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Marvel Now! and Image continue to impress while Dark Horse debuts two major new titles

Three months in, Marvel Now! has proven to be a tremendous success for the publisher, but one title towers over the others in terms of energy, creativity, and sheer fun: Matt Fraction and Michael Allred’s FF. Fantastic isn’t a strong enough word to describe FF #1-2 (Marvel), which introduces a substitute Fantastic Four to hold down the fort at the Baxter Building while Reed Richards takes his family on an extended vacation through the unknown universe. The creation of the Future Foundation was one of the strongest developments of Jonathan Hickman’s acclaimed run on Fantastic Four and FF, and Fraction keeps Hickman’s adorable cast of kids around to present fresh challenges for the incoming core team made up of Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa, and new character Darla “Ms. Thing” Deering. 

Reed and the family are only supposed to be gone for four minutes, but things immediately go wrong, leaving the Future Foundation in the hands of grieving father Scott “Ant-Man” Lang, who lost his daughter Cassie at the hands of Dr. Doom. Scott and Darla are the emotional cores of the book, two characters who aren’t prepared for the pressures of their new roles. Darla, a Katy Perry-esque pop star, is a particularly captivating character as a public figure that is used to being in the spotlight but falls apart when thrown into the life of a superhero. Putting her in one of Ben Grimm’s old Thing suits is a great visual, reflecting how her fragile mental state is in desperate need of protection. 

#1 is framed by short interviews with the children of the Future Foundation as they introduce themselves and explain the nature of their think tank to Scott. These six-panel pages give Allred the opportunity to show off his remarkable skill with body language and facial expressions, bringing the book’s expansive cast to life even when they don’t say much. Allred’s secret weapon is eyebrows, and he communicates a staggering amount of information through those two lines. When She-Hulk and Ant Man are waiting for the Fantastic Four to return from their four-minute absence, She-Hulk’s eyebrows take her on a complete emotional journey with hardly any text. Shifting away from the stiff car antennae that are usually on Ant-Man’s helmet, Allred has given Scott fluid antennae that are used like eyebrows to express bewilderment, surprise, and all sorts of other emotions. Allred also uses different characteristics of the cast as design elements on the page, particularly Reed Richards’ elastic body and Medusa’s massive amount of free-flowing hair.

Jack Kirby has always been a huge influence on Allred, and one look at his Thing shows that the spirit of the King lives on in Allred’s pencils. His action sequences are brimming with power that leaps off the page, and the fight against Mole Man in #2 is a stunning homage to the first battle of the Fantastic Four back in 1961. The creative chemistry between Michael Allred and his wife/colorist Laura Allred is unparalleled, and her vibrant palette and spectacular textures enhance the pop-art quality of the pencils. Matt Fraction has been on a roll at Marvel recently, and teaming him with the Allreds is perhaps the only way that he could outdo the excellence of his current Hawkeye run. Gorgeous, emotional, and delightfully all-ages, FF is what superhero titles should aspire to be. 

Brian Wood is one busy man right now, with three ongoing series at Dark Horse, one at Marvel (with a second on the way), and a miniseries at Image. Considering the massive workload, it would be expected that some of his work might dip in quality, but Star Wars #1 (Dark Horse), perhaps the most high-profile of his current titles, shows that Wood is still at the top of his game. Joined by artist Carlos D’Anda, Wood fills the gap between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back in this new book, focusing on the emotional ramifications that the events of the first film have had on Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader. 

Luke and Leia are struggling to deal with the deaths of loved ones (an entire planet in Leia’s case), Han is trying to figure out his role now that he’s firmly on the side of the angels, and Vader has to face the shame and confusion of his son single-handedly destroying the Empire’s greatest weapon. The standout character is Leia, who is not only balancing her integral role in the rebel alliance with her personal grief, but also kicking a lot of ass in the process. She joins Luke and Wedge Antilles as they search for a new home for the rebels, and when she’s shot down by a TIE fighter, she finds the empire pilot and empties two rounds of her blaster into him before he can call for help. 

