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Bitch Planet soars, Secret Six stumbles, and Superior Foes says goodbye

Also reviewed: The Valiant, Frontier, and Heroes Of The Comics

Of all the obscure properties for Marvel to resurrect as part of Marvel Now!, there were few less likely candidates than The Deadly Foes Of Spider-Man. For those who don’t remember, Deadly Foes was a 1991 miniseries dedicated to Spider-Man’s—well, okay, not his deadliest—foes. More like the B- and C-listers who never came close to being in the same league with Doctor Octopus and the Kingpin. The original series featured the first Beetle (Abner Jenkins), Boomerang, Speed Demon, Hydro-Man, the Rhino, and the Shocker as the latest incarnation of the Sinister Syndicate, a group of small-time super-powered heist men brought together for the proverbial “one last job.” Over the course of the series everyone betrayed everyone else, the Kingpin took advantage of the chaos for his own purposes, Spider-Man himself showed up late to the party, and the Rhino (of all people) outwitted everyone.

It was a good series with a pretty novel premise—for 1991, anyway. It was well-enough received to earn a sequel (The Lethal Foes Of Spider-Man) but said sequel appeared suddenly in the dog days of 1993 and just as suddenly disappeared in the carnage of that year’s market implosion. Still, someone remembered the original book, and so another sequel materialized in 2013—20 years later—helmed by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber. The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man (Marvel) was not fated for a long life, but the fact that such an oddball book—even one sold (facetiously) as a spin-off of the very popular Superior Spider-Man storyline—lasted 17 issues is a minor miracle.

Just about everyone from the original series is back again. With the Beetle reformed as Mach VII (or VIII? It’s hard to keep track) of the Thunderbolts, it was left to Boomerang to reform the team, with Speed Demon, the Shocker, a new female Beetle, and recent addition Overdrive. This time they were the Sinister Six instead of the Sinister Syndicate, and if you think we counted wrong and missed a member, think again. The team’s sixth member/antagonist was the Chameleon, who spent the better part of the run using Boomerang’s team as patsies in a bigger plot to steal and sell the world’s only known portrait of Victor Von Doom, sans mask. The only problem was that every other criminal mastermind in the greater New York metropolitan area had the same idea, a group including the Owl, Hammerhead, Tombstone, and Mister Negative. Somewhere along the line a framed movie poster for the Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses became an important plot point, along with the severed head of deceased mob boss Silvermane.

The original Deadly Foes, while tragicomic in places, was played mostly straight. Spencer and Lieber were quick to expose the deadpan absurdity at the heart of the premise: There’s a reason why most of these guys aren’t bigger threats, after all, and it has something to do with the fact that most of them aren’t very bright. The Shocker, continuing his arc from the 1991 series, is still a punch-drunk coward, and still hanging out with best pal Hydro-Man in his downtime. Boomerang is still vain and wracked by self-loathing for having blown a career in major league baseball (anyone guessing that the series’ resolution somehow involves him being vindicated on the pitcher’s mound would be correct). The new Beetle is glued to her phone. The old Beetle is back, too, albeit in the form of Boomerang’s hapless parole officer. (The life of a reformed super-villain being just slightly more humiliating than the life of a second-rate super-villain, apparently.)

The series was a critical darling, even if it failed to achieve the same kind of surprise sales success that the similarly offbeat Hawkeye did. The book could probably have run a while longer, as the last issue suffers from having to cover too much ground, providing hasty recaps of each characters’ just deserts. A subplot involving Boomerang’s love interest is hastily resolved with a surprise reveal that ultimately adds little to the series, but that’s just what happens when good books die too young.

Spencer and Lieber have already announced their follow-up to Superior Foes, something called The Fix from Image, about which all that is presently known is that it somehow involves a dog. Superior Foes may not have set the world on fire, but it’s the kind of book people are going to talk about and remember fondly many years from now, especially if the Spencer/Lieber team stays together for the long haul. Hopefully sales of the trades are strong enough to merit a fancy hardcover of the complete series. [Tim O’Neil]

Valiant Comics is a consistently reliable publisher for entertaining superhero comics, but it still needs a breakout book to establish it as a legitimate competitor to Marvel and DC. That book arrives with The Valiant #1 (Valiant), the start of a four-issue miniseries by writers Jeff Lemire (making his Valiant Comics debut) and Matt Kindt and the art team of penciler/colorist Paolo Rivera and inker Joe Rivera, making their big return to monthly comics after their Eisner Award-winning run on Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Scoring Lemire and the Riveras is a huge coup for Valiant, and their strength as storytellers leads to a riveting first issue with a huge sense of scale.

