Reviews of the pickings from March 13th, 2013! That's a lot of threes!
Book of the Week: Archer & Armstrong #8
When tasked with relaunching Valiant Entertainment's former 1990's property, writer Fred Van Lente applied the same craft and skills to it that he employed for years co-writing "Incredible Hercules" for Marvel Comics. Thus, a franchise which was essentially a buddy action/comedy which involved immortals, mythology, conspiracies and one destiny prone teenager seemed a natural fit. This issue is the penultimate issue of his second arc on this series, alongside Emanuela Lupacchino ("X-Factor") on pencils, Guillermo Ortego on inks and Matt Milla's on colors. As usual the plot involves no less than the fate of the world itself involving ancient secrets and exaggerations of cabals and other real life figures. While this saga has started with the immortal drunken poet Armstrong and the naive teenage religious assassin Archer, it has subsequently grown to include additional characters. This arc has seen the introduction of the Geomancer, a figure who can literally speak to the earth itself, who has been guarded throughout history by Gilad, Armstrong's equally immortal and far more violent brother.
Picking up from last month's issue, the titular duo have united with Gilad and the newest Geomancer, former corporate spokeswoman Kay McHenry. Their enemies are her former employers at Zorn Capital, who are part of a cult involving "the Null" - who have sought to literally unmake reality since 212 B.C. Gilad has also sought to end this threat since ancient times, but now everything seems to be coming to a head. Our heroes manage to breach the cult at their remote golf course resort in Greenland to try to essentially stop the un-making of existence. Unfortunately, Mr. Zorn manages to unleash what appears to be a living virus into the mind of Archer, which operates to set up the process with which "the Null" erases reality. Meanwhile, the perpetually hilarious murderous Wall Street tycoons, "The One Percent", manage to make an ally of someone from the previous arc.
Lupacchino's pencils follow well from the work of the last arc's artist, Clayton Henry. The lines are smooth and there is plenty of detail without the art seeming too stiff to flow when action starts. Naturally, most artists who work with Van Lente have to also be capable of drawing physical comedy on occasion (especially with facial expressions), and Lupacchino shines in this regard. Much like with many great titles, Van Lente manages to keep his arcs short (four issues a pop) while having enough progress happen per issue to please monthly readers as well as "trade waiters". Most of the comedy is in the dialogue, and with more characters to bounce lines off of play to Van Lente's strengths. Yet at the same time, as showcased in works such as "Incredible Hercules" or "Taskmaster", Van Lente can change tone on a dime to suspense or drama without the story skipping a beat.
"Incredible Hercules" made many critics "best of" lists back when it was running, yet "Archer & Armstrong" has seemed to slip through the cracks due to being part of a lessor known company like Valiant. Yet this series has so far been just as fun and exciting as that prior work has been, and is free to go along its own path in a fairly smaller universe. So long as one is willing to see real life religious iconography or organizations exaggerated into comic book plots without being offended, "Archer & Armstrong" is a romp every issue.
Fearless Defenders #2: Another of the recent "Marvel NOW" launches, it is the second title to bare the name "Defenders" in its title within less than six month's time. It bares no resemblance to the last "Defenders" series written by Matt Fraction which was cancelled last year, and its only tie to the longtime franchise in general is the appearance of one of the team's members. Cullen Bunn ("Venom") has been writing a story in which Valkyrie is attempting to prevent the threat of the "Doommaiden" which is essentially involving at least one additional female Marvel superhero per issue. In the debut issue Valkyrie (Brunhilde) ran into Misty Knight and her archeologist friend Dr. Annabelle Riggs dealing with a MacGuffin which rose zombie vikings from their graves. The plot involves a mysterious group run by the equally mysterious Caroline LeFey, who kidnaps former "New Mutants" character Dani Moonstar to attempt to leach onto her past as a Valkyrie herself. The other heroines make their way to Asgardia, a floating city of Asgardians via Thor's title, where they encounter other figures such as Hela (Norse goddess of the underworld) and Hippolyta, Greek queen of the Amazons. The art is by Will Sliney and the colors are by Veronica Gandini.
Two issues in, this title is a prime example of a new launch which seems to be neither terrible or excellent, and seems to be missing just a few cogs to make it the latter. Part of the dilemma is that the plot about a lost race of "older Valkyrie" who are now a threat resembles Kieron Gillen's run on "Thor" circa 2010 about the Disir. It also suggests that Valkyrie is the last of her kind present on Midguard, which ignores Sif over in "Journey into Mystery". The angle of Valkyrie being tasked with forming an alliance of female warriors and never being able to get around to it before a disaster happened is interesting and has ties back to the "Lady Liberators" story of the silver age, and Bunn has a good voice for his characters. Sliney's artwork is fine although it does rely on some awkward poses. It took Bunn a couple of arcs on "Venom" to find his footing; hopefully it doesn't take as long here.
Obligatory Mention: Age of Ultron #2
Marvel Comics' latest event du jour continues on as a weekly item, written by perennial "event" writer Brian M. Bendis and vaulted-but-slow artist Bryan Hitch (alongside Paul Neary's inks and Paul Mounts' colors). The gist is that Ultron has somehow successfully destroyed and conquered the world, leaving much of it in ruins and leaving only a few rag tag survivors. The mystery of course is how, which is a good way to come up with "cool moments" and then work backwards - the traditional way "events" are written. This issue splits its focus between a scarred Black Widow and a grizzled Moon Knight who are holed up in one of Nick Fury's safe houses in San Francisco, and the rest of the cast in NYC. What is left of the Avengers in NYC go over with Spidey what they think happened to them, and Capt. America stops moping and stands up in the last page.
Considering how acclaimed Hitch's artwork has been for over a decade, it is a little disturbing that some of his faces seem a bit "samey". This issue reads very quickly and the story seems to be progressing a little slowly for a series which is sold at $3.99 an issue. The weekly schedule mitigates this somewhat, and this issue sees things coming together slowly from the previous one. Still, the dilemma here is that this is a stunt first, a premise second, and a narrative a distant third.