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Picks of comic book week: Even space wrestlers have hecklers

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Saga #19

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Book of the week: Saga #19

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Like a reliable old friend, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples' hit series "Saga" is back after a brief winter hibernation to once again entertain fans of the series, and fans of good comics in general. So far, the book's schedule of "six issues, two to three month break for trade waiters and repeat" has worked wonders for it in terms of sales, popularity, and recognition. In less than a third of the time, "Saga" has quickly become Image Comics' second best seller, after "The Walking Dead" (which is aided by a hit TV show). Although this week's long awaited issue doesn't have quite the action and splashes of the previous one at the end of January, it remains a shining example of why everything this series does works.

After a climatic confrontation against several of the mercenaries hired to end them, the hybrid space family of Marko, Alana, their baby Hazel, their ghost babysitter Izabel and Marko's mom have survived some time without incident. Hazel is now an adorable toddler being looked after by her "stay at home dad" who takes her to parks while wearing disguises. The more interesting wrinkle is Alana's job as a member of the "Open Circuit", which is a hilarious combination of pro-wrestling, mainstream superhero comics, and kabuki theater. The issue introduces some more minor characters as well as a family pet, and spends most of its' time setting up a new status quo before a final page that hints at its' end in simple, yet dramatic, terms. Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV is still missing, as his wife gives birth to their son - heir to a kingdom which has been built by picking friends wisely between two warring worlds.

What is there to say which hasn't been said already about this series? Staples' art is beautiful as always, creating a unique world of dozens of worlds and species yet boiling all of the elements down into things which the common reader can easily digest. It has all the density of more well known space opera universes only without bogging down the reader in so much useless techno-babble. Instead, Vaughn wisely focuses on establishes his characters and their dynamics, and this issue perfectly sets up things to come. One could argue that the "Open Circuit" is a cute method of breaking the fourth wall of the comic book industry and poke fun at some of the tropes (cyclical superhero stories, heckler fans), but considering Vaughan himself worked on such comics for years ("Ultimate X-Men", "Runaways", "Logan"), it comes off as an imaginative poke rather than stuffy commentary. Considering that the latest plot line is a classic trope of soap operas, it is perhaps a bit of meta commentary or elaborate foreshadowing. Despite the dramatic foreshadowing, this issue offers quite a few laughs, some sweet moments, and as always some of the best opening splash pages in comics.

At the end of January, the climax of "Saga"'s third story arc seemed like a finale, but in the end it merely planted seeds for a future harvest. After a few months to grow through winter, now "Saga" is back for the new season as if it never left, delighting all who choose to read it.

Honorable mentions:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 30th Anniversary Special: As the cover states, 2014 represents the 30th anniversary of one of the best known comic book franchises of "generation X" and that means IDW has a chance to pay tribute using talent old and new. To this end, we get a jam issue featuring the creative teams and various comic book incarnations of the Turtles from 1984 until now. The cover itself represents the first collaboration by original creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in some twenty years. The rest of the book features 6-7 page stories representing various eras of TMNT comics. These include a gritty "Mirage Studios" style strip from Eastman (circa 2012), Dean Clarrain and Chris Allen doing a "Archie Comics' TMNT Adventures" tale, Gary Carlson and Frank Fosco revisiting their mid to late 90's Image Comics continuity, a Jim Lawson strip to represent "late Mirage", and finally a Tom Waltz/Dan Duncan jam to end on the IDW era. In addition, Turtle artists new (Ross Campbell, Andy Kuhn) and old (Steve Lavigne, Michael Dooney) provide some pin-up posters. All of the strips are short and sweet, offering some expected action and for fans of previous incarnations, a last dose of nostalgia. Simply seeing Raphael and Ninjara again, "Archie style", will likely be a treat for readers of a certain age. One could argue that $7.99 is a bit to pay for a jam issue which isn't as essential to the current TMNT comics that IDW publishes. However, those people may not be fans of the franchise for as long who appreciate the collection of talent assembled for this work - including those who haven't had steady gigs in some time. Hollywood studios often charge a higher price for doses of nostalgia for generation X'ers, with quality at questionable levels. If you're a Ninja Turtle fan with eight dollars to spare, this 30th anniversary tome will put a smile on your face.