With an A-list creative team, The Valiant is bound to bring some new readers to this superhero universe, and as such, it contains quite a bit of exposition to bring newcomers up to speed. Lemire and Kindt wisely choose to keep the size of the cast small for this first issue, focusing on Gilad “Eternal Warrior” Anni-Padda, Kay “Geomancer” McHenry, and the cybernetic assassin Bloodshot, and each character’s story has its own distinct tone. The scope of the narrative is established in Gilad’s thread, introducing the threat of the Immortal Enemy as the hero fights it in three different time periods, each realized with meticulous detail by the Riveras. The Immortal Enemy may have an unoriginal name, but it has an arresting design that evolves over time while maintaining one central creepy visual element: a head that splits down the center to reveal a menacing skull peeking through darkness.

Paolo Rivera’s skill for action choreography is highlighted in Gilad’s and Bloodshot’s sequences, the former embracing a classic fantasy style while the latter is a more atmospheric espionage operation. Those are the most spectacular moments in the issue, and Rivera modulates his coloring to make those scenes pop in different ways: For Gilad’s action, he uses flashes of primary colors to accentuate specific beats, and for Bloodshot, he leans more on secondary colors while incorporating pink sound effects that distinguish Bloodshot’s gun-heavy combat from Gilad’s sword-fighting. Tauted as a “Valiant Prestige” title, this issue includes backmatter looking at Rivera’s art process for the Bloodshot scene along with commentary (without bumping up the price), and that peek behind-the-scenes is very welcome when the art has so much specificity and nuance.

Kay’s plot is the most grounded and relatable part of The Valiant’s narrative, giving Rivera the opportunity to show what he can do with more intimate character storytelling. He uses a nine-panel grid for a monologue that bluntly explains Kay’s backstory and her anxieties regarding her role as the protector of Earth, and he’s able to bring a lot of emotional weight to the exposition through Kay’s facial expressions and body language. He makes it easy to sympathize with the character, which is important because Kay is the person that is in the most danger at the end of this issue. The moments of superhero spectacle hit harder because of the attention to character, and if The Valiant can maintain that balance across all four issues, it has the potential to be a true superhero epic. [Oliver Sava]

With a title like Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new ongoing series isn’t pulling any punches. This is an intensely political comic about how the patriarchy punishes women who don’t comply, making a daring feminist statement by taking readers to a prison planet populated by women. In an industry that is dominated by male voices, Bitch Planet #1 (Image) is an immensely refreshing read, aggressively addressing contemporary social issues through a futuristic sci-fi story with a predominantly female cast. The narrative is grounded in reality by Valentine De Landro’s weighted line work, but Cris Peter’s coloring adds a dazzling energy to the visuals with his vivid palette and use of screen tone.

This first chapter has an incredibly dramatic opening, setting the stage with a sequence that quickly explains the concept and introduces the main cast at their most vulnerable, completely naked and hooked up to machines that keep them in stasis. Those shots of the prisoners are backed by gradients of pink and purple, colors that are typically associated with femininity, but are used in a way that connects them with the subjugation of these women. Orange bars accompany the narration in that opening sequence, and that combination of pink and orange makes for a smooth visual transition into the two-page title spread, which features Rian Hughes’ evocative pink-and-orange logo printed at a huge size.

If the title didn’t tip you off, subtlety isn’t a priority with this series. At one point, the prison’s security monitors (a wise-cracking duo not unlike Bradley Whitford’s and Richard Jenkins’ characters in Cabin In The Woods) run a program called “The Catholic,” a bright pink hologram that embodies the Madonna-whore complex in her appearance: She wears a nun’s habit on her head, but below the neck she’s outfitted with thigh-high boots, panties, and a corset that pushes up giant breasts disproportionate to her waist size. Also, the major thrust of this first issue involves an unfaithful husband that has his wife incarcerated so he can pursue a new life with his mistress.

The plot involving Marian Collins and her ex-husband sees DeConnick cutting pieces of dialogue between the two characters together, a decision that is intended to misdirect the reader but ultimately hurts the clarity of the story. It’s a small flaw, though, and the script reclaims the reader’s attention with a thrilling final scene, shifting focus away from Marian and over to Kamau Kogo, the book’s main protagonist. The tense ending raises the stakes dramatically, leaving Kamau in a difficult position that is surely going to get worse as she learns more about the reality of living on Bitch Planet. [Oliver Sava]

Youth In Decline’s monograph art and comics series Frontier is an exceptional spotlight of idiosyncratic creators, with each issue giving an individual voice the freedom to do whatever he or she pleases over the course of 32 to 36 pages. Hellen Jo’s Frontier #2 details a world of badass girl gangs through a series of pin-ups; Ping Zhu’s Frontier #4 explores the artist’s aesthetic philosophy through bold, deceptively simple abstract images; and the most recent issue, Frontier #6 (Youth In Decline), features Emily Carroll building a chilling urban legend with a mix of stylized two-page spreads and more stark, documentarian comics storytelling.

