Before writing for this column, I tended to fall in and out of comics as life and finances would permit. Now, of the big two, DC will always be my Rushmore, but during my last phase of comics reading I really loved Peter David’s Madrox and X-Factor, the latter of which ended last October (still catching up from where I left off on that one, by the way). These were series that turned the superhero genre on its head by respecting it and injecting what is so fun about superhero comics into a non-superhero genre. Jamie Madrox was reformed from the comic relief on a team of B to C-list X-Men characters into a down on his luck private eye, and this was illustrative of the stroke of genius at the core of both of David’s series: take these characters out of the more standard superhero setting and let them breathe apart from it. In turn, characters like Multiple Man, Strong Guy, and Wolfsbane were able to become more than spots on the spinoff team book check list without jettisoning anything about them. X-Factor became about what it was like to be B-List.
It’s hard to really place the “listness” of the mutants in All New X-Factor, something of a thematic sequel to David’s earlier series. I had forgotten who Polaris was, for instance, but Gambit and Quicksilver are some pretty dang popular characters. So I guess they average out to B-and-a-half? David does frames their current position in terms of screw ups: Gambit is in trouble with the X-Men for shirking his duties as a teacher at the Xavier Academy, and Quicksilver has apparently been kicked out of the Avengers, possibly to spy on his new boss. Which brings the story here back to the core thematic appeal of X-Factor: at bottom it has to be about being a working stiff. In the prior series, X-Factor was a small business, here it’s a division of a gigantic corporation that is basically a combination between Google (complete with a “Don’t Be Evil”-esque slogan) and Lockheed Martin. David hasn’t gotten into any politics so far, but there are some hints that the mutants of the new X-Factor might be working for someone shadier than they look. Where Madrox and the subsequent X-Factor often got across the idea that bills are difficult to pay, here the characters want for nothing, but in placing the superhero team as employees of a giant corporation David opens up some new territory to explore in terms of superheroes as citizens of the working world.
The art, by Carmine Di Giandomenico is very good, and very different from X-Factor’s last iteration. Where the old series often had a look that complemented the blue collar private eye vibe, Giandomenico renders the series with an eye toward the modern corporate world. The environs of Serval Industries (the team’s employers) evokes the modern architecture put to work by companies in Silicon Valley, but amped up to eleven. Some of the most impressive visuals here happen during some of the more talky scenes in the Serval headquarters. He gets across not just the design since of this organization, but also the ethic at its core. There is some action, most of which takes place at a remote A.I.M facility. You know the one, and you’ve seen this beat many times, but in this context it’s just a means to an end.
All New X-Factor doesn’t feel quite as fresh as its predecessor did at first blush, and its voice isn’t quite as assured, but there’s more than enough here to entice one to see what David and company will be driving at in this series’ future. Long may it run.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
One of my goals writing here at the Column, and one I hope our readers appreciate, is to highlight as much of the best material from the comic community, often with a view to what it says about the state of the culture at large. This week, a little thought experiment with regard to gender representation in comics – no, wait come back! Wait! It’s not as bad as it sounds! I found a couple of books that have really good female leads! And they aren’t even written by Gail Simone or Kelly Sue Deconnick, honest!
Yes, this is a Badass Female-Led Comic Double Feature, featuring one of the best ongoing series of last year and one of a promising batch of new series starting this year…
Perhaps the best criticism of a book is when so many are so eager to read it – both Jeb and D.S. expressed an interest in reading and reviewing the first issue of Black Widow. The good news then is that, as a writer with no fixed agenda regarding Agent Romanoff, I’m happy to say that this issue sells me at the very least on this version of the character: while Scarlett Johansson’s performance is basically my only frame of reference for her, this goes a long way to fitting her into my understanding of the post-NOW!/Disney takeover version of Marvel – still linked mysteriously to the Cold War but very much at home in the Modern Warfare era of terrorists and black ops wet-workers.