Invincible #111: Few comics seem to have as much of a self mocking cover as this one. Robert Kirkman and regular artist Ryan Ottley provide a cover which makes fun of relying on #1 issues as well as "Violence! Mayhem! Horror! Misery!" (the DC Comics editorial credo) as advertisements to sell superhero comics. Yet the story within plays such tropes dead straight by having one ally of Invincible reveal his wicked hand with full vigor, killing off a longtime supporting cast member and maiming the (pregnant) female lead, Eve. All that is missing is a scene on a bridge with some pumpkin bombs. In fairness, Ottley's artwork is as sharp as ever, and this is easily a more riveting arc than some of the previous ones that went off the rails (which are referenced here). On the other hand, at this stage one can almost imagine Kirkman planning stories around which characters he has left who haven't been killed or maimed yet, and then plotting backwards. Even his titular lead was raped last month, for little other reason that Kirkman imagined that male superheroes are rarely raped in mainstream comics (especially by physically stronger female villains). Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were wise enough to leave "Fantastic Four" after 100 issues, and one can forgive Kirkman for having to stretch his narrative muscles to come up with new story lines after over a decade of "Invincible". That said, it becomes harder to become as psyched about this next arc with some of the motions behind the curtain seeming as obvious as they are, and that will be quite a hurdle for this year of "Invincible" to overcome.

Batman Beyond Universe #10: This reprint anthology of DC Comics' "digital first" series is now midway through its' "Justice Lords Beyond" story line, and has easily reached the peak of its' quality in at least a year and a half. The nature of this arc allows Kyle Higgins and Thony Silas' "Batman Beyond" strip to be a part of the same tale that Christos Gage and Dexter Soy's "JLU" strip is handling, allowing for an over sized dose of cohesive adventure. With Wonder Woman having made her long awaited return from her mission to a parallel world (one depicted in the "Justice League" season two episode "A Better World") has sparked Terry McGinnis' travel to that alternate dimension at the same time as the rest of the corrupted "Justice Lords" cross over into his reality. So, as the Justice League find themselves outmatched and captured by their darker counterparts, Terry is forced to team up with his counterpart on the other side of the looking glass - who is a mask carrying member of the "Jokerz" gang! There is a lot of action contained within this issue, and overall the pace of this story is moving along at a quick enough pace that neither the exposition or the aforementioned brawls feel out of place or last too long. DC fans who want to delve into this "Beyond" world but don't want to read the overly grim and vile "Future's End" series as teased on "free comic book day", would be wise to jump onto this for a more entertaining alternative.

Original Sin #2: Two issues in, and Marvel Comics' latest summer crossover is actually good enough to feel like a story which isn't obligatory! This isn't to suggest that the tale by Jason Aaron, artist Martin Deodato and colorist Frank Martin is actually spectacular, but it is at the very least mediocre or even slightly good, which easily surpasses the low bar for crossover events set by fare such as "Fear Itself" or "Age of Ultron". Aaron's zeal for oddball adventure stories as well as utilizing weird but forgotten villains such as Extrerminatrix (from Grant Morrison's "Marvel Boy" circa 2000) and his own favorite "Ghost Rider" villain, the Orb creates a story which suggests the best of both angles for most crossovers - the revelation of dark superhero secrets to cause infighting as well as the elevation of some actual villains. To this end the Orb is on the verge of becoming the Marvel Comics version of DC Comics' "Psycho Pirate"; a villain who is bizarre and not terribly threatening on his own, but whom fate and circumstance made into a very notable figure in his universe. The universe spanning search for the killers of the Watcher seems to converge on the pair in Manhattan, whose exploits have driven some powerful "Mindless Ones" mad by giving them minds (and consciousness). The artwork by Deodato is up to the same par as his work in "Secret Avengers" or "New Avengers", even if he seems better at stock pose panels than flowing action. There are holes in Aaron's script - such as the Punisher feeling vastly out of place and Daredevil being present in NYC instead of California - and the overall flow feels like something initially imaged for a special ops mission in the "Marvel: Avengers Alliance" Facebook game. Regardless, a year where the major crossover event is actually readable is a rare year indeed.

