Tons of reviews for your morning.

Black Widow #1 (of 6?)

Yeah. I’m certain that I read somewhere that this was a miniseries, but now questions have arisen. Not the first instance of such confusion coming from Our Pals Marvel. Whatever.

Several commentators have noted a tendency on Marvel’s part to take baby steps toward exploring non-superhero genres by grafting superhero tropes onto an alternate genre framework. It’s a horror film - WITH SUPERPOWERS! It’s a crime drama - WITH SUPERPOWERS! It’s “The Usual Suspects” - WITH SUPERPOWERS! It’s “I Am Curious (Yellow)” meets “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” - WITH SUPERPOWERS! No, wait. That was my Epic proposal. But you get the idea.

Black Widow” represents the outer limit of this technique: it’s a book with only a superhero’s name on it, but no superhero content, save for the enhanced fighting and survival abilities we see in many totally non-superhero spy action stories, which is what this book really is. As it stands, it’s a relatively safe way for Marvel to dip their ankles even further into the non-superhero pool, without actually having to do any swimming. The results are pretty good; the book has the kind of team that can coax some entertainment out of material that could have easily proven dead boring in less skilled hands.

Often it seems that a Marvel first issue inspires the prospective readers to ask themselves not “Will anything happen?” but “In which way will nothing happen?” A few things happen in this introductory issue, though it’s fairly typical set-up. Our heroine Natasha is attacked by a well-disciplined assassin en route to a rock-climbing expedition. This fellow is no match for the Black Widow, but he’d rather lie in the sand for an hour and bleed to death than give up his secrets. Meanwhile, a string of killings breaks out across the globe, with the dead women perhaps sharing a common bond. Natasha recruits comic relief/voice of humanity ex-SHIELD agent Phil Dexter to accompany her in an investigation. Along the way Natasha sounds off on the woman’s place in today’s world, and even snaps a would-be rapist’s spine like it’s an outtake from “Shadowhawk”. And international mystery villains sit around and drink whisky. Simple.

I suspect artist Bill Sienkiewicz will be attracting much of the initial interest in this title. Those all ready for a fully-painted gonzo extravaganza along the lines of “Elektra: Assassin” or “Stray Toasters” will be a little let down; The Sink sticks to harsh profiles and sketchy cross-hatches here. The effect is reminiscent of his classic run on “New Mutants” but bolder, more individually pronounced. We also get some of his lovely hand-drawn sound effects, spreading throughout the panel as a fully integrated portion of the art, a technique often employed these days by Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith (other lettering is done by Cory Petit of Virtual Calligraphy). Dan Brown’s colors compliment Sienkiewicz’s lines well, respecting the blacks but giving characters a rounded, full texture.

Richard K. Morgan handles the script well, nebulous as the plot is at this early juncture. The aforementioned rapist clash is somewhat gratuitous but Morgan uses it as an efficient double excuse: both furthering Natasha’s interests in fighting for women, and providing some distracting action. There’s also a hint that we might be seeing more of the rescued near-victim; I kneel and pray that she won’t serve to bring out the Black Widow’s humanity or show her the value of compassion or something equally brow-scrunching. It’s a nice first issue as it is, keeping the familiar story amusing, and we don’t need to usher in those types of familiarity that breed contempt.

Astonishing X-Men #5

And speaking of handling passable material in a delightful way, I didn’t realize until several minutes after finishing this issue that remarkable little had happened story-wise; most of this issue focuses on Our Heroes trying to wriggle their way out of the tight spot they found themselves in last month. Mr. Whedon’s involuntary winking habit continues here: we get little gags about fan reception to the new costumes, and more musings on the impermanence of death in the Marvel Universe. Exactly how Colossus is still alive is hastily brushed aside (maybe to be picked up later), as he and Kitty continue their reunion.

Whedon happily juggles the differing motivations of various characters, with the more impulsive Emma/Logan faction amusingly gaining more control over planning. Cyclops gets a chance to show off some team tactics, well geared toward employing the different powers of each team member. Different villains also clash in their motivations. And back at the school, the student subplot soldiers on. I liked the ultra-serious psychic triplets complaining about Emma’s “sweaty and inappropriate thoughts” during class. And poor old Ord is almost entirely comic relief at this point, which is probably the best thing to do with him. Conveniently, the larger plot then literally bursts into the room for the latest cliffhanger.

It’s the very definition of solid superhero material, without quite crossing the line into the world of (forgive me father!) Astonishment. John Cassaday maintains his level of quality (his character expressions and body language are particularly good), and Laura Martin’s coloring deserves special mention for crispness and judicious washing, sometimes letting a hue dominate a scene, sometimes simply letting it dictate tone. In whole, a solid monthly pickup.

Ex Machina #4

Huh. The second book in so many weeks with a character referring to someone flying as "gay". Brian K. Vaughan is prudent enough to have the line escape the lips of one of the 'dumb' characters though, an oaf who Doubts Our Hero. And I never really caught the context of the “Invincible” quote either.

It’s back to contrivances for “Ex Machina”, with the big confrontation between Hundred’s intern and the heretofore off-panel controversial artist all but leaping off the page and poking me in the eyes.

As the scene proceeds, the artist lashes out at the intern’s attempts to ask her about the meaning behind her work, declaring that “Our generation’s been ruined by Cliffs Notes and director’s commentaries.” She urges the intern to come to her own conclusion about the painting's meaning. In response, Hundred’s intern immediately launches into a lecture on how the artist’s motivations (not artists in general, mind you, but this artist’s in particular) have evolved over the years, with convenient examples of each key work hanging on the walls of the woman’s studio for easy illustration. The intern concludes that the controversial work in question is a self-loathing 'joke' created to lash out at the hollow praise of brainless critics. The intern then challenges the artist to replace it with a work that she really cares about (presumably one that will prove less controversial).

Now. One would think that the artist would just say something along the lines of “That’s an interesting interpretation. Thus, I’ve already succeeded. Bye.” Since, you know, she just said two fucking pages ago that she wants to stimulate individual interpretation. Alternatively, if she didn’t want to stand behind her stated purpose, she might say “So what if I don’t care about the painting? It stands as a monument to critical stupidity. If they want to eat my shit, than it’s their breath to worry about. Bye.” But no, proving that “Ex Machina” takes place in an alternate Earth really not much at all like our own, the artist puts on a Sad Face because the intern’s scathing critique has sent the light of truth shining right into the dark core of her being. Then she quivers about what the Art World will think about her repudiation of her own work (don’t you see gentle readers, she has already been awakened!), which allows the intern to smirk “Maybe it’s time you stop giving a shit about what the ’art world’ thinks about anything.POW! OWNED! ZING!!!

Then the artist attacks her with a blowtorch. Seriously.

I thought Mayor Hundred being called a racist by kitchen appliances was neat last issue because it was kind of silly. I rather like silly. This sort of thing, however, is ridiculous. It’s a sloppy way of wiggling through a plotline, that doesn’t even maintain character consistency as established two pages ago. Yeah, I guess you can say the artist is only pretending, and she’s really insecure inside, and she doesn’t believe her own stated motivations, but do even the most shivering of hacks collapse into remorseful declarations of truth when confronted with a challenge to their work? Especially a challenge that has an obvious ulterior motive behind getting the work in question removed from public view? It’s a stunningly ham-fisted execution of a major scene.

There’s also a possible ‘plot twist’ this issue that I’m not totally sure is supposed to be a surprise since it was kind of heavily foreshadowed. It seems structured as an attempted surprise at least. It might be a fake-out. There’s more flashbacks to Hundred’s past, more subtle reveals about the extent of his powers. Apparently the arc ends next issue, so we’ll be in for some quick revelations, I suppose. I’m sounding like I hated the book, and I didn’t. It’s mostly ok material. But damn if some of the stuff in this issue didn’t annoy me. And when the rest of the comic is only consistent, annoyances tend to stand in sharp relief.

Tom Strong #28

Why oh why oh why does Wildstorm’s website continue to insist that Cameron Stewart did the art for this issue when it was in fact illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg of “The Books of Magic“ fame? Snejbjerg does a good job, but they really ought to change that listing.

This issue, also written by Brian K. Vaughan, focuses on Pneuman, the robot butler. Quite a lot of space is spent on Tom and the crew fighting a fine-art villain called The Eye-Opener (13 out of 24 story pages). It sets up Pneuman’s little crisis well, but the sheer length of the battle makes it feel like padding. Anyway, the mechanical manservant decides to accomplish a mission given to him by Tom’s mother back on that fateful day on Attabar Teru. Pneuman’s logical nature leads him to take a rather innovative avenue toward accomplishing the goal, but maybe there’s more to him than just programming. As far as “Tom Strong” stories go, this is comfortably B-list, but it may have been served better as a short in “Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales”.

Mister Monster: Worlds War Two

Full title: “Mister Monster Versus the Nazi From Mars or Mister Monster: Worlds War Two whichever you feel is the catchier title” as it’s listed in the fine print.

I’ve already detailed some of the history of this particular story. There’s not much else to say except that it delivered exactly what the fans expect. I’m glad Atomeka has put it this story back out. It’s a fun romp through Doc Stearn’s past as he foils a Nazi Martian invasion of the Earth, with a little help from a sexy hippy reporter, America’s Armed Forces, and a certain notorious alien invasion movie plot twist which I think this story may actually pre-date. Lots of bad-taste humor, but an unfailing good nature, and a sense of satire (Mr. Monster says no to drugs and promotes decency and wholesomeness all while gleefully indulging in bloody violence). I particularly loved the finale, which ties the book into other fine “Mr. Monster” stories. Here’s hoping for new material!