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Superhero and mainstream comics - April 2012

The entire purpose of Avengers Vs. X-Men #0-1 (Marvel) is to get readers excited for a 12-issue brawl between Marvel’s leading superteams, and these first issues succeed at building anticipation for the summer’s most videogame-y event. #0 spotlights two major players in the crossover, disgraced Avenger Scarlet Witch and mutant messiah Hope, and focusing on character over plot at the start is a smart move. 

Brian Michael Bendis writes the Scarlet Witch story, which follows Wanda Maximoff as she tries to readjust to life as a solo superhero. After being largely absent from the Marvel Universe for the past six years, Wanda’s return is a welcome one. Thankfully, Bendis doesn’t write a Wanda who’s wallowing in self-pity, and while she’s appropriately apologetic for her past actions, she’s dealing with the consequences instead of running from them. It’s a strong but slightly melodramatic story (the robot tears are a little much), and other than Ms. Marvel’s odd valley-girl dialogue, the script avoids the pitfalls of Bendis’ other Avengers work.

Hope’s half is handled by Jason Aaron, who shows that his time with Wolverine and the Jean Grey Institute hasn’t made him any less adept at writing the cast of Cyclops’ Utopia. Hope has become fiercely dedicated to the commando lifestyle that Cable ingrained in her, and this issue looks at a typical night of Hope’s vigilante addiction. After fighting Cyclops and stealing his jetpack, Hope beats up the Serpent Society until her fists are bloody, and her signs of rage don’t bode well for a planet that is about to get a visit from the Phoenix. That cosmic firebird loves angry redheads. Aaron has a strong handle on Hope’s younger voice, and excels at showing her ferocity in battle: He deserves an award for “Best Use of a Headbutt,” because Hope’s forehead sees a lot of action.

After #0, the Bendis-scripted Avengers Vs. X-Men #1 starts the plot moving, beginning with the Avengers assembling to save New York City from the crash landing of cosmic superhero Nova. He brings the message of the Phoenix’s forthcoming arrival, and the Avengers head to Utopia to bring in Hope and hopefully save the planet from annihilation. Cyclops sees the Phoenix as a potential asset for the nearly extinct mutants (shades of Israel there), and refuses to hand the girl over, responding to Captain America’s request with an optic blast that should have an announcer yelling “Fight!” in the background. The Avengers show up, the teams get ready fight, and then it’s time for #2. It’s not the most complicated story, and Cyclops is portrayed as a little too insane, but the shot of a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier looming over Utopia, packed with Avengers, is enough to stir up anticipation for the upcoming fisticuffs.

Marvel is putting its top talent on Avengers Vs. X-Men, and artists Frank Cho and John Romita Jr. pencil the first two installments. Cho is an ideal fit for the female-centric #0, and he again proves himself much more than a cheesecake artist. His pencils toe the line between realistic and cartoonish, allowing for detailed environments and character models without sacrificing dynamic action or emotional clarity. One panel in particular stands out in #0, a small image of Vision telling Scarlet Witch to leave Avengers mansion that is modeled after the Vision’s first appearance on the cover of Avengers #57. 

John Romita Jr. is one of Marvel’s most consistent artists, and he turns in some of his strongest work in recent memory with #1, using a more controlled line and allowing Laura Martin’s superb coloring to add depth to his images. Romita will be joined by Adam Kubert and Olivier Coipel for the rest of the event, which means the title is going to look gorgeous no matter what. If the quality of the writing can match that of the art, and the team of Bendis, Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction—and Jonathan Hickman suggests it very well might—Avengers Vs. X-Men could end up being much more satisfying than its simplistic title and concept would lead readers to believe. 

Years of legal disputes with the Charles Atlas company prevented Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s metacomic mindfuck Flex Mentallo from being reprinted, but after 15 years it finally sees publication in Flex Mentallo: Man Of Muscle Mystery Deluxe Edition (Vertigo). A tribute to the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books, a critique of the post-Watchmen grim-’n’-gritty age, and a treatise on the future of superheroes, Flex Mentallo is not an easy read. But it is a rewarding one. Created in Morrison’s Doom Patrol, Flex has been a meta-character from his very conception, and Morrison uses him to explore the foundation of imagination and the birthplace of ideas.

