Review-a-Thon: Incredible Hulk #4, Scarlet Spider #1

I know, I know: "Where are the retrospectives, Gary?" I've been terribly remiss in bringing any historical pieces to this blog in the last few weeks. There's a very good reason for that, and one that you'll get within a few short weeks if all goes well. (Here's a hint: It likely involves a Kickstarter project you'll want to get in on.) I'll go back to those history pieces very soon, but in the meantime, here are two more reviews, culled from this week's releases. Without further ado...

THE INCREDIBLE HULK #4 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Jason Aaron, Whilce Portacio, Allen Martinez, Rick Ketcham, Arif Prianto & Veronica Gandini

For better or worse, "Hulk Vs. Banner!" begins this issue with "Island of 1000 Hulks," without the series' first artist (and most of his countless assistants) and with another Image Comics alum, Whilce Portacio. With the last three issues' pretense out of the way, the Hulk and the "government-sanctioned mad squad of crazy scientist assassins" headed by Amanda Von Doom (no relation!) go to kick Banner's butt. From the title of this portion, you can guess--sort of--what they find there.

If you've been following the series for its short duration, you know what you're apt to find here: Bruce Banner playing the mad scientist role to the hilt; the Hulk providing the voice of reason; Amanda Von Doom being hot for the Hulk's bod while insisting she's got no relation to the famous Von Doom; and dozens of monsters and widespread destruction. At the very least, this issue brings Banner and the Hulk together for the battle fans have wanted to see since they separated in Fear Itself.

I don't envy Jason Aaron's assignment month in and out. It's clear he's done a lot of thinking about this new status quo embodied in the storyline's title. But is it really a place the series should go? The Hulk is the hero, and without the "monster's" influence, Banner is the villain. You can take it that way, or you can take it differently, considering that the Hulk was the receptacle for every emotion Banner chose to repress. And while these scenarios should lend an air of tragedy to Banner's saga, the sad truth is that Aaron only seems to know how to play this card one way: Bruce has gone around-the-bend looneytunes, period, end of sentence. He's invading military bases and absconding with "gamma juice" (?!?) with which he churns out mutated animal after mutated animal.

At the very least, I'd believed the departure of Silvestri would be an asset to the series; after all, it's hard to establish any consistency with a multitude of artists contributing to each issue. Unfortunately, while Portacio's art is much cleaner than his predecessor's, his execution leaves much to be desired. Characters are awkwardly posed and out-of-proportion, and the finished art--full of crosshatching and vacillating between two very different inkers--only lets down any promise offered by the new penciler. We need artistic consistency, and we need it yesterday.

In short: Nothing's changed, move along, move along. Burn It.

SCARLET SPIDER #1 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Chris Yost, Ryan Stegman, Michael Babinski & Marte Gracia

This isn't your father's Spider-Man. That much is obvious, from the cover whose logo conjures memories of the jagged Spidey logo from the nineties' animated series, to the sell that promises "All of the Power, None of the Responsibility" in the same typeface as which adorns Marvel's own Wolverine. What this is, however, is a whole mess of webby fun.

Kaine has traveled a rocky road to arrive where he is. The imperfect clone of Spider-Man (about whom I wrote a duo of in-depth articles here and here), who became a stone-cold killer after the Jackal, his creator, rejected him, has recently been cured of the degenerative condition that caused him near-constant agony since birth. In "Spider-Island" he saved New York City and perhaps the world. He's picked up a few things from his "brother" Peter, and perhaps the other clone, Ben Reilly, as well. In a new town, with a new lease on life, he tries to suppress his more violent instincts--only to find that it isn't quite that easy.

When Kaine began appearing in Amazing Spider-Man several months ago, during "Grim Hunt" and even "Spider-Island," I thought there were flashes of the character I remembered, the one who prospered under the pen of "Clone Saga" architect J.M. DeMatteis. Still, some things about the "new" Kaine really rankled. Thankfully, Scarlet Spider scribe Chris Yost really seems to be familiar with those early stories--particularly Spider-Man: The Lost Years and Redemption--and lets those sagas inform his take on the villain-turned-wannabe-hero. Peter Parker's angst has been turned, twisted and amped up to "11" in Kaine, a character unsure if he wants to be redeemed. It's amazing what he's been given these last few months, and still, he's suspicious to a fault. He still relies on some of his bad behaviors, and when he tries to do the right thing, it backfires. Can anything smooth the rough edges of his soul?

Speaking of rough edges, the artistic team of Ryan Stegman and Michael Babinski, aided and abetted by colorist Marte Gracia...has none. Seriously. I've watched Stegman and Babinski work on a few projects, like the "Red She-Hulk" back-up stories in Incredible Hulk, as well as their own four-issue She-Hulks series, but this is the book destined to make spidery stars of them both. And, dear God do I want page 14 (you'll know the one)! Kaine's soul is bared in this story, with Stegman's facial expressions telling stories all by themselves. The fact there are no costumes for the majority of this story is a terrific asset.

Yes, that's no misprint: About the only piece of the puzzle not provided in this outstanding introductory story is the new Scarlet Spider's actual costume, but with the darkness inherent in the character, it's not missed. In fact, were there not the need to hide Kaine's face--because it just so happens to also be the face of ol' Peter Parker--I would want every issue to be just like this. No tights? No problem!