Carlos D’Anda provides crisp artwork that creates the impression of the film’s cast without being overly beholden to the actors’ likenesses, allowing him to focus on clearly expressing emotion rather than making sure he draws Mark Hamill’s nose correctly. But he doesn’t skimp on detail when it comes to Star Wars’ iconic spacecraft, creating sweeping interstellar visuals that evoke the grandeur of the films. With Disney acquiring Lucasfilm, it’s uncertain how long the Star Wars comics will remain at Dark Horse, but this newest title shows that the publisher has no intention of letting its biggest property fall to the wayside. 

Gathering Marvel’s teen heroes (plus Darkhawk, the lone adult) in a Hunger Games-styled arena and pitting them against each other to the death sounds like the embodiment of all the negative shock-and-awe tactics employed by contemporary superhero comics, which makes the success of Avengers Arena #1-3 (Marvel) all the more surprising. Building on his classic Murderworld concept, X-Men villain and Carrot Top lookalike Arcade has captured 16 heroes and given them a kill-or-be-killed ultimatum, testing their sense of heroism in an environment where death can come at any minute. Writer Dennis Hopeless has cited Lost as a major inspiration for this title, and that’s evident in the structure of these first three issues, which are each narrated by a different character and flash back to where the individual heroes were before they got “BWOM”-ed into Arcade’s arena. 

The first three issues spotlight Avengers Academy’s Hazmat, new character Death Locket, and Annihilation’s Cammi, and Hopeless shows that he has a firm handle on each character’s distinct personality and motivations. Spoiler alert: In the first issue, Hopeless has Arcade kill off beloved Avengers Academy member Mettle to prove that he’s not playing around, and while it’s a devastating event for fans of that title, it’s the most logical choice to give the first death maximum impact. The recently concluded Avengers Academy is the title that’s freshest in the minds of readers, so the death of one of the book’s cast members has an immediate emotional effect. Killing half of a couple gives Mettle’s girlfriend Hazmat extra drive to participate in Arcade’s game, and as the start of #1 shows, things don’t end up going too well for her. 

Kev Walker is an intriguing choice of artist for this title, drawing brutal violence while capturing the youth of this book’s cast. There’s a roughness to his linework that amplifies the bleak tone of the plot, and the occasionally ugly quality creates a great juxtaposition for characters like Death Locket, an adorable, optimistic young girl who is half killing machine. Hopeless’ story wouldn’t work without a strong emotional backbone, and Walker’s artwork conveys all the confusion and pain felt by these teens. After three issues, the tension is already extremely high, and it doesn’t look like Hopeless and Walker are slowing down any time soon. No one is safe, and as Hopeless makes readers care more about these characters, the stakes will only continue to rise. 

Since Mike Mignola last drew the exploits of Hellboy, his signature character found out he was the descendent of Arthur Pendragon and the rightful King of England, then had his heart ripped out by the dragon of the apocalypse and was cast into hell.  Hellboy In Hell #1-2 (Dark Horse) picks up immediately after Hellboy’s death in The Fury, following the crimson hero as he journeys through the various realms of the underworld, battling old foes from his past while discovering more information about his own personal history. Mignola is a true visionary of the medium, and over the years he’s streamlined his style to the point where he can communicate an astounding amount of information with just a few lines. Colorist Dave Stewart plays an integral role in that process, with a high-contrast color palette that differentiates this book from previous Hellboy titles by introducing bright greens and purples that lend an alien quality to the landscape and its inhabitants. And for the first time, Hellboy isn’t the reddest thing on the page, now portrayed with more muted colors to depict his drained life force.

