The best reads for comic book week, January 22nd, 2014!
Book of the week: Black Widow #2
Continuing the tradition of most new launches (or relaunches) of the "Marvel NOW" editorial era, the newest "Black Widow" ongoing series attempt ships two issues in its debut month. This reveals that the creative team of Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto are working together in some harmony as the two have produced roughly two and a half issues of material for this series in time for it all to hit comic stores within a span of three weeks. At any rate, this is proving to be a glorious way to introduce readers to the first "Black Widow" ongoing series to be released after "The Avengers" left theaters in 2012. As with many of the best comics, it proves difficult to review as it is a work which is better experienced than discussed - as are most true productions of art.
Unlike most ongoing series, even Mark Waid's excellent "Daredevil", Edmondson and Noto display not only a brilliant voice and visual for their heroine, but high expectations of their audience. This is not a series which seeks to lead readers by the hand with strict, six part arcs which rigidly begin with parts one through six in bold numbers. Instead it harks back to a simpler time when every issue of a comic book was expected to stand by itself as a complete story, even if it still had long term subplots which spread across many issues. This is a practice which many readers say they want, but don't often embrace in terms of sales in favor for "four to six issues or bust" graphic novels sliced into monthly bites. Thus, while the last issue set up the premise and this one builds upon it, it is by no means a rigid second chapter of a blunt four or six part novel. It is a story which works by itself and is only enhanced by having read previous episodes.
Natasha's latest operation brings her to Shanghai where she is attempting to rescue the son of an organized crime figure from other similar figures. As she notes, her world outside of the Avengers or even "SHIELD" rarely is one of black or white, but bad or worse. Despite Natasha's own desire to atone for her bloody past and her attempt to be a flawless operative, her mistakes during this incident due to the routine of such affairs very quickly land her in jeopardy. She finds herself at the mercy of a new enemy named Iron Scorpion, one of many consequences of her dark past, and she has to utilize her own surroundings and guile to survive - which is now a common tactic in how Noto and Edmondson are executing their run. Meanwhile, her long suffering attorney Isiah proves that there's more to him than managing her finances and giving her someone else to talk to besides an alley cat. This issue, like the last, is all about mood and execution than a complicated plot - even one that has a minor twist. There is a beauty and elegance to Noto's work, from pencils to colors, even when the action becomes quite frantic and violent. Readers used to consider every panel of an Alex Ross production a piece of art, and it looks like Noto is quickly becoming a peer of such quality.
Much like her namesake, Black Widow is both beautiful and deadly, subtle and violent, quiet and malicious. The art captures this elegantly while Edmondson is on a roll depicting her as a heroine who may dislike who she was and how she is, but uses it to do greater good for others in the only way she knows how. Readers who grew to love the character on the big or small screen have a chance to find three different and distinct stories with her on comic book shelves this month, and would be fools to pass it up.
Batman Beyond Universe #6: DC Comics' enjoyable anthology of reprinted "digital first" material from their 2041 timeline begins the new year the same as it ended the last; offering readers great adventures of franchises that may have debuted on TV but are not thrilling in full color pages. As the cover suggests, the lead story is the "Justice League Unlimited" tale by Christos Gage and Iban Coello (with Rob Lean on inks and Ulises Arreola on colors) and it features a full on invasion by Superman's old nemesis, Brainiac. Skillfully building on material from "Superman: the Animated Series" as well as the "JLU" show and producing new inspiration from it here. The entire squad is forced to attempt to protect the earth from Brainiac attempting to access its knowledge before destroying, which includes not only hackers but new characters on the fringes. Utilizing skills honed on "Avengers: The Initiative" and "Avengers Academy", Gage is a master of juggling dozens of characters and channeling their voices even if they may only have a page or two to shine. Brainiac's motives prove to be more entrenched than even Superman can guess, and set up a future installment which seems even better. Left with a hard act to follow, the "Batman Beyond" tale by Kyle Higgins and artist Thony Silas does its best with a high stakes hostage crisis sparked by Man-Bat and his equally mutated army of followers. This forces Terry and old man Wayne to team up for the first time in a year to attempt a rescue as Commissioner Barbara Gordon tries to buy them time with the new mayor. This segment is mostly action, stealth, and banter, but that's perfectly fine and effective. As always, this series provides a one-two punch of quality to readers tired of the "New 52" and want some more sanity for general audiences from DC Comics.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Utrom Empire #1: IDW Comics kicks off 2014 with this replacement for the usual secondary "TMNT: Micro Series" book. Much as "Secret History of the Foot Clan" sought to embellish the past of the Shredder and the aforementioned clan, this seeks to pick up with the last arc about General Krang in the parent title left off. Despite having lost Planet Neutrino due to the assistance of the Ninja Turtles, Krang has continued with his long term efforts to save his people while continuing a path of conquest across the universe. On earth he poses as the tinpot general of Burnow Island, which poses as a front for his operations to create (or fund) research for the creation of enhanced soldiers or weapons to wage in his conquest. Baxtor Stockman was a pawn of his in that regard, but now seeks to undermine Krang's desire to enslave earth. Neutrino scientist Professor Honeycutt, now trapped in the Fugitoid robot body, seeks to escape being exploited by the warlord as well as find some way to avenge those he has lost. Half the issue embellishes the past of Kang and his Utrom race, and his father who was the former emperor of their species. The rest follows recent developments and even has time to touch base with the Turtles themselves. The story is by Paul Allor with art by Andy Kuhn, who used to draw for the regular series. The story manages to juggle all these diverse characters well along with continuing to forge ahead on a continuity which both pays homage to the past as well as builds upon it in new ways - the cornerstone of the IDW Ninja Turtle experience. As the parent title sees our heroes take a break from over the top sci-fi fare, this series will fill the gap of those who adore the more space affiliated affairs.
