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Picks of comic book week: The nicest spies donate their proceeds to charity

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Black Widow #1

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The weekly run down of the best comic books for January 8th, 2014!

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Book of the week: Black Widow #1

Having been catapulted into the public eye after stand out portrayals by actress Scarlett Johansson in "Iron Man 2" and last summer's "The Avengers" films, the longtime anti-heroine Black Widow has seen more attention by Marvel Comics within the past three years than she often has gotten in the decades since her Silver Age debut. Created by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and artist Don Heck, Black Widow first appeared in "Tales of Suspense #52" circa 1964, she began life as a Cold War era Soviet spy nemesis for Iron Man. The character proved popular enough to reform in "Avengers #29" just two years later, and she would go on to appear in various other comic titles throughout the 60's, 70's, and 80's. While she was an on and off member of the Avengers during this time as well as a founding member of the short lived "Champions", aside for sharing a title with "Daredevil" for a stretch she rarely got to star in her own solo stories beyond some anthology tales or mini series here and there. This all changed in 2010 when the character was set to appear in "Iron Man 2", which resulted in her first ongoing series as written by Marjorie Liu and Duane Swierczynski. It only lasted eight issues before she seemed to once again be reduced to team or mini series placements once more.

Thankfully, Marvel Comics are trying again less than a year since the character appeared on the big screen with this second attempt at an ongoing series as part of their "All-New Marvel NOW" push. Nathan Edmondson ("Who is Jake Ellis?", "Grifter") teams up with notable artist Phil Noto, whose work spans across the comic book industry but has been best seen in "X-23", "Jonah Hex" and "Uncanny X-Force". A prelude story by the pair has also been offered in this week's "All-New Marvel NOW Point One #1" sampler special, but readers who instead dove into this fresh start will be offered a satisfying and simple opening story which skillfully sets up the status quo. The trend for Black Widow tends to be that she does spy stuff in her own stories and over the top superhero stuff in her various "Avengers" appearances, and this series doesn't seem to break that mold. After all, similar premises have always worked for all of Wolverine's solo titles, right?

As the cover says, Black Widow represents a triple-A threat: "Agent. Avenger. Assassin". During her sporadic off time from major Avengers missions, Natasha takes part in high octane espionage missions for employers across the globe (such as Berlin and Dubai) while living in a lonely apartment in Manhattan in her downtime. The only members of her supporting cast seem to be an alley cat she attempts to resist attaching to and her lawyer/financial manager Isaiah. The set up is that Natasha may still be accepting mercenary/assassin style jobs from various international figures, but her targets must be criminals or otherwise evil figures and the bulk of her proceeds are to go towards charitable funds and other benevolent resources. Unfortunately, Isaiah claims her charity plans are too ambitious for her income despite succeeding in two deadly missions with this first issue, and Natasha's quest for personal atonement for past sins may be a mission which not even she can complete. Her first two missions involve solving a terrorist crisis and saving a mafia honcho from being assassinated by another hired killer. Such "simple" adventures are brought to life with Noto's beautiful artwork and Edmondson having a great voice for his lead character.

This is a rare first issue which establishes its premise and offers two distinct spy adventures within a single issue which doesn't read as the first chapter of a trade collection. It may not reinvent the wheel but what it does offer it offers efficiently and elegantly. It will remain to be seen if this stab at a "Black Widow" series will last any longer than in 2010, but if the quality of this opening issue is any indicator, it certainly deserves to.

Honorable mentions:

Quantum & Woody #7: James Asmus continues on his second arc for Valiant Entertainment's relaunch of one of the funniest superhero teams of the late 90's in taboo shattering and often hilarious fashion. Artist Ming Doyle and regular colorist Jordie Bellaire help present a story which essentially lambastes more than one type of Southern stereotype. Such stereotypes would seem absurd until one realizes how close many figures on "Fox News" come to this. Ex-army soldier and current "superhero" Eric Henderson/Quantum has been duped by his employer at Magnum Security into going into what is supposed to be a suicide mission against a militia enclave in Montana in a scheme for more federal security contracts. Only his brother Woody becomes aware that Eric has been set up, and his word and antics rarely are helpful. While the militia doesn't have a "dirty bomb" as promised, they are misinformed apocalyptic types whose guns and ignorance makes them almost as dangerous. When attempting to manipulate Mr. Magnum's religious hypocrisy fails to save him for long, Woody is forced to once again team with Quantum and choose which of two deranged sides of a war to follow. As always, Asmus' flair for constant one-liners and gut busting dialogue keeps the jokes flowing as Doyle does her best to keep up with art which has to straddle the line between comedy and action at a moment's notice. Admittedly, previous artist Tom Fowler seemed to be a better fit, but Doyle's artwork is still a pleasure to behold. Overall, this series begins 2014 the same way it ended 2013; offering some of the best laughs one can find in superhero comics.