The otherworldly setting of this title gives Mignola free rein to tell whatever type of story he wants, and in #1, that means an explosive action sequence presented with a puppet show of the Jacob Marley scene from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol immediately following. These seemingly random story elements achieve cohesion through Mignola’s sense of humor, and despite being trapped in hell, the title character continues to crack wise whenever the mood gets too heavy. And it gets really heavy in #2 when Hellboy ventures into Pandemonium and sees the place where he was pulled from his mother and outfitted with his right hand of doom. Mignola drawing the ongoing adventures of Hellboy is a true gift for fans of horror comics, and pushing the title on a more experimental path is revealing different facets of Mignola’s writing while allowing him to become even more expressionistic and abstract with his artwork. 

What if the Fab Four weren’t rock stars, but scientists? That’s the conceit of Nowhere Men #1-2 (Image), the exhilarating new ongoing series by Image publisher Eric Stephenson and Nate Bellegarde. This decades-spanning science-fiction epic stands out as one of the most promising debuts of Image’s phenomenal 2012, telling an immensely layered story full of big ideas and sharp artwork. Beginning in the ’60s with the introduction of the main quartet and the debut of their scientific supergroup World Corp., then moving into the far future to tell the story of a group of people aboard a World Corp. satellite, these first two issues cover a lot of ground, but the waves of exposition never feel clunky or overbearing. A two-page newspaper article on the four founders of World Corp. is a quick way of presenting copious amounts of backstory and personal details about the core characters, and throughout the book, Stephenson and Bellegarde break from traditional comic-book storytelling to create a title that feels exceptionally forward-thinking. 

The influence of Jonathan Hickman can be seen in this title’s graphic design, and Nowhere Men is a perfect companion title to Hickman’s The Manhattan Projects, combining corporate intrigue with breathtaking sci-fi action. Nate Bellegarde is poised to break out big time after his work on this book, and he has a Kubrickian sense of direction that is visually enthralling with an underlying sense of dread that turns up the suspense. Jordie Bellaire, perhaps one of the busiest colorists in the business, uses a striking color palette that makes Bellegarde’s art pop on the page. (Just look at those vibrant purples on the double-page splash of a rampaging rock gorilla.) The end of #2 shows that there’s no way to tell where Nowhere Men is going to go next, but with Stephenson, Bellegarde, and Bellaire at the reins, it looks to be a remarkable journey into the unknown. 

Cable is a problematic character, born from the excessively confusing X-Men continuity of the ’90s and undergoing constant character shifts as Marvel tries to figure out what to do with Cyclops’ son from the future. Nathan Summers returns to his super-commando roots in Cable And The X-Force #1-3 (Marvel), leading a team of former X-Men to stop catastrophic premonitions from occurring before he dies from the loss of the techno-organic virus from his body. (Told you he was confusing.) Unfortunately, that puts him in direct conflict with the Uncanny Avengers, led by his uncle Havok, who isn’t happy to find Cable and his crew in a factory full of murdered workers. Writer Dennis Hopeless juggles the past and present as he pits the new X-Force against a cybernetic plague in Miami and a mutant-hating fast-food chain with echoes of Chik-Fil-A. It may sound silly, but the book is full of exciting action, and Hopeless has a nice handle on the voices of each character, particularly Dr. Nemesis, who has become one of the most lovable figures in the X-universe. 

The main draw here is Salvador Larroca, who is turning in some of the finest work of his career. Larroca relied heavily on photo-reference for his artwork in Invincible Iron Man, but his artwork on CATXF is a much smoother balance of his original Carlos Pacheco-influenced style with his later, more realistic pencils. This is a tech-heavy book, and Larroca has a great eye for mechanical design, whether it’s the multitude of oversized weaponry or Cable’s hulking new left arm. The action has a great sense of movement, and the characters don’t look like they’ve been traced from Lost screencaps. (Larroca’s Tony “Sawyer” Stark was especially distracting in Iron Man.) Hopeless and Larroca have strong creative synergy on these first three issues, and it looks like Marvel has finally figured out the right direction to take Nathan Summers and his team. 