Amazing Spider-Man #2: Dan Slott and long time reoccurring regular artist Humberto Ramos (alongside colorist Edgar Delgado and inker Victor Olazaba) continue along with their hit relaunch of the web-slinger's main title after fifteen months of being possessed by Dr. Octopus. To this end he has sought to switch the tone of the series back towards being more fun and optimistic than it had been during the "edgy" era of "superior Spider-Man", although with such zeal that certain longstanding plot points are being tied up almost too neatly. To this end, not only does Peter Parker not seem to recall or react to all the people Ock murdered within his name and body, but Ock's fiancé Anna Maria Marconi accepts the mind-swapping explanation immediately. She is literally told that the man she loved and thought she knew was in fact a world threatening, mass murdering super villain who had stolen his form (who she also figured out was really Spider-Man), and her reaction is to bake cookies, take a walk and then continue to be a supporting figure at his job. One supposes that it is now a "major left turn" to avoid bogging a series down in months of angst or turmoil, but one could also argue that there is a risk of going too far in the other direction where actions lack consequences, and therefore weight, in Slott's run. More acceptable is Spidey's Avengers pals coming around to the truth, as well as rekindling his friendship with Johnny Storm. The issue excels by providing some rare and genre savvy support from the very same superheroes who usually attempt to murder each other in crossover events every year. There are also action packed appearances by Electro (with his silly starfish tattoo), Black Cat and the "soon to be oh so important" Silk, but these feel more obligatory. The conclusion ends with Peter Parker eager to take his new company (built by Ock) into a bold new direction, which the caption already teases will fail (because "that ol' Parker luck" apparently means Spider-Man is cursed so long as he's noble). Anna Maria Marconi was one of the highlights of the "superior" run, as a far more interesting romantic figure than Carlie Cooper ever was, and it is good that she's not been abandoned and Slott is at least teasing the possibility of her becoming friends (or more) with the "real" Spider-Man. Although it doesn't come without a price, it is suddenly refreshing to see Spider-Man this fun and optimistic again.

Daredevil #3: Mark Waid, Chris Samness, and colorist Javier Rodriguez continue along their consistent train of excellence in detailing the continued adventures of the "man without fear" in one of his best runs in his fifty years in print. That said, the change of venue from New York to San Francisco has led to an initial story arc which is a bit simpler than some of their recent fare. There is a reference to "Saga" as well as an admission by Daredevil (or Waid) that the change in setting has put him off his game and thus more easily tricked. To this end his attempt to get to the bottom of some bizarre behavior by the on and off again vigilante/crime lord "the Shroud" seems to led him into not one, but two traps sprung by the extremely eccentric shadow-man. Readers are also reintroduced to Daredevil's old enemy "the Owl", who appears to be head of organized crime in this city instead of the overused Wilson Fisk. Samnee gives him a minor redesign, or at least steps away from some extreme versions of him (such as used in "Superior Foes of Spider-Man") to great effect. Meanwhile, the fate of Foggy Nelson is revealed as Daredevil's supporting cast continue to deliver on great scenes by themselves. As always, another great installment of a terrific run. Waid has the voice of Murdock down pact while the artwork is always among the best offered by Marvel Comics. Mainstream superhero comics done as consistently well as this merely expose how inferior other creative teams in the "big two" may be at their craft. It is a steak which ruins the taste of fast food for readers, and thank goodness it is here.

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