If you were scared that this story would relaunch the whole nineties "Clone Saga" all over again: Don't fear. This is the tale of a darker Spider-Man. It's spooky, and it's a thorny road the Scarlet Spider will travel. Let's walk the road with him, yes?

If you enjoyed the Marvel Point One one-shot, you'll love this one. Buy It.



Looking Back, Looking Forward: Defenders #2 & Dead Man's Run #1, Reviewed

I had a great time at last weekend's Amazing Arizona Comic-Con, and can't wait to show everyone the photos and sketches from the event! Meantime, let's dig in and review one of last week's Marvel books (Defenders #2) followed by an advance review of Aspen's thrilling new miniseries, Dead Man's Run, whose first issue hits stores on January 18!

DEFENDERS #2 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson & Sonia Oback

They say confession's good for the soul. Very well, then. I have this to confess: Defenders isn't the Non-Team™ of the past, which I loved. Two issues in, that much is abundantly clear.

On paper, all the hallmarks of the team's previous iterations are here: We've got Doctor Strange at the core of the group, aided by Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer. The Hulk even appeared in the first issue to provide the team's new raison d'etre (only to speak some horrendously un-Hulkish dialogue and leap away). Replacing the often-gruff Hulk on the team is his (ex?) wife, Betty Ross, having become the Red She-Hulk, whom Marvel's finest still can't manage to name with remote originality. Also aboard because it seems Strange can't be bothered to remember his martial arts training or whip up some teleportation spells is Daniel Rand'kai, the chop-socky Iron Fist, who's rich enough to ride everyone around in a private jet. And on this first adventure, they attempt to stop the Black Hulk, a remnant from the Fear Itself series, but are diverted by several wonderfully Silver Age-y concepts tossed in a blender. Prester John, wielder of the Evil Eye, now leads a group of the High Evolutionary's New Men to prepare for the creature's coming to Wundagore Mountain and the mystical treasure that awaits there.

All the while, I can't help but feel we've been through it all before.

Certainly Matt Fraction writes a great Iron Fist, as he co-wrote his series with Ed Brubaker some years ago. Certainly too there are enough madcap concepts to make Defenders go forward for a long, long time. Certainly the pieces of a "good" Defenders team are here in body. Unfortunately, the team is bereft of the soul that made it a moderate hit in its seventies incarnation.

Part of the trouble was glimpsed last month, when Strange enjoyed a fling with a co-ed who wore Clea's tights. (Okay, maybe not literally, but try looking at their designs and not imagining Doc's ex.) The Silver Surfer's more alien than he's been in some time (and is an absolute non-factor in this second tale). Namor's, well, his typical pompous self. The less said about the Hulk's cameo, the better. And instead of the sword-wielding Valkyrie and the millionaire playboy Nighthawk, we've got the Red She-Hulk (who now has an unusual transformation mechanism--after we were told she could change at will during "Heart of the Monster") and Iron Fist. (Okay, Danny's kind of an upgrade, you might argue, but man, Kyle Richmond was that team's heart.)

Also distracting--but terribly indulgent to all the "hardcore fans" out there-- are the little blurbs at the bottom of every story page. They either hint at upcoming storylines for this book, or are meaningless throwaway lines designed to pander to the base that's been reading for years. ("Werewolf By Night Nurse," I'm looking at you.) It's not the seventies anymore, and we shouldn't act like it is.

The only things that leave this book remotely enjoyable are the absolutely loony adventures the like of which Brian Michael Bendis wouldn't even touch, and the wonderfully stylish artwork of the Dodsons, who've been gone from the corners of the Marvel Universe I frequent for too long. Really, I'm hoping the series kicks up another few notches next month. The MacGuffin has been revealed, and the biggest battle of the series so far has begun. Will those two key points be enough to save this latest Defenders series from extinction?

Quick Verdict: Skip It.

DEAD MAN'S RUN #1 - Aspen Comics, $3.50
By Greg Pak, Tony Parker & David Curiel
Created by Ben Roberts

What a difference an issue makes!

Okay, it's true: I enjoyed Dead Man's Run #0 back in October. Ben Roberts' high-concept of a "jailbreak from Hell" was enticing, and that first story set up enough of the groundwork for me to be intrigued at what was coming next. All the while as I read the story, centered around Captain Frank Romero's descent into the realm for which he was a mere prison guard, I wondered how the events would play into the actual six-issue miniseries when it finally began. I knew that Sam Tinker, only briefly involved in the zero issue's events, would grow into the protagonist role, and that something would likely happen to his sister.

And yet, here I was, surprised at how much I outright loved Dead Man's Run #1 this month.

As Sam descends into the realm of the prison, I was immediately struck by the book's claustrophobic feel. It should feel that way, with the walls closing in, and an increasing sensation that there is no escape. Tony Parker succeeds in bringing writer Greg Pak's visions to uncanny life here, whether those visions include the reality of the outside world or the stark terror of the jailhouse's walls. His layouts are spot-on, and David Curiel appropriately uses colors to shift the tone--bright at the beginning, muted and haunting as time goes on.

I'm anxious to see what Pak has in store for Sam and Captain Romero, and that's in no small part due to the savvy pacing of the last issue and this one. The