Like Brian Michael Bendis before him, Jonathan Hickman’s tenure on the Avengers will include two titles. His Avengers has already done outstanding work expanding the team, but he’s doing something much different in New Avengers #1 (Marvel). With Black Panther as the central character, this book focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel Universe, reuniting T’Challa with Reed Richards, Doctor Strange, Tony Stark, Namor, Black Bolt, and new members Captain America and Beast (filling in for the deceased Charles Xavier) as they face a mysterious threat capable of obliterating entire planets. This first issue focuses almost entirely on Black Panther as he witnesses the slaughter of Wakanda’s finest young minds at the hands of this new enemy, and while it’s nice to see Black Panther in the spotlight, the story is a bit sparse. 

The pacing is very quick, but Hickman doesn’t provide much information about the villains, resulting in a fast read that doesn’t feel very substantial. If his Avengers is any indication, #2 is where a lot of that backstory will come into play, but that defeats the purpose of a first issue. Hickman reunites with his Fantastic Four artist Steve Epting on this title, and there’s nothing to complain about with Epting’s pencils except for maybe the goofy bare-midriff costume of the villainous Black Swan. Epting draws a rich jungle environment and a commanding Black Panther, especially when he cuts loose in battle. His staging of the Illuminati’s entrance at the end of the issue is appropriately tense and foreboding, carrying a lot of storytelling weight in his widescreen panels. The artwork is on point, now Hickman’s story just needs to match that level of quality.

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been doing great work reimagining classic Freedom Fighters characters for the New 52, and Human Bomb #1-2 (DC) is their strongest miniseries yet. Marine veteran Michael Taylor has been having nightmares of meeting the president and spontaneously combusting, dreams that begin to have added significance when one of his former squad members shows up and explodes at Ground Zero. While posted in Afghanistan, Michael and his fellow Marines were abducted and experimented on by an alien race that has been turning people into human bombs, a procedure that activated Michael’s latent metagene and has given him the ability to control his destructive power and weaponize whatever he touches. That makes him the perfect recruit for Uncle Sam and S.H.A.D.E., who bring Michael in to take down the alien menace before stockpiles of innocent civilians are used to blow up the world. 

Human Bomb is an impressive action thriller with stunning artwork from Jerry Ordway, who proves that he is still one of the best in the business with his superb action choreography and dramatic linework. His skill with an ink brush is exemplary, capturing an immense amount of detail in the devastation that follows each explosion. Each of his characters has a distinct face and body type, and there’s more variation to be found in Ordway’s designs of Michael’s fellow construction workers than most superhero titles have in their entire casts. Over the course of two issues, this team has created one of the New 52’s strongest debuts, and DC should give Palmiotti, Gray, and Ordway an ongoing title to keep that magic going for as long as possible.  

The first miniseries of Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner’s Witch Doctor was one of the standout debuts of 2011, telling self-contained stories that were witty, terrifying, and beautifully rendered. Witch Doctor: Mal Practice #1-2 (Image) makes the transition to an extended serialized story, and it’s a change that allows Seifert to craft a more engrossing, layered narrative. After a wild night out leaves Dr. Vincent Morrow with a terminal spellborne illness, his search for a cure leads him and his comrades on a journey that includes a magical black-market carnival and a meeting with insane interdimensional surgeons ripped from the mind of Clive Barker. Seifert is doing remarkable work building the mythology of this series while cleverly combining medical drama with fantasy-horror elements, and Ketner grows with each new issue, producing visuals that are detailed, disturbing, and often hilarious. Ketner imbues each panel with personality, whether it’s an image of a demon centipede crawling out of a sexy redhead’s mouth or a morning-after shot of a naked Vincent laying in bed with his Nintendo DS on his nightstand. Like an exceptional second season of a television show, Mal Practice builds on what came before while taking the series in exciting new directions.  

