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Picks of comic book week: A Black Widow's bite has never been so enjoyable

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Black Widow #3

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The weekly haul of the best comic books for February 5th, 2014!

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Book of the week: Black Widow #3

It will be another week or so before Diamond Distribution will reveal the comic sales figures for January, but one of the notable new launches to track will be this one, one of the first new series to come out of the "All-New Marvel Now" promotion. Since the start of the year, between two issues and a ten page tale in a promotional one-shot, writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Phil Noto have produced three and a half issues worth of "Black Widow" stories within five weeks of time. While the pair likely had some considerable "lead in" time before the start of the year, this is still a boggling amount of output for the start of a "big two" series featuring a heroine who has been catapulted to the big time due to increasing amounts of screen time in big budget films. Despite this, the quality and elegant simplicity of this run has continued to garner attention next to its' peers.

As with the previous issues, Edmondson and Noto produce a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end within twenty pages which still has some loose subplots from previous issues. Natasha is still going out on secret missions in between her time with S.H.E.I.L.D. and the Avengers to earn money to donate to various charities to make up for "the red in her ledger". Not only is this a philosophy of self-absolution that Natasha may never feel she has completed, it is a life which only increases the danger and loneliness in her already dangerous routine. At any rate, Natasha is resisting getting involved with her new neighbors at her current New York apartment, which include an alley cat and an abused housewife, as she attempts to keep her eye on what counts. Unfortunately, she's only human and prone to some distraction, as her mission in Argentina proves. What seems to be a simple mission to liberate a wrongly imprisoned man turns into an escape through the jungle and a client who is more than he appears to be.

Much like with Ed Brubaker's early issues of "Captain America" in the last decade, this is a series which thrives on execution more than needlessly complicated plots. Each issue offers a new operation with Widow with one neat twist in the tale, although the real beauty of it continues to be Edmondson's voice for the heroine mingled perfectly with the lovely artwork provided by Noto. Each issue offers a new location for Noto to flex his artistic muscles on, and this one offers a satisfying tour of prisons, jungles, and gators. Each issue builds upon the last for a momentum of long term subplots, although each issue is also a complete and satisfying story unto itself - a series which any issue can truly be anyone's first.

Beautiful, smart, dangerous, and stealthy are all adjectives which describe Black Widow, and this series has emulated these terms like few ever have. Although it hasn't been on the shelves long, it seems to be on par with what Mark Waid and Marcos Martin were quickly achieving with "Daredevil" in July 2011. Considering her long history in the Marvel Universe flanked by her current time in the mass media spotlight, one can only hope that Edmondson and Noto get to enjoy the same success and tenure as Waid has on "Daredevil". The year is under two months old and already there may be an Eisner nomination in the future for this series. And if not, there should be. Comics priced at $3.99 may make readers wary about trying this, but this is one series worth every penny.

Honorable mentions:

Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine #4: This terrific relaunch of an innovative franchise previously published by DC Comics (and currently published by Dark Horse Comics) by Dan Jolley, Leonard Kirk, Robin Riggs and Moose Baumann took January off but continues its action packed yarn in typical fashion now. FBI agent Saffron Bell and her ex-cop, ex-con work release partner Clev have been continuing their exploits as the federal government's best hope at stopping superhuman crime in a world without superheroes. Their latest case involved the disgruntled Dr. Bradley Morgenstern who is offering super powers to clients he deems as worthy; this leads to a spike in random people with dangerous abilities. In the last issue, one such client went nuclear at a mall, and someone dear to Clev paid the ultimate price. The length of time between issues actually helps the story present a sense of loss, as Clev is mourning in very poor ways. Bell's attempt to get through to him ends with the pair going rogue to finish the case, and winding up knee deep in a fight for their lives at an abandoned dam. As always with this series, the appeal is the interaction between Bell and Clev as well as their tactics in battle against overwhelming odds. They've gained an ally in the masked "Terminus", who is also full of secrets. Kirk's artwork is as brilliant as ever and works in perfect tandem with Jolley's scripts. Clev's a modern day "Conan the Barbarian" doing his part to solve crimes with brute force, and this story has clearly eked out a place above the previous ones in his tenure. "Bloodhound" is back as if he's never left, and it continues to be glorious reading.

Archer & Armstrong: Archer #0: The second "zero issue" this series had had in its year and a half of life, which naturally means it has to have a silly extended title. Then again, Marvel Comics used to have a series called "Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates", so Valiant still has a ways to go before jumping that shark. At any rate, the full origin of the titular Archer is revealed under longtime writer Fred Van Lente and current regular artist Pere Perez, with regular colorist David Baron. The premise for this examination into Archer's top secret life is to prep the cast of "Bloodshot and the H.A.R.D. Corps" in time for their upcoming crossover; this is clever but it begs the question as to why this couldn't have simply been a regularly numbered issue. We see that Archer's abilities are psychic in nature, which were trained and harnessed by "the Sect" for use in their long term attempt to kill the only cog in their world domination plans - the immortal Armstrong. This also means a look back at Archer's hilarious former home, the "Promised Land" Christian fundamentalist theme park. Credit is to be given for using the upcoming subplot to justify a trip down memory lane, and the artwork by Perez is great as always. In the end, however, this is essentially exposition about one of the title characters, which fills some holes but merely serves as prep for better stories to come.

Avengers A.I. #9: According to the December 2013 sales figures, this is among the first of the recent new launches which debuted last summer whose sales have fallen below Marvel Comics' typical cancellation marker of 20,000 copies a month. While not a bad book, it can be easy to see why this "robot Avengers" book by Sam Humphries and artist Andre Lima Araujo (with Frank D'Armata's colors) is being lost in the shuffle. It is attempting to position robots as the new "minority class" in the universe at a time when Marvel's bigger editorial engines have elevated "the Inhumans" almost on par with the mutants of the "X-Men". At the very least, this is the last place to enjoy seeing Rogue in action after her (current) death in "Uncanny Avengers". She's joined Hank Pym Vision, Victor Mancha, and Capt. America in propelling themselves into "cyberspace" within "the Diamond", which has become home to a new breed of evolved artificial intelligence(s). They fight the minions of their latest enemy, Dimitrios, who has used a new mobile phone app to make humans in the "real world" riot madly. The biggest highlight includes the assembled heroes "merging" into a giant robot form - "VOLTRON" style. Lowlights include more cluttered exposition about new member Alexis, who would be better served by a story showing us who she is rather telling us. Much like "Young Avengers", Humphries is riding high on current pop culture technology for his premise, but he hasn't quite hit the mark in terms of flair or humor.

Iron Man #21: Kieron Gillen and artist Joe Bennett, with Scott Hanna on inks and Guru eFX on colors, continue their "Iron Metropolis" arc which sees fit to create some new villains out of the ashes of Iron Man's greatest one. The Mandarin is dead, and Tony Stark seeks to catch up with his new found brother Arno by building the city of the future in the ruins of the city the villain once ruled. Unfortunately, the villain's alien rings are searching for new hosts to avenge their old master, empowering new rogues like an anti-Iron Man corps of "Green Lanterns". So far, this "Mandarin Corps" consist of disgruntled journalist Red Peril, the vengeful Inhuman Exile and deposed gangster "Lord Remaker". The trio are not quite on the same page, but seem to quickly unite once Iron Man stumbles into their meeting. Overall, this seems to be an arc where the premise may be more interesting than the actual execution; nothing's jaw dropping in terms of quality in the positive or negative, but seems to have attained a colorful mediocrity. Still, Gillen is doing good work to try to make some new villains for Iron Man that aren't just additional people in knock off armor, which is a commendable feat.

Loki: Agent of Asgard #1: Never let it be said that Marvel never knew how to strike while the iron was hot. Much like with "Black Widow", the publisher is capitalizing on the current popularity of the feature film version of this character to give him another go at his own ongoing series. Al Ewing, who had the distinction of being a good enough writer to make a comic "drawn" by Greg Land worth reading every month, picks up the horns of the titular rogue with artist Lee Garbett and colorist Nolan Woodard for this new series. Much like the Kieron Gillen's "Journey into Mystery" run, this series seeks to mold a new layered version of Loki apart from the stereotypical and predictable super-villain version of the character who has been running around for the past forty years. Much like "Journey into Mystery", this comparison between "old Loki" and "new younger Loki" is something which is represented in actual physical terms. The major difference is that Ewing makes this more accessible for those who may know Loki better from "The Avengers" films or cartoons as well as seeming to utilize humor with a more "TV friendly" style premise. In this case, the new "young adult" version of Loki is being tasked with performing missions of the occult by Gaea, Freyja, and Idunn - powerful figures from the Asgardian pantheon. Ewing plays to expectations of villainy from Loki to hilarious and effective result. Within twenty pages, Ewing establishes a good voice and good premise for his lead, while the art by Garbett and Woodard captures the tone perfectly with great pencils and colors. It may not be on par with "Black Widow", but it is still a great read for those seeking something new for their pull list.

Mighty Avengers #6: Ding dong, Greg Land is gone, Greg Land is gone, Greg Land is gone! Ding dong, Greg Land is gone to-day! In fairness, the master of Photoshop tracing from magazines, associated press photos and porn is still a presence on covers, but Al Ewing's great new Avengers series is finally flanked by a worthy artist in Valerio Schiti. His style (as colored by Frank D'Armata) quickly matches Ewing's style of mixing standard superhero fare with down to earth conversations between characters with a dash of comedy. After having the opening issues tie into a crossover and have his team face aliens, demons, and Spider-Man, this issue is more subtle and allows his cast to interact with each other. Most of the team (as well as guest-star Iron Fist) help Luke Cage in settling into a new apartment after setting up a new squad of Avengers in an old movie theater building, while Spectrum and She-Hulk work on getting the new Power Man (Victor Alvarez) to hone his powers seriously. A subplot involving Falcon chasing down a petty arsonist bridge the gap to the next issue and provide a motive for White Tiger which is long overdue, which is both interesting and a bit of an awkward clash in style. The easy highlight of the issue is another overdue moment, Luke Cage and Blue Marvel talking to each other as the representations of different eras of not only superheroics, but on black culture. Both sides make their voices heard and it is so great to finally see Kevin Grevioux's terrific contribution to the Marvel Universe finally get more exposure and above all, interaction with their more well known figures. Many readers may be wary of issues of an Avengers comic where all the characters just stand around and talk about over a decade of Brian Bendis comics, but it works in this series deliberately because the first few issues were so heavy on action. Far too many people seemed to be overlooking this series due to Greg Land's presence; hopefully the artistic tenure of Schiti sparks a rebound of overdue interest.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man #8: After an issue off to tell the origin of the new Beetle, Nick Spencer and longtime artist Steve Lieber are once again reunited to continue their quirky and sitcom-style narrative about the life and times of a band of B-list costumed criminals. Fred Myers/Boomerang seemed to have successfully tricked his gang of crooks and gained a priceless painting, only to have things come crashing down to his usual bad luck as he loses it to the Chameleon and his Russian mobster cronies. Meanwhile, the Shocker has become the fearful caretaker of the cybernetic head of Silvermane while the rest of Boomerang's crew plot some revenge against their old boss, with Beetle looking to fill Myers' shoes. As always, most of the comedy lies in Myers' unique perspective on life and survival in the Marvel Universe while Lieber goes to down with some great visual gags. To a degree this is a set-up issue, but it continues the story after last month's diversion as well as keeps things moving along towards an inevitable conclusion.

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