Indestructible Hulk #18: Mark Waid's secondary Marvel title is heading towards a relaunch and a renumbering, and some sign of it may be in this issue. Three artists (Jheremy Raapack, Miguel Sepulveda, and Tom Grummett) are credited with pencils while Val Staples ties it all together on colors. It is a continued tie in to "Inhumanity", which is the aftermath of "Infinity" which seeks to make Inhumans into the real "new mutants" of Marvel. Presumably this may be mirrored in the "cinematic universe" to get around the fact that Fox Studios still own the film license to the X-Men and mutants in general. At any rate, Bruce Banner's attempt to fix the mess from the crossover led to a fight between the Hulk and more "established" genius types from the Avengers - Iron Man, Beast, and Hank Pym. Despite all of them having bouts of insanity or flaws, their distrust of Banner's work leads to a mess that only complicated the situation. By the time the heroes stop fighting among themselves, it turns out that those on Banner's staff are closet Inhumans. The art manages to work despite it being from three different men, while Waid's script manages to play with the crossover in a unique way. This run seems to rely more on high concept ideas than elegant execution, but at the very least Waid continues to challenge the jade giant in new ways. Regardless, this issue is more chaotic than the last as it serves as a stopgap for the next.
Iron Man #20: The cover may say that this is another "Inhumanity" installment, but in practice Kieron Gillen and artist Agustin Padilla merely use it as a tool to further their own long term story line. Tony Stark's desire to build a new city in the ashes of the land his enemy the Mandarin once ruled alongside his new found brother Arno has hit a speed bump of late. The alien rings which once empowered the Mandarin have formed a collective consciousness and are finding new bearers of the rings to pit against Iron Man in revenge. The fact that this is a naked imitation if some "Green Lantern" tropes is obvious, but it also is a clever idea to create new villains from the ashes of an old one. The story follows a down and out drunk named Victor whose self destructive life as well as his envy of his brother and father come to a head when they are all revealed as closet Inhumans. While his own actions ruin his chance to join Madame Medusa's kingdom, he gains the latest ring as the darkness manipulating Exile. There is an obligatory fight with Iron Man but at heart its Gillen's attempt to introduce another new villain to his franchise. Considering how desperately Iron Man's rogues gallery has needed to modernize, it's valiant work to forge new antagonists to build better stories with in the future.
Mighty Avengers #5: Al Ewing writes the penultimate issue of this run which is flanked by "artist" Greg Land; Valero Schiti takes over next month. That is glorious news as the only thing holding this series back from true greatness was the stiff and lifeless Photoshopped panels offered up by Land. As the cover suggests, the membership of "superior Spider-Man" comes to an end as the deranged villain in the web-slinger's body reveals his true intention and provokes a fight between Luke Cage, his wife Jessica Jones, and guest star She-Hulk. Meanwhile, Spectrum and Falcon lead a mission to investigate the fallen city of Attilan in the Hudson River with the rest of the members. They're competing against not only a deranged CEO and his newly empowered minion Quickfire, but a cabal of supernatural beings that "the slayer formerly known as Blade" is fighting. Highlights include White Tiger and Power Man taking on a triple headed werewolf when the older heroes find themselves overwhelmed. Lowlights include Luke Cage and his allies being unable to tell when a deranged super-villain has possessed a peer's body and is acting just like any villain of the week, complete with minions for hire. Yet Ewing finds a sense of humor amid the action and chaos and has created a very unique (and diverse) team title which has quickly found a voice and identity all its own.