Back in the early ’00s, DC’s Elseworlds line published two miniseries by Dan Jolley and Tony Harris under the Liberty Files banner, following a Justice Society that existed in a pulp-inspired alternate universe. Writer B. Clay Moore and Harris had been working on the Wildstorm miniseries The Further Adventures Of The Whistling Skull when the imprint was shut down, and they’ve reworked that book into JSA: The Whistling Skull #1 (DC), incorporating the Liberty Files versions of the Justice Society into their previous story. The addition of the established DC heroes feels like an afterthought in this first issue, as they appear during a brief prologue before the story jumps into the past exploits of the titular character and his developmentally disabled accomplice. It’s a solid debut elevated by Harris’ Art Deco-inspired pencils, and the artist’s unconventional layouts give the book a distinct visual flare. The bold design of the main character creates an intriguing figure, although the story doesn’t offer much in the way of background, throwing readers into a wartime superhero tale without fully defining its major players. It doesn’t quite have the punch of the previous Liberty Files books, but it’s nice to see DC experimenting with stories outside the New 52, and hopefully The Whistling Skull means more projects of this nature. 

Quentin Tarantino’s uncut screenplays are notoriously long, but viewers that want to see the complete original script of Django Unchained have the opportunity to read it in Vertigo’s new adaptation. Django Unchained #1 (Vertigo) covers the first 20 minutes or so of Tarantino’s blaxploitation/slavery-revenge flick, including some extra pieces of dialogue that flesh out the attitudes of the characters and additional flashbacks that expand on the backstory of Django and his wife Broomhilda. Reading Tarantino’s dialogue on the page will make readers appreciate just how much the performances of Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx bring to the script, and the words lose some of their impact without Tarantino’s directorial eye. R.M. Guera and Jason Latour (drawing flashbacks) are strong fits for the world of this story, and Guera in particular is an inspired choice for a gritty, violent Western. Still, there’s nothing quite like the pacing achieved by Tarantino’s camerawork, and some of the subtler beats of the script don’t quite make it onto the page. 

Change isn’t easy. Ales Kot made a big splash with his intensely chaotic one-shot Wild Children, and Change #1-2 (Image) is a challenging title that may not have the most coherent plot, but is a thrilling read. Following an aspiring young screenwriter, the rapper who asks her to write his Cthulhu movie script, a secret murderous cult, an astronaut in orbit, and a character that looks a lot like the writer of this comic, Change moves at a lightning-quick pace and doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. The narration is abstract and fragmented, rewarding multiple reads as earlier pieces of the puzzle only become clear once more of the big picture is revealed. And what a beautiful picture it is. Morgan Jeske is a new talent, but he’s destined for great things if his work on this title is any indication. He’s perfectly suited to Kot’s script, combining trippy psychedelia with intricate detailing that incorporates realism into the mindbending horror. Change doesn’t look or read like anything else on the stands, but those who are willing to brave its contents will be rewarded for their effort.    

Is there some kind of rule that a major publishing initiative needs a vampire book now? That said, like DC’s I, Vampire, Morbius: The Living Vampire #1 (Marvel) is a surprisingly strong title about a character that readers haven’t been clamoring to read about. Thanks to Joe Keatinge’s clever plotting and Rich Elson’s artwork—which is heavily inspired by the work of Morbius co-creator Gil Kane—Morbius has a tone that is simultaneously progressive and classic. Keatinge, who has quickly become a rising star in the industry thanks to his Image titles Glory and Hell Yeah, structures the opening pages by breaking down the advantages and disadvantages of being “vampire-ish,” giving readers ample information about the lead character as he faces off with a gang leader in his new home base. Elson is one of Marvel’s most underrated artists, and the old-school charm he brought to books like Journey Into Mystery and Amazing Spider-Man permeates his Morbius pages, with a heavier emphasis on widescreen panels to lend the book a cinematic quality. Morbius is one of the more unorthodox launches of Marvel Now!, but if the publisher is going to be putting creative teams of this quality on its fringe characters (see: the outstanding X-Men: Legacy), then it should start promoting more off-kilter heroes to the big leagues.