In terms of narrative, Carroll’s issue is the strongest of the series, detailing the circumstances of a murder and how that tragedy morphs over time, becoming a subject for academic research, a myth that teenage girls tell each other at sleepovers, and the inspiration for two horror films. The book alternates between beautifully designed black-and-white two-page spreads and more traditionally laid out sequences in color, the former delving into Ann Herron’s murder and her family’s cursed history, the latter revealing how those events have been interpreted after the fact. By jumping between these two timelines and storytelling styles, Carroll offers a comprehensive look at Ann’s death from a variety of angles.

Previous issues of Frontier have ended with a short interview with the creator, but not Carroll’s. While it would be nice to hear Carroll discuss her craft, the lack of an interview actually intensifies the power of the story’s conclusion. The issue ends with a terrifying breaking of the fourth wall, and the lack of an interview means that the reader doesn’t get a chance to escape that haunting mood. Instead, there’s just a page of black that offers no comfort or respite. In a year that has had multiple books about comics as magic spells (see: Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity and Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies), Frontier #6 is perhaps the most effective, combining words and images to create a comic-book curse that has immense personal impact. [Oliver Sava]

Drew Friedman’s Heroes Of The Comics (Fantagraphics) is a singular book, hard to categorize and yet sure to appeal to many fans. (Not for nothing, the book is almost perfectly designed to be an excellent Christmas gift for a comics fan.) Friedman has made a name for himself on the strength of his abilities as a caricaturist, a dying art that survives primarily in the pages of MAD magazine and as terrible editorial comics the world over. After the success of three volumes of Old Jewish Comedians, as well as various collections devoted to the general category of celebrities, Heroes Of The Comics is an attempt at comics historiography that shows the medium’s defining faces in new, sometimes touching, and sometimes grotesque lights.

Included in the gorgeous hardcover presentation are 83 full-page portraits of significant figures in the history of comic books, accompanied by brief write-ups of each person’s most significant contributions. In almost all cases the “heroes” are not drawn in the spring of youth, but in middle age at the prime of their careers, or worse, as the old men (and a few women) they eventually became. Stan Lee is the aged yet vigorous industry spokesperson of recent years, wrinkled face pulled into a sharp rictus, manically signing autographs; on the previous page, Jack Kirby is the dignified, meditative icon of his later years as industry martyr. Bill Everett is harried and disgruntled, and William Moulton Marston is a weird, pinched little man with his head eternally superimposed over Wonder Woman’s crotch.

The book begins with M.C. Gaines and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson—two men with as much claim to the honor of having invented the comic book as anyone else—and ends, fittingly, with Fredric Wertham, a wizened old man lying under a blanket in his final days. In the span between lies some 50 years of comics history, and an opportunity to see the faces of the men, and (a few) women, who created and defined the medium through its youth and troubled adolescence. [Tim O’Neil]

The expectations are high for Gail Simone’s return to Secret Six—one of the strongest DC series of the past decade—but the book’s New 52 debut stumbles out of the gate. Secret Six #1 (DC) is a shallow introduction to the title’s concept and cast, with inconsistent artwork by Ken Lashley, inker Drew Geraci, and colorist Jason Wright. It starts off strong with the action-packed first appearance of the New 52 iteration of Thomas “Catman” Blake, rendered by Lashley with a striking ink wash reminiscent of the work of Detective Comics’ Francis Manapul, but once the title sextet gets together, the book’s momentum slows to a crawl. And that’s not a good thing for a team title.

Most of this first issue involves six characters in a nondescript gray room, wondering how they got there, why they’ve been brought together, and who the other five people are. Simone reveals the characters’ names and powers but not much else, and there’s a lack of personality across the board, from the cast to the dialogue to the artwork. The artwork in particular suffers in the second half as Drew Geraci takes over inking duties, losing a lot of the finer details in his chunky linework. It wouldn’t be so bad if the entire book looked that way, but it ends up being a big visual downgrade when placed side-by-side with Lashley’s solo work.

Lashley handles the issue’s final splash page on his own, but the visual improvement is undermined by an extremely underwhelming cliffhanger, ending this first chapter with a development that does little to build anticipation for the next issue. It’s possible this title will become more engaging once the team leaves its gray prison, but this introduction doesn’t give many reasons to be invested in the future of these characters. [Oliver Sava]