The art and especially the cover by Phil Noto captures the essence of the 70s spy thriller genre that the character slips so easily into, and while Nathan Edmondson’s plot has a little too much of the pilot script about it, it still does a decent job of setting up Black Widow’s development arc – a stark loner trying to balance her pro-bono work for the Avengers with the assassination contracts funding various trusts; her motives are never completely transparent, her goals never a foregone conclusion. Figuring out what might make this particular iteration of Natasha tick is either going to be an exercise in tedium or something quite special – which it will be I can’t say for sure just yet. I’m given hope though by a scene where it is revealed that she is narrating the story to a stray cat on the balcony of her studio apartment – which she then very pointedly doesn’t immediately adopt and start feeding like a surrogate baby and instead goes inside to stare at the spider crawling in her kitchen cupboard or something. She rejects the cat, but the spider gets to stay – make of that what you will, internet people.
Will Natasha continue to resist domestication next issue? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, over in Lazarus county, things are shaping up to be very Game of Thrones-esque indeed, with the Carlyle family looking all the more like a cyberpunk-enabled House of Lannister, the rival clans Bittner and Hock like a redneck House of Stark, and the poor folk of the dystopian anarcho-capitalist America of the future (known conveniently enough as “Serfs”) are very much like the hordes of beggars for whom the rich families’ rivalries and infighting and the bureaucracy of the vast feudal system they have to live under means nothing but suffering and death.
While this issue is pretty slim on pushing the plot forward, it does give a lot of character development over what feels like a handful of pages – such that protagonist Forever Carlyle, a functionally immortal Hand of the King to the Carlyle patriarch who believes herself to be his daughter but secretly isn’t, makes a lot more sense by the end of it. While the overall plot this time around feels a little short and snappy, the branching out to focus on how class will further inform the universe of the story promises more electricity to come. Watching Greg Rucka and Michael Lark work this well together is, of course, always a pleasure, and I look forward to more good things from this series going into the New Year.
So yeah. It is in fact possible to write really good comic books that pass the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests. Now could we get maybe some word on a Carol Danvers movie, eh? Or a Nextwave TV series? Please? Guys? Hello?
Black Widow Rating:
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
P.S. For those looking for something to give their little brother or sister, I highly recommend David Lapham’s Juice Squeezers at Dark Horse. A complete change of pace from the two Caligula miniseries he wrotefor Avatar Press, this series really caught me off guard with its Joe Dante/Scooby Doo-esque premise and popping artwork. A definite all-age recommendation.
Juice Squeezers Rating:
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer are sort of the polar opposites among Marvel’s recent crop of indie-creators-playing-in-the-corporate sandbox: Hickman’s best known for the carefully structured, interlocking epics he’s crafted with SHIELD, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers/Infinity books crossover; Spencer’s at his best with less-traditional, quick-witted stuff like The Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Handing them the reins of this new title may either represent yet another unnecessary addition to the swarm of Avengers books on the stands… or just possibly something more than that?
Following on from the conclusion of Infinity, we have small groups of Avengers patrolling world trouble spots, while SHIELD tries to keep a lid on things. Naturally, inexplicable disaster rears its head all over the globe, and each of the teams heads into action with appropriate banter and character moments (you can almost picture Hickman and Spencer dividing up the groups, with Hickman handling the doom and drama of Thor or Wolverine, and Spencer taking the back-and-forth quippiness of Cannonball, Smasher, and Sunspot).
Artist Stefano Caselli gives a fresh look to the over-familiar faces; Bruce Banner looks a bit like a refugee from a 90’s-era Archie comic, but he has some of Mark Ruffalo’s intellectual swagger, while Steve Rogers, Marina Hill, Sam Wilson, Shang-Chi and the rest are all given consistent, and highly distinctive looks. The scenes of global catastrophe are more epic than exciting, but Caselli brings an appropriately ominous look the emerging threats.
Like any first issue, there’s a lot of table-setting going on here, but in the world of corporate super-heroing, it’s awfully hard to shake the “been there-done that” feeling: even the little fillips of character here and there don’t offset the fact that one more alien invasion, even a well-orchestrated one, might be just one too many in such a short period of time. You get a lot of Avengers for your money in this series (I didn’t even mention Hawkeye, Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman…), and Caselli’s art might give you a good reason to replace an existing Avengers title with this one; not sure, though, that I see a compelling reason to add this to the already tall pile of regular Avengers books.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars