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Picks of comic book week: Another episode of "All My Aliens"

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Saga #20

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Book of the week: Saga #20

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Hit creators Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples continue along with their fourth major arc of the biggest series either have worked on to date, which offers all the melodrama of a soap with all the action and imagination of a cable TV series. After having fought so hard to keep their family together, the star crossed couple of Alana and Marko are quickly drifting farther apart as they attempt to live a life in secret while raising their half breed daughter, Hazel. As with all issues, this latest installment includes more gorgeous artwork by Staples as well as plenty of twists, turns, betrayals, and even nudity.

Merely escaping both of their warring worlds as well as the exes and mercenaries hired to kill them was perhaps the easiest phase of their family life. Years of living on the run raising their now toddler aged daughter have placed the "battle couple" of Marko and Alana farther apart. Alana is busy working as a costumed member of the "Open Circuit", which is a hybrid version of pro-wrestling, kabuki theater, and mainstream superhero comics. Her co-workers there are bizarre and she quickly becomes tempted to escape her stresses much like everyone else around her - by tripping out. Marko has been stuck as a "house husband" raising Hazel mostly alone, a chore which soon sees him taking Hazel for dance lessons and getting closer with another (married) woman. Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV is still "damaged" and hiding, as the heir apparent to his empire is swiftly stolen away by the most dangerous of things - a disgruntled janitor with a sword.

As with most issues, Vaughan's script combines some insightful philosophy about media and life mixed into his science fiction soap opera. In this issue's case, the notion that addictive pop culture "escapism" is just as much a drug for the masses as any controlled substance, which exists to keep them placid and servile. It also showcases how what was once a strong family unit which was capable of surviving battle can wind up growing apart after said battle has been "won", simply because life is larger than winning and losing skirmishes. As this is an original franchise owned and run by its' creators which is not named after any specific character or status quo, the plot can take twists and turns that are hard to predict, where no character or relationship is safe for long. Much as Alan Moore accomplished in "Watchmen", one feels that the characters here are more real and fleshed to them than many other characters who have been in comics for far longer. As reliable as Staples is on the art, her work in this issue is particularly amazing; a two page spread of Alana succumbing to the drug "Fadeaway" is worth the cover price alone.

"Saga" has become the "Old Faithful" of American comic books. It is always reliable and eternally spectacular. It has become everything that people want in comics, offering doses of drama, pathos, action, suspense, and even nudity in a manner which isn't exploitative. It is no wonder why it has quickly become one of Image Comics' best sellers and become a hit worldwide. Fans who tire of meaningless mainstream superhero comics or endless crossover events would be wise to make sure "Saga" is always on their list to see what monthly comics can truly be.

Honorable mentions:

Batman Beyond Universe #11: DC Comics' reprint anthology of their "Beyond" line of digital-first comics continues on its' best run in its' history with their "Justice Lords Beyond" arc. It allows the "Batman Beyond" strip by Kyle Higgins and Thony Silas and the "Justice League Unlimited" strip by Christos Gage and Dexter Soy to work alongside each other in harmony to tell one epic story rather than two parallel ones. Terry McGinnis/Batman's journey into the parallel world of the "Justice Lords" leads him to team up his own gang banging counterpart as well as narrowly escape death from that world's twisted (Lord) Superman. Back at home, the corrupt Justice Lords have captured the JLU and seem set to add their universe to their order. There are some convenient bits of plotting (such as suggesting that Lord Superman's super senses could be fooled with some hi-tech holograms), but overall it is a fast paced epic which gets more riveting and dangerous as it goes along. The young Zod, who has been adopted by our world's Superman, has his origins revealed as all sides seem to be set for a final battle to play out next month. Higgins' art always seems stronger than Soy's, but both artists get the task done in terms of over the top action with memorable characters. This series proves that DC Comics can produce a comic with mainstream, mass market appeal that offers plenty of suspense and action without relying on gore or humorlessness - so long as it is outside of the "New 52" editorial mandate. As always, this remains one of the best things DC Comics produces.

Invincible #112: Robert Kirkman and longtime artist Ryan Ottley move along on their crash course to come up with something new to do on this series after over 100 issues by breaking all of their toys in the sandbox. To this end, Robot has decided to try his hand at tyranny on Earth instead of merely in the Flaxian dimension, and this entire issue spends its' time showing his android doubles taking down a slew of minor to modest supporting characters who haven't been killed off yet. Much as with some previous arcs (such as the "Invincible War"), Kirkman seems to be having fun mocking and lampooning the "big two" zeal for "Terror! Violence! Mayhem! Horror! Misery!" in their superhero yarns, yet he produces a story which plays such tropes dead straight. Left with little else to come up with, Kirkman is all but literally breaking apart his leftover characters to start over from scratch with what he has left. This is naturally a creator owned property so "Invincible" becomes whatever Kirkman wishes it to be, but despite the seriousness of the plot, it always reads as something being done not due to a natural progression but a lack of any alternative ideas. Regardless, this is shaping up to be a better arc than some of the previous ones in recent memory, although one hopes that Kirkman and Ryan have plans to replace the supporting cast they're so gleefully culling with characters that prove to be as memorable.

