superhero book done right.

Grade: B-

cover to Avenging Spider-Man #1

Avenging Spider-Man

Avenging Spider-Man

(Based on issues #1-4)

This new comic is basically Spider-Man Team-Up, with the “Avenging” title referring to the fact that Spider-Man is a member of the Avengers. Every story sees him working side-by-side with a different Avenger, but Spider-Man is no more driven by vengeance than normal. Of course, his fellow superheroes are not always as selfless. The first three issues match him up with the vindictive Red Hulk, while the fourth is a one-shot about Hawkeye’s insecurities. Though they introduce these characters well while also staying interesting for their fans, it seems that Spider-Man will consistently be the more mature and moral half of his team-ups.

I’m ok with that, though, since Spider-Man is a great character. Most other people buying a comic with his name in the title will probably agree. Zeb Wells, a part of the “brain trust” during Spidey’s Brand New Day reboot, captures his character fairly well. The problem that Spider-Man fans will have with this is something different: Because the stories are focused entirely on superheroes teaming up against the bad guys, there is little chance for Peter Parker and his supporting cast to show up.

These are still fun stories. They’re well-done, varied, and their intense pace (two stories in four issues!) makes a nice contrast to the soap opera pacing of Amazing Spider-Man. The artists change up frequently, but Joe Madureira’s contribution to the first storyline gave it an exaggerated dynamic look that fit the story. I want to like this a lot, but there’s one serious problem: This series is priced at $3.99 per issue, even though it’s a standard size that should cost $2.99. There’s nothing about the content, production quality, or “importance” of the story to justify that extra cost. (For the most part, I want to avoid questions of whether a comic “matters”. We’re focused too much on events these days instead of good stories. But the fact remains that if you are only going to follow one Spider-Man comic, any important changes in Peter’s life will occur in Amazing. That’s also $3.99, but it has extra pages to justify the cost.) These comics do come bundled with a code for a free digital copy of the issue, but that doesn’t provide any new content. It’s just a thin excuse to charge more for a comic book because Marvel doesn’t think the fans can say no.

Well, I’m not buying it. That’s a shame, because this is a good series, and I am willing to pay extra for quality at times. This isn’t quite at that level, though, especially with the superior Amazing Spider-Man also available.

Grade: C+

cover to John Carter: A Princess of Mars #1

John Carter: A Princess of Mars

John Carter: A Princess of Mars

With Marvel now owned by Disney, they’ve been putting out John Carter miniseries in preparation for the new movie. I’ve never had interest in the character before, but this particular series featured writer Roger Langridge adapting the original Burroughs story. I’m always willing to check out a work by him.

Unfortunately, I believe that Langridge’s contribution was the weakest element of this comic. I can’t say for sure how faithful this was to a novel that I never read, but it definitely had the hallmarks of a rushed adaptation. The story skims through too much plot with almost no time to establish the characters or their relationships. Carter’s headstrong ways would get him killed if he weren’t the hero of the story, and the pace gives him the chance to make an ass of himself several times per issue. At one particularly frustrating point, an issue ends on a cliffhanger (Carter and a new friend must fight to the death in an arena!) only to announce at the start of the next issue that it was now resolved (they found some way to fake Carter’s death in front of the audience and get away unharmed).

The best part of this comic is the art by Filipe Andrade. The scenery is impressionistic, and the characters are more a collection of muscles than skin and bones. But this isn’t over-muscled in the normal superhero sense. Based on real anatomy, these figures flow with the grace of a dancer. The art may not be realistic, but it draws from reality arguably more than most comic art does.

If only Andrade had a slightly better story to illustrate, possibly even a less rushed version of this one, the result might be breathtaking. Unfortunately, the writing here feels too disjointed for the art to make much of a difference.

Grade: C

cover to Venom #13.4



(Based on issues #11-14, including 4 special issue numbered #13.1 – #13.4. The first five issues of the series were reviewed here, while #6-9 were part of Spider-Island.)

When I first reviewed this series, I found it uneven but had some faith in Rick Remender’s storytelling ability. Sure enough, his ability with long-form plots is starting to pay off. A darker, more violent reflection of Spider-Man, the inexperienced hero Flash Thompson is finding himself blackmailed by psychopathic criminals while fighting to keep control over the evil Venom symbiote he wears. His personal life has fallen apart, and despite all his Spider-Man parallels, this military man doesn’t have the strict moral code that Peter Parker can rely on in his worst times. While I expect a resolution that is happy on the whole, Remender isn’t the sort of author to let Flash out unscathed.

Last month, Venom released a five-part weekly event called “Circle of Four”. He ran into the Red Hulk, Ghost Rider, and X-23 in Las Vegas just as a demon released Hell out of a portal there. Featuring anti-heroes against forces of true evil, the event encapsulated Venom well: flawed characters, scenes too violent for most Marvel books, and some real losses on the way to victory. Weekly events like this are often often disappointing, but it worked here. This quantity of plot needed to be compressed into a short time to keep from derailing the main story, and it ended up being an interesting diversion. It helped that original series artist Tony Moore returned for the opening and closing issues of the event. Over all, Moore’s absence has been the biggest disappointment as the series otherwise found its place in recent months.

Though much darker than Avengers Academy, Venom succeeds in a similar way. It’s trashy pulp fun that fully embraces the conventions of the modern Marvel Universe, but does it better than most of the series out there. It’s not a story to convert a new reader with, but it’s solid superhero fun.

Grade: B-

So the best two comics in this article got only a minor recommendation with a B-. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because my current favorite Marvel series (Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil) were reviewed recently and aren’t included here. On the other hand, I am worried about Marvel’s current direction. As David Brothers recently pointed out, Marvel has started switching artists around frequently in order to speed up their release cycle to slightly more than monthly releases. This can work sometimes (Amazing Spider-Man has been coming out two to three times per month for a while now, and has managed a more involved story than it could have had otherwise), but it’s a horrible approach to use on an entire line-up. The six issues of Avengers Academy reviewed here, for example, came out over four months and had three different pencillers. Venom had an excuse for multiple artists during the weekly “Circle of Four” story, but not too long ago, it went through three pencillers in three issues (#8-10, and none of those was original artist Moore). Only the two miniseries kept the same art team throughout. (I’m not just cherry-picking a few cases. Of the series mentioned here, both Venom and Daredevil are scheduled to double-ship in April and May, with Avengers Academy double-shipping again in May.)

I’m surprised to notice this now, because just last month, I commented that DC was doing a mostly-successful job of swapping creators when necessary to keep on schedule. But for the most part, I would say that DC is doing this correctly. Not only are their series coming out exactly once a month (on consistent weeks, even), but they retain an artistic identity throughout. Swamp Thing is still Yanick Paquette’s book, for example, even if some other artists filled in on visually distinct scenes. On the other hand, Marvel’s artists are mostly converging on a generic house style. It’s rare for me not to mention the art in a comic review, but I felt no reason to bring it up at all in some of the reviews above.

That’s the real danger of this strategy. Successful comics are a combination of writing and art, but even the ones I currently like seem to be relegating the art to a mere delivery mechanism, necessary in the same sense as paper and staples. The fact that this is apparently done to squeeze out two issues some months makes it appear to be an entirely financial decision. If I find myself on the fence about a title, the next time I have to pay for it every couple weeks will be a good opportunity to drop it.

Both Marvel and DC have had ups and downs over the years I’ve been following them. However, between Marvel’s rising prices and this new artist shuffle, I don’t think I’ve ever been more worried about them. When I follow with more reviews in a few months, I’ll take a look at how this latest trend is developing.

  1. November 22nd, 2012
  2. February 24th, 2013

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