As Flex Mentallo tries to rediscover the world of optimism and innocence that has passed him by, his creator Wallace Sage tries to kill himself with a drug overdose, and the two stories flow in and out of each other. Morrison’s surreal, abstract tendencies work well to capture the disorientation of both characters, whether it’s Flex’s inability to adjust to a new culture or Wallace’s complete loss of physical and mental functions. As Wallace drifts closer to death, the story becomes increasingly fragmented, with alternate timelines and realities weaving together to form a complex, elegant tapestry of superhero ideas.

Flex Mentallo is one of Frank Quitely’s earliest works, but it’s not easy to tell from the artwork, which is as meticulously rendered and distinctively designed as his current output. The art lends clarity to the story, but Morrison’s plot also pushes Quitely to create increasingly strange images that reveal the breadth of his artistic talent. His anatomy is flawless and the amount of detail on each character is staggering. Try counting the hundreds of tiny hairs that blanket Flex’s body or the multitude of wrinkles on the Lieutenant’s face. Despite being an early work for both creators, Flex Mentallo feels fresh and exciting, and surprisingly appropriate for the current state of DC’s superhero line.  

Writer Mike Costa (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of The A.V. Club) and artist Ryan Browne take a unique approach to the fantasy comic with Smoke And Mirrors #1-2 (IDW), turning magic into science and stage illusions into magic. In a world where magic is the foundation of technology, sleight-of-hand magician Terry Ward becomes a fascination for the teenaged Ethan, who is as bored with real magic as regular kids are with their science classes. In Ethan’s world, cars run by getting their talismans charged, and iPhone-like “slates” have a variety of uses, from picking up radio broadcasts to picking locks.

It’s a clever commentary on modern society’s growing reliance on technology, and while these gadgets make life easier for Ethan, he finds himself wanting to be challenged. The book tries to recreate Ethan’s wonder by incorporating illusions by magician Jon Armstrong, and while it’s an interesting conceit, the execution could use more fine-tuning. Terry’s magic tricks aren’t guaranteed to work for the reader, which has the potential to lessen their effect in the story. Beginning each issue with a panel of black is a simpler but no less effective way that Smoke And Mirrors recreates the experience of a magic show, as if the comic book is a blacked-out stage waiting for a magician to walk onto it.  

Costa does a lot of world-building in the first issues, but Ethan’s character could stand to be fleshed out further, particularly his motivations for apprenticing Terry. The mystery of how Terry, who seems to come from our universe, ended up in Ethan’s world is the most intriguing thread of Costa’s story, along with the gun that appears at the end of the first issue. Browne’s artwork in #1 is solid, but shows significant improvement with #2, where he begins to experiment with layouts. Despite a few instances of awkward anatomy, his characters are expressive, and his design sense for the book’s magical settings has an arcane Apple aesthetic that perfectly matches Costa’s script. 

Image is diversifying its output to cover a wide variety of genres, but America’s Got Powers #1 (Image) shows that the company hasn’t forgotten how to tell a riveting superhero story. Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch’s new miniseries is part Rising Stars and part Hunger Games, putting superpowered teens in an arena where they fight to join the world’s only superteam. Referred to as “stoners” in reference to the otherworldly crystal that crashed in San Francisco and gave them all their powers (Rising Stars), these individuals are forced to fight as a way to keep the superhuman population in captivity after they rioted against authority (Hunger Games). 

Despite its influences, Ross’ story doesn’t feel stale, largely because it’s so fully realized. Following the example of Saga #1, it’s a double-sized issue for only $2.99, and it’s one of the densest superhero reads of the year. The first page handles a huge chunk of exposition with an online article about the reality-television show that shares the comic’s title, complete with comments from passionate readers complaining about new rules and past eliminations. After a brief glimpse of the birth of the stoners and an introduction to the arena, the story shifts to the main character, Tommy Watts, the only stoner born with a power rating of zero. Like Katniss Everdeen, a twist of fate thrusts Tommy into stardom, and the first issue ends with him stuck in an arena designed to murder him, hopelessly outgunned against a horde of bloodthirsty opponents. 

The major draw of America’s Got Powers is the hyper-realistic artwork of Hitch, who makes the transition to creator-owned comics after years at Marvel and DC. It’s clear from the start that Hitch is intensely committed to this project, and without any sort of creative restrictions, he’s opted to show off—and it’s beautiful. Character moments read clearly, and the action in the arena is brutal and chaotic for the contestants, but easy to follow for the reader. His penchant for modeling characters after celebrities continues, with David Tennant and Ed Harris making appearances, but his style is so cinematic that movie stars don’t look out of place on the page. 