Amazing Spider-Man #3: Longtime solo writer Dan Slott and frequent ongoing artist Humbert Ramos (alongside inker Victor Olazaba and colorist Edgar Delgado) continue to reassemble the wall-crawler that was picked apart during the "Superior Spider-Man" era and ride the upswing of attention from the latest Sony blockbuster film. The name of the game is having Peter Parker deal with the ramifications of having been possessed by Dr. Octopus for months, which have left him with a start up tech company as well as quite a few angry enemies. Two of them are Black Cat and Electro, who both have been traumatized by Ock and now seek revenge on Spider-Man. While Electro is hobbled by his powers bring out of control, Black Cat initially seeks a direct approach - returning to her burglary ways as well as attacking Spider-Man as he helps some firemen (including MJ's new squeeze, Ollie) save some homeless people from a fire. Meanwhile, readers also learn more about the new "Original Sin" tie in character Silk, who is apparently named Cindy, is being held prisoner by Peter's old mentor/enemy Ezekiel in a secret bunker. On the plus side, Black Cat's new costume design is interesting (even if it has distracting "eyes" on the shoulders) and the entire sequence in the burning building is quite good overall. Seeing Peter attempt to juggle his new role as CEO while trying to make a good impression on his scared employees is also a source of good comedy. On the downside, former mayor J. Jonah Jameson is continuing his descent into self-parody by joining a very obvious stand in for "Fox News", while Spider-Man's tactic of tricking Black Cat into thinking he's still "Ock" merely sees Slott attempt to make fun of the very glaring plot hole which was the foundation of much of "Superior Spider-Man" as if he wasn't the very writer who utilized it shamelessly. It gives the impression that Slott knew very well how glaring that plot hole was - that none of Peter's friends or superhero peers noticed to took much action when he suddenly began talking and acting like a 1980's Saturday morning cartoon villain - yet didn't care enough about his story to eliminate it or explain it better. "Superior Spider-Man" was an ambitious story line that had its' highs and lows and polarized fans (at best). The writer might be wise to distance himself from it and move on, but the very nature of his run abhors such an idea. At the very least, he should be more hesitant to call attention to any plot holes which serve as key narrative foundations, because they merely imply that Slott didn't respect his audience enough to write a fifteen month plot without such glaring holes. Some fans may be put off by Felicia's quick turn into villainous savagery, but one should recall that this is the same vixen who teamed up with an international hit man and tried to kill Spider-Man after being jilted in the 1980's. The web-slinger's rogues gallery has often lacked strong female representation, and the Black Cat is among his best known - even if she remains extremely similar to DC's Catwoman. As with most issues of this run since 2013, a mixed bag. One hopes that future issues of this arc remain high on the action and low on the unintended hypocrisy.

Ms. Marvel #5: G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona (alongside colorist Ian Herring) bring their opening arc of the saga of Kamala Khan to an exciting and invigorating conclusion. Failing in her attempt to save her friend Bruno's brother from the clutches of her very first super-villain, Kamala is forced to work with Bruno to figure out how to work her powers once and for all. This results in her getting some keen training on the limits and strengths of her shape shifting powers as well as the costume she's been wearing on all her covers for five months as she embarks on a final showdown with "the Inventor"'s hipster minion, Doyle. A criticism from last issue is addressed to a degree; the blandly designed Doyle is merely the flunky to the more distinct looking Inventor, even if "the Inventor" is a bit of a blandly bizarre name for a human chicken (seriously). Such things, however, remain minor quibbles when offered Alphona's energetic and creative art and Wilson's heart filled voice for Kamala's point of view. Despite the attention grabbing detail of coming from a Muslim family, Kamala's attempts to balance identity with family is universal for any reader. In addition, there is a joy to Kamala's take as Ms. Marvel which exists despite real danger or confused curiosity about her state which is refreshing in an era of humorless superhero comics. In five short months, this series has become one of the crown jewels of Marvel Comics' catalog of heroes.

New Warriors #6: Chris Yost's sporadically entertaining and often uneven relaunch of the hit 90's superhero team double ships this month, with artists Nick Roche and David Baldeon continuing to fill in for Marcus To. With sales already low enough to being cancellation worries to readers, one wonders if To will even return, or if Marvel will avoid "wasting" him on a doomed title such as this. Regardless, in this issue the new New Warriors run into the Avengers, have a fight of misunderstanding with Thor before bonding over the defeat of a random, body possessing demon. It is a fun, if simple, done in one story which sees Justice and Speedball sever their long ties with the Avengers as well as more amusing lines by Scarlet Spider and Hummingbird. The final pages offer a cliffhanger which showcase how similar the plight of Inhuman and mutant characters seem to be. Overall, this is actually one of the series' stronger issues, even if the entire series seems to continue to miss some critical spark or reason to exist besides there being nowhere else for these characters to be.

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