Since “Avengers: Disassembled,” Marvel’s summer crossovers have largely served to advance Joe Quesada’s editorial initiatives, with Fear Itself #1 (Marvel) the first line-wide crossover since Quesada handed the Editor-In-Chief title over to Axel Alonso. Just in time for their respective films, Thor and Captain America (technically just Steve Rogers right now, but give it a month or two) take center stage as the Red Skull’s daughter Sin uncovers the enchanted hammer from Fear Itself: Book Of The Skull, transforming into the ancient warrior Skadi to awaken the true All-Father of the Norse gods. Specifically, she awakens an All-Father who’s plenty pissed off that he’s been imprisoned underwater for the last few eons, and he immediately seeks out retribution against his usurper, Odin. That may sound like mystical comic-book mumbo-jumbo, but in the hands of writer Matt Fraction and artist Stuart Immonen, the story is elevated beyond the typical summer blockbuster.
Fear Itself succeeds because Fraction taps into the core ideas of its two main figures. Steve Rogers struggles to adjust to the contemporary American sociopolitical climate, yet continues to fight for his country in spite of his confusion. Thor has learned the humility that his father Odin banished him on Earth to find years ago, but his selflessness and drive to integrate Asgard and Earth puts him at odds with his newly resurrected father. Stuart Immonen brings a sense of regality to the Norse gods that greatly contrasts with the ruins of Asgard surrounding them. His action sequences are dynamic and the characters have a great sense of weight, but he really excels with the mythical imagery, creating a tense, ominous mood for the Skadi scenes that spreads to the rest of the book once the All-Father is awakened. Fraction’s script combines the real-world commentary of his Invincible Iron Man with the epic fantasy of his Thor run, creating a spectacular story grounded in emotional reality.
Rather than only featuring the conclusion of Paul Cornell’s “The Black Ring” storyline, Action Comics #900 (DC) is shoehorned into the abysmal “Reign Of Doomsday” crossover, with artists Pete Woods and Jesus Merino splitting art duties for the two storylines. Lex Luthor, now strengthened by the god-like powers of the Phantom Zone entity, pulls Superman away from his cross-country trek for his ultimate revenge, but the true nature of the Black Ring reveals a new future for Lex if he is willing to peacefully co-exist with his enemy. It’s a shame that Cornell has to split focus between the riveting Luthor plot and the derivative Doomsday scenes, and the reveal of Luthor’s involvement in the Doomsday plot isn’t significant enough to justify its presence. Those extra pages could have been used to delve deeper into the Clark/Lex relationship, especially when Lex finally finds out that Clark is Superman. Over the course of Cornell’s run, we’ve seen Lex exhibit almost all the seven deadly sins, and when he finds out Clark’s secret identity, we finally get to see an envious Lex, who resents Clark for not only getting the power, but the parents. If Lex had been raised by the Kents, who knows how differently he would have turned out, and that realization drives him to a madness that eventually drains him of his power. In spite of some confusing panels once the Phantom Zone entity appears, Pete Woods turns in some of the best work of his career, and Brad Anderson’s colors emphasize the power of Lex’s transformation, but also its alien nature. Merino’s art looks much less polished than usual, but frankly, it suits for the quality of the Doomsday storyline.
The rest of the issue is filled with the usual anniversary material, and the fact that it’s all original-contact and no reprints makes the $5.99 price tag a bargain. Damon Lindelof and Ryan Sook have a touching Jor-El story that resonates like a great Lost backstory, and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank team up for a short piece that does little but build up to a Legion Of Superheroes pin-up. But when that pin-up is by Gary Frank, it’s totally worth it. There’s been a big hullabaloo about David Goyer’s story where Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship after starting an international incident by standing with protesters in Tehran, but the backlash to this story is ridiculous. The problem isn’t Superman’s citizenship, but Goyer’s trite, preachy script. Superman just spent the past year trekking across America in his other title, and now he’s standing in Azadi Square for 24 hours; aren’t the screams of dying innocents deafening his super-ears yet? How did Superman obtain U.S. citizenship, anyway? Did he really fill out all that paperwork? Where’s his long-form birth certificate? Superman shouldn’t belong to any specific country, and unless Clark Kent renounces too, Superman’s gesture means nothing. As Paul Cornell emphasizes in his main story, Clark Kent is Superman.
