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Superhero and mainstream comics – December 2011 

Peter Milligan and Michael Allred changed the course of Marvel Comics in 2001 with X-Force #116, a book that was so unnervingly graphic that the Comics Code Authority refused to put their stamp on the cover, prompting Marvel to give a hearty “Fuck you” to the CCA and publish it anyway. By imagining a world where mutants were viewed as celebrities instead of outcasts, Milligan and Allred produced a scathing critique of the entertainment industry using a cast of damaged and mortal characters. The X-Statix Omnibus (Marvel) collects the entirety of Milligan, Allred, and company’s run, more than 40 issues spanning two ongoing series, two miniseries, and multiple one-shot appearances. It’s a hefty hardcover (1,200 pages) and completely worth the cover price ($125), both for fans of the original series or new readers looking for an unconventional superhero story.

Milligan examines different forms of celebrity throughout the course of his series, beginning with boy bands and Elian Gonzalez and expanding into reality-show contestants and flagship superheroes like Wolverine and the Avengers. Milligan even went after Princess Diana for a proposed storyline where she joins the X-Statix, but bad publicity forced Marvel to retool the arc, effectively neutering Milligan’s plot and signaling the beginning of the end for the title. Reading that storyline now, it’s difficult not to imagine how much more effective it would be with the added gravitas that would come from using Princess Diana’s likeness. 

Milligan’s characters are obsessed with image, and it’s fitting that the tone of Milligan’s stories changes drastically depending on his artistic collaborator. Allred’s pop art-inspired style lends a classic, Silver Age tone to the script, contrasting with the clean, near-cutesiness of the art and brutality of the action on the page. Darwyn Cooke lends a cinematic romanticism to his issues, Duncan Fegredo adds a layer of realism and grit to his X-Force finale, and Paul Pope presents an alt-comics interpretation of the team, highlighting the ugliness of Milligan’s world. It’s a book that celebrates the collaborative process of comic books, and reveals how people and situations change depending on the light in which they’re shown, an especially appropriate topic considering the ever-changing face of superhero comics. 

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s Power Girl showed the writing team’s adeptness at creating light-hearted superhero stories without sacrificing brains or heart, and The Ray #1 reveals what the team can do when given the freedom of a new character. Joined by artist Jamal Igle, Palmiotti and Gray create one of the most fully realized titles of the DC relaunch, with a clear concept, strong voice, and memorable, diverse cast. 

Unburdened by continuity, the DCnU Ray has no connection to any of the men that have carried the mantle before him, and beyond a passing reference to the Flash, the book is largely isolated from the rest of the DC universe. After being shot by a beam from an experimental energy conductor, lifeguard Lucien Gates is transformed into a man of raw light, able to travel at incredible speeds, shoot lasers from his body, and alter his appearance by changing how light reflects off his body. Palmiotti and Gray find creative ways for Lucien to use his powers, and because Lucien’s brain moves as fast as his body, there isn’t much of a learning curve (except for figuring out how to keep his clothes from burning off). It’s impossible for Lucien to keep his powers a secret from his family and friends, so he doesn’t, and by revealing his powers to those around him, Lucien opens up a multitude of storytelling possibilities.

Considering The Ray is only a four-issue miniseries, the creative team does an incredible job establishing the characters and setting. The cast reflects the diversity of California, featuring a Korean-American hero (his parents are white so he’s most likely adopted, although the script doesn’t specify), his black best friend, and Indian girlfriend. Jamal Igle draws people that look like human beings with unique facial expressions and body types, and his characters convey emotions clearly, helping land the humor of the Palmiotti and Gray’s script. Igle’s controlled line and substantial range recall Kevin Maguire’s work, and he has Maguire’s ability to blend personal, everyday situations with superhero action, resulting in artwork that is sharp, sophisticated, and captures all the fun of the story. 

Matt Fraction has described his new Defenders series as “Casanova Avengers,” and while The Defenders #1 (Marvel) doesn’t reach the mind-bending heights of Fraction’s independent work, Fraction deftly combines classic and contemporary superhero storytelling for a captivating first issue. After the conclusion of Fear Itself, Nul, the Breaker Worlds, is unleashed upon the Earth, and before Hulk abandons the surface world (see: The Incredible Hulk #1), he seeks Dr. Strange’s help in assembling a team to take down the threat. Rather than spend the opening arc gathering the cast, the Defenders are fully formed and on their first mission by the end of the issue, and the brisk pacing is the series’ strongest Casanova connection. 

The line-up unites original Defenders Dr. Strange, Namor, and Silver Surfer with Red She-Hulk and Iron Fist, Fraction’s breakout character at Marvel. While it’s an eclectic cast, the characters lack distinctive personalities and voices in the first issue. Hopefully it’s due to Fraction packing the issue with plot and not a style choice for the series, because while every team should have an aggressive wise-ass, it doesn’t need five. 

Fraction is scripting the series “Marvel style,” meaning that he doesn’t turn in a full script to artist Terry Dodson, just dialogue and basic scene descriptions. In the past, this allowed writers like Stan Lee to write multiple books each month while granting artists greater creative freedom, so it will be interesting to see how the more traditional Dodson interprets Fraction’s off-kilter ideas. As Fraction delves deeper the connective tissue that bonds the Marvel universe, Defenders is being positioned as one of Marvel’s flagship titles, and there’s potential for greatness if Fraction can maintain the first issue’s energy while making the characters more distinct.

The first volume of Nick Spencer’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents made a splash at its debut, but after the writer announced his exclusive contract with Marvel, the title became less of a priority as DC geared up for the September relaunch. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (DC) is Spencer’s six-issue opportunity to bring his title to a satisfying end, and while it’s not the most accessible story for newcomers, the book continues to highlight Spencer’s strengths as a writer. Decompressed storytelling has begun to drag Spencer’s work on Morning Glories and Ultimate X-Men, but his pacing on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is much more aggressive. The miniseries format forces him to keep the story dense if he wants to cover all the ground he would have in an extended ongoing, and he layers storylines to easily transition from widescreen superhero action to sophisticated sci-fi. 

While one team finds itself in the midst of a Subterranean war, the rest of the characters are on exposition duty, recapping the events of the first volume while providing new details about the history of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Spencer has developed a rich mythology on this series, and his attention to detail can turn a large chunk of background information into a riveting read. Artistic inconsistency became a problem at the end of Spencer’s first run, but Wes Craig is a speedy penciller with a distinct style that works well with the story. The borderless panels and white gutters lend sleekness to the art, and Craig’s pencils tow the line between cartoonish and realistic, giving the characters more personality than previous regular artist Cafu. 

For readers that missed the first volume, DC also released a collection to coincide with the new miniseries, so there’s no reason to miss out on the conclusion to the one of the stronger superhero titles of the pre-relaunch DC. 

Touted as the lead-in to 2012’s Avengers Vs. X-Men event, Avengers: X-Sanction #1 (Marvel) fails to inspire much confidence in next year’s crossover. Following mutant commando Cable, the plot finds the ex-X-Man with less than 24 hours to live, tasked with a mission to kill the Avengers in order to prevent an apocalyptic future. Jeph Loeb’s Terminator-meets-Crank story reads like a lost comic from the ’90s, and there’s not much substance behind the standard superhero brawls and time-travel nonsense. 

Time travel is one of the most abused deus ex machinas in comics, and as the foundation of Cable’s character, it’s made him little more than a prop to set events in motion. At the end of “Messiah Complex” he jumped through time with baby Hope, aging her until she was old enough to develop her own personality and anchor her own crossover, “Second Coming.” Cable died at the end of that event but not really, as Loeb reveals that Cable was pulled through time and saved at the last minute so he could get the next crossover started. Marvel’s current attitude toward character deaths is getting embarrassing, with characters being revived mere months after being killed off (with lots of publicity), and it’s difficult to commit to a story when the outcome isn’t likely to stick for long. 

Loeb teams with long-time collaborator Ed McGuinness for X-Sanction, and McGuinness’ exaggerated style is ideally suited for stories about huge men smacking each other around. Everything about this book is big, from the characters to the action, and while it’s a fine title for readers looking for a conventional superhero story, it all feels a bit inflated for added relevance. Maybe Loeb can keep the balloon from popping, but his recent track record doesn’t suggest the best. (Granted, X-Sanction is like Watchmen compared to his disastrous Ultimatum, so maybe there’s still hope for Loeb yet.)


Medical horror comedy isn’t an easy niche to corner, but Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner’s Witch Doctor Vol. 1: Under The Knife (Image) is a spectacular genre hybrid that specializes in putting new twists on familiar horror tropes. Dr. Vincent Morrow is a surgeon of the supernatural, cutting through creatures from the Black Lagoon and fairy changelings with his mighty scalpel, the legendary sword Excalibur. Two parts Johnny Depp to one part Clint Eastwood, Dr. Morrow is a charming lead with a keen sense of humor, but when it comes time to do some doctoring, he will shake down a fairy baby until he gets results. Ketner produces moody artwork with disturbing monster designs (especially the creepy fairies), but where he excels most is in finding the humor in Seifert’s script and contrasting it with the macabre imagery. Terrifying, hilarious, and above all else, smart, the book Seifer and Ketner have created is a joy to read and a must-have for horror comic fans that are getting tired of Walking Dead’s endless desolation and Locke And Key’s not-fast-enough shipping schedule. 

DC’s line-wide relaunch in September rejuvenated the brand, and The New 52 Omnibus (DC) collects all 52 first issues of the event in one massive hardcover rushed out in time for the holidays. Like the relaunch itself, the omnibus is a marketing tool, presenting the entire line of titles all in one place for new and lapsed readers. They can then wait six months until the individual titles are collected or go to a comic shop/digital store and catch up on back issues. The problem is that at nearly 8 pounds and $150, it’s an unreasonable package, even for hardcore enthusiasts. As a tool to bring in new readers, $150 for 52 incomplete stories of wildly varying quality is a daunting purchase, and a good chunk of the issues are inappropriate for young readers, making it an unwise gift for children. For anyone that has already read the 52 issues, there’s no extra content to justify double dipping, making this a product for lapsed readers, most of whom have already checked out the first issues three months ago.