Avengers A.I. #8: Sam Humphries, Andre Araujo and colorist Frank D'Armata proceed with their long term saga of "Hank Pym & the robot Avengers" in a story which continues to place artificial intelligence in the role of "oppressed minority" much as Marvel tends to do with mutants or Inhumans. Unfortunately, Pym's squad of Avengers have mostly failed to reign in the terrorist acts of rogue AI Dimitrios, which has resulted in a new law being passed which orders the immediate termination of any AI who isn't essentially working for the government or another authorized agency. This naturally appalls Pym, as he is visited by Captain America in his attempt to enforce this and take over the mission. Despite her seeming death in "Uncanny Avengers", Rogue also appears in what may be a sure sign that Rick Remender's team book has shifted from "flagship series" to "the crazy man's crazy sandbox in the back" in terms of editorial policy. Considering Rogue's own experiences as an oppressed figure, one would think that she would have more to say about the anti-robot policy; instead she merely trades insults with Doombot. Victor continues to explore the "cyberworld" which Dimitrios rules while Vision continues to act oddly. This is a perfectly enjoyable series with some lesser tier characters, but its opening arc has become its only arc, which has begin to drug on far too long. The artwork is imaginative although not on par with the best of their line. Considering the Avengers' backwards response to robots, this series seems to make Rick Remender's run on "Secret Avengers" seem better than it was.

Iron Man #20: The current arc of "Iron Metropolis" marches on under writer Kieron Gillen's pen and artist Joe Bennett's pencils. Tony Stark and his long lost brother Arno are doing their best to make up for lost time and launch a city of the future within Mandarin City, former stronghold of Iron Man's deceased arch nemesis. Only it seems the schemes of his old enemy are not yet resolved, as his ten alien rings of power have a will all their own. One of which has attached itself to angry blogger Abigail Burns, who now calls herself "Red Burn". The ability with which "Iron Man" comics make enemies out of currently trendy opponents continues to amaze; from "yellow peril" villains in the 60's to leagues of evil Commies until 1991 to Y2K at the start of the century, now it seems blogs have caught the attention of the franchise. As such, this issue is essentially an extended battle sequence between Iron Man and Red Peril, and given that she is a new nemesis it is likely wise to devote some attention to her. A quick meeting with James Rhodes brings the knowledge that the Mandarin's dangerous rings aren't as secure as originally thought. The art pops and overall it offers an exciting sequence, even if it does seem awfully trendy. Considering Gillen also writes the terminally hip "Young Avengers", this is likely no coincidence.

Young Avengers #15: Stick a fork in it, it's done. Kieron Gillen and regular artist Jamie McKelvie end their year long run on the franchise that Allen Heinberg built (and mostly abandoned), having produced fifteen issues within twelve months. This is a commendable feat, albeit one possible with many artists aiding in the schedule down the line. Much like the previous issue, this finale offers the second part of the "resolution" for the series featuring a whole host of artists handling different characters. This time around, McKelvie is flanked by fellow artists Ming Doyle, Becky Cloonan and Joe Quinones. Nothing earth shattering develops but the two issues to breath is refreshing and allowed the characters to cement themselves for the run. Noh-Varr tries his best to come to terms with the end of his relationship with Kate Bishop, Prophet comes to terms with Loki's betrayal and Speed's return, and everyone seems to learn that sexual orientation is often ambiguous once labels are stripped away. The explanation as to who "Not-Patriot" is and how Speed is back is fairly ludicrous, but at least it didn't spark a six issue crossover event. Despite falling sales, the finale of this book was done on the creative team's terms, which is all for the best as all which has to be said is said by this last issue. This series was less about a plot and more about an eclectic bunch of young people who had a wild and strange trip which changed most of them in some way; things like super-powers or dimensions just served as visual metaphors. Much like "The Ultimates", this series had its pulse on the current trends of youth culture so firmly that it will seem very dated in five years time, but unlike "The Ultimates" its tone was far more optimistic and inclusive. Rather than make a fuss about their mostly homosexual/bisexual cast, the series treated them the same as if they were Peter Parker and Mary Jane, which is the best way to be inclusive. Those looking for a more straightforward take at young superheroes will get "New Warriors" in April, but for what this was it was enjoyable for the moment.

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