After a brief stint on MySpace, Dark Horse Presents #1 (Dark Horse) returns to the printed format of the anthology’s original volume, and now features stories in full color. The first issue’s impressive lineup of creators includes Dark Horse mainstays like Paul Chadwick, Frank Miller, and Richard Corben, joined by newcomers to the company like Neal Adams and Carla Speed McNeill. There’s enough content to justify the $7.99 price tag, but the stories fluctuate greatly in terms of quality. Chadwick contributes a new Concrete short story: “Intersection,” a marginally philosophical tale that shows how the rock-hard Concrete has more humanity than his flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s one of the book’s stronger stories, helped by the fact that it’s always a pleasure to get more Concrete, especially in color. The first chapter of McNeill’s next Finder story is another one of the issue’s standouts: It uses the limited page space to catch readers up on the history of main character Jaeger Ayers while still telling an effective done-in-one story. Corben’s “Murky World” is exactly the kind of story expected from the artist, featuring a grotesque, dystopian, zombie-infested environment with big-breasted ladies and badass old men, and while the first chapter is light on plot, there’s plenty of atmosphere to keep the story going. The book’s best installment is David Chelsea’s “Snow Angel,” an adorable watercolor story about a young girl who turns into a superpowered hero when she makes snow angels. Part Sam Kieth, part Charles Schulz.
“Snow Angel” will thankfully be a regular feature of DHP, because the rest of the serialized stories’ introductory chapters were less than impressive: Neal Adams’ “Blood” is the worst of the bunch, a story that manages to be repetitive and convoluted in the course of eight pages. Apart from the opening splash page, the title character is never shown in action, with the story focusing on his friend being tortured for information on the hero. Adams’ art isn’t necessarily the best for talking heads, and the minimal amount of action is a misstep for a creator who gained his reputation by working on superhero titles. Howard Chaykin’s story “Marked Man,” about a man balancing his secret criminal life with a family at home, has a strong hook, but the characters are so unlikeable that there’s no reason to care about the struggle. The preview of Frank Miller’s Xerxes is an insubstantial series of ink-covered splash pages, doing little to raise anticipation for the upcoming title, and his interview with editor Mike Richardson doesn’t inspire much confidence either. Still, the revived Dark Horse Presents is a fantastic outlet for the industry’s top creators to experiment, and in spite of the hit-or-miss quality of the first issue’s stories, future installments promise more Concrete, Finder, and Snow Angel, while bringing in fresh creators like Fabio Moon and Sanford Greene.
Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer #1 (Image) begins with an establishing shot of a vibrant, ethereal forest, a meticulously detailed panel that showcases the design sense Simpson developed working on videogames. It’s hard to believe this is Simpson’s comic-book debut, as he shows great control of the medium, both as a writer and an artist. And that art: Simpson’s style is Geoff Darrow meets Josh Middleton with a hint of Frank Quitely, packing each page with a tremendous amount of detail in both natural and technological environments. Set in the far future, the story revolves around Dana, a girl gamer who spends most of her time in virtual reality while her mother nags her to get a job. Simpson has done an amazing job building the world of Nonplayer, and future issues will hopefully venture into other gaming genres, which seems likely considering what is shown in Dana’s digital skyworld. Simpson’s action sequences are exquisitely choreographed, but at times, he could cut down on the panels per page and let the images expand to show the details more clearly. The closing splash page lacks any clutter, and the image of Dana scootering through town as a “lifeskin” turns her technological city of cold steel into the lush fantasy realm of her gaming life is the perfect representation of the book’s commentary on digital escapism.
Swamp Thing and John Constantine return to the DCU proper in Brightest Day #23 & #24 (DC), the conclusion to the Geoff Johns- and Peter Tomasi-scripted biweekly maxi-series. Like most DC events, the finale supplies as many questions as answers, questions that will inevitably be followed up on in a slew of new titles whenever the next event comes along. The resurrections, the Aquawar, it’s all been leading up to the revival of Swamp Thing as the heroes converge in Star City forest for ExpositionFest 2011. In their attempts to make the story accessible to new readers coming in for the Swamp Thing reveal, Johns and Tomasi spend much of these two issues explaining the events of the last year, and while it’s repetitive for people who have been reading the series, the two writers manage to fit in enough “Holy shit!” moments to keep the book from turning stale. The elemental avatars, the resurrection of Alec Holland, the battling Swamp Things, they’re all beautifully rendered by the various artists, with Ivan Reis turning in some particularly excellent splash pages that show why he’s one of DC’s best artists. It’s unclear what Swamp Thing’s return means for the rest of the DCU, and the coming of Flashpoint suggests that some of Brightest Day’s loose ends will be dangling for some time, but it’s an overall strong finish to a title that mostly entertained in spite of occasional missteps.