Astonishing X-Men has struggled to find a firm footing since Joss Whedon’s departure, and none of the writers on the title since have been able to replicate Whedon’s balance of character development and widescreen action. There’s been plenty of the latter, but new writer Marjorie Liu shifts the focus in a more personal, intimate direction. After years of stories set on Cyclops’ Utopia, Astonishing X-Men #48 (Marvel) returns the title to New York City, where the faculty of the Jean Grey Institute is adjusting to civilian life. 

After working on solo X-books like X-23 and Daken: Dark Wolverine, Liu shows what she can do with a large cast in Astonishing. She assembles a diverse X-team, and her first issue focuses on gay Canadian speedster Jean-Paul “Northstar” Beaubier (a glaring editorial error changes his name to “Jean-Claude” halfway through the issue) and mutant doctor Cecilia Reyes. Jean-Paul’s relationship with boyfriend Kyle and Cecilia’s budding flirtation with Gambit are the heart of the book, and Liu has an ear for natural dialogue, bringing these superheroes down to a human level. The book’s depiction of a gay relationship is especially noteworthy, and Liu gives Jean-Paul and Kyle a dynamic not much different from Lois Lane and Clark Kent or Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. (Maybe Jean-Paul and Kyle will last longer than those two couples.) 

Liu is joined by artist Mike Perkins, whose clean, detailed pencils work with the dialogue to make the characters look and sound like real people. Perkins’ pencils are almost photorealistic, but he’s able to give the characters a sense of movement that prevents them from appearing stiff and posed. That realism in the relationships and artwork enriches the superhero elements of the issue, which look to take more prominence as the arc continues. If Liu and Perkins can maintain that delicate balance, Astonishing X-Men will be a book deserving of its superlative title.


Downton Abbey has revived interest in the Edwardian era, so naturally Vertigo would decide to throw vampires and zombies into the time period and watch what happens. The New Deadwardians #1 (Vertigo) is the last of March’s string of Vertigo first issues, and it’s the most atmospheric and engaging of the bunch. Written by Dan Abnett (who is surprisingly not joined by frequent writing partner Andy Lanning) with art by I.N.J. Culbard, the book trusts the reader to figure things out as it leaps into the story, providing little exposition as Chief Inspector George Suttle encounters a “Restless” feasting on his housemaid on the kitchen floor. There’s a subtlety in the writing that translates to the artwork, and Culbard’s soft, animated style makes the horror even more chilling. 

Fans of Ted Naifeh’s curmudgeonly tween witch have cause to celebrate with Courtney Crumrin #1 (Oni), the start of a new full-color ongoing series that maintains the all-ages appeal of Courtney’s previous stories. Courtney’s new neighbor, Holly Hart, dresses all in black and has trouble fitting in at school, but when Courtney extends a hand of friendship, Holly makes a Mean Girls transformation by abusing Courtney’s magic. Bringing in a new character is a smart way to introduce readers to Courtney’s world, and Naifeh provides a mini-tour of the established locales while giving all the necessary information for understanding Courtney’s situation. If Mike Mignola worked on Saturday morning cartoons, it would probably look a lot like Ted Naifeh’s art, which is moody, animated, and often adorable. There aren’t many comics that are appropriate for young girls; books like Courtney Crumrin are trying to appeal to a wider audience, and they deserve the same success as inferior superhero titles. 

Jan Strnad and Richard Corben put a new spin on haunted-house horror with Ragemoor #1 (Dark Horse), a chilling start to their four-part miniseries about an estate with a life of its own. When Herbert’s uncle visits Ragemoor with the intention of tricking Herbert into giving him the castle, he finds himself the victim of the house’s justice, attacked by the walls that were bathed in pagan blood and given life by satanic priests. That’s the extent of Strnad’s story, but Corben adds remarkable depth with his stark black-and-white artwork. Corben is a master at building tension and a sense that horror lurks within every inch of the house, concealing Ragemoor in shadow at the start of the issue, and slowly revealing its bone-and-flesh exterior as the story progresses. The castle is both ornate and decaying, and Corben frames his images in such a way that the setting becomes a design element. It’s unclear where the story will go from here, but Corben’s art ensures that the creep factor will never take a dip.