Jill Thompson returns to the Lil’ Endless for Delirium’s Party (Vertigo), a fully-painted all-ages storybook that uses adorable versions of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman characters to tell a heartwarming story about families and learning to love that perpetually frowning relative. Whether it’s a hormonal teenage sibling or a depressed drunk uncle, everyone has one. The focus on the Endless family dynamic makes Delirium’s Party a more captivating read than Thompson’s previous The Little Endless Storybook, which was essentially a tour of Gaiman’s mythos through the eyes of Delirium’s pet dog, Barnabas. By putting Delirium front and center, Thompson takes her art to new levels of precious psychedelia, beginning with an opening image of the inside of Delirium’s head that says more than words ever could. Scissors with high-heeled legs for blades and a cracked egg with a sunny yolk inside are just a few of the random items rolling around Delirium’s head, and Thompson keeps the absurd imagery going throughout the story. Delirium’s Party can be appreciated by adults simply for Thompson’s flawless craft, while kids will love the combination of cute and creepy that makes her renditions of the Endless so delightful.
Walter Simonson’s The Mighty Thor Omnibus (Marvel) is one massive book. Clocking in at 1,192 pages, it just needs a handle and it could be swung around like your own personal Mjolnir. But that isn’t recommended: This is a beautiful package. Collecting the writer-artist’s seminal Thor run along with his Balder The Brave miniseries, each issue has been recolored by Steve Oliff and Olyoptics 2.0, and the coloring advancements of the last 25 years enhance the grandeur of Simonson and Sal Buscema’s epic imagery. Simonson brought new life to Thor by abandoning the mystical enchantment that required him to spend time on Earth as the human Donald Blake, and the focus on the fantasy elements alongside the superheroics is what makes his run so fondly remembered. Simonson takes Thor into space by introducing Beta Ray Bill, teams him with the X-Men during the classic “Mutant Massacre,” and even turns Thor into a frog for an adorable Carl Barks homage. The stories hold up remarkably well, as Asgardian dialogue has the advantage of being so dated, its timeless. Simonson’s impressive draftsmanship has Jack Kirby’s energy while maintaining a distinct visual style. The Omnibus also features a solid 50-plus pages of extras, including introductions by Simonson from past collections, sketches, and character designs that supplement the main feature, helping justify the steep price, which really isn’t all that bad when the stories are this good.
Kieron Gillen takes over full writing duties of Marvel’s flagship mutant title with Uncanny X-Men #534.1 (Marvel), with the publisher releasing three issues in April to make sure the shelves are packed before the X-Men hit the big screen again this summer. One of the strongest issues in the “point one” initiative teams Gillen with superstar artist Carlos Pacheco for Magneto’s big coming out as a member of the X-Men. Addressing a major plot point from Grant Morrison’s run (shock!), Gillen shows how the team deals with public perception of their former enemy, hiring a PR agent to formulate a strategy for exposing Magneto before the situation is taken out of their hands. As a “point one,” this issue gives a clear impression of the book’s focus and characters, with a team of X-Men battling AIM in San Francisco with Namor’s help as Magneto is questioned by Kate Kildare. Pacheco’s art is a good middle ground between the styles of Uncanny regular artists Terry Dodson and Greg Land, but the downside of his work is that it won’t be happening monthly. Future issues bring in Agent Brand of Gillen’s dearly departed S.W.O.R.D. and reintroduce Joss Whedon’s Breakworld characters as refugees seeking asylum, showing Gillen’s adeptness at building on the work of previous creators. It appears that Gillen’s uninspired Generation Hope was just a fluke, and all he needed was the X-Men’s established heavy-hitters to spin a solid mutant yarn.
Marvel’s “point one” issues have had varying degrees of success, but at least Avengers #12.1 (Marvel) and Secret Avengers #12.1 (Marvel) are solid examples of what readers can expect from the individual books on a monthly basis, at least in terms of tone. Bryan Hitch’s photorealistic art is the polar opposite of the retro style favored by regular Avengers artist John Romita Jr., but it’s a nice change of pace for a done-in-one centered on the return of Ultron in the husk of a Spaceknight. Bendis’ Avengers script features the return of the Intelligencia from “War Of The Hulks”; they capture Spider-Woman after she discovers the crashed Spaceknight in the Savage Land. While it isn’t particularly new-reader friendly, it’s the kind of action-packed story to expect from Marvel’s primary Avengers title. Nick Spencer handles the script for Secret Avengers, taking the reins from Ed Brubaker before Warren Ellis takes over, and his Avengers vs. Wikileaks story maintains the book’s espionage feel, but suffers because of the bizarre mission assignment to protect only one endangered citizen. When Steve Rogers confronts the Assange substitute, Spencer’s dialogue takes a turn for the didactic, continuing all the way through to the issue’s end. Spencer has done better work than this, and hopefully his Fear Itself tie-in issues of Secret Avengers will be better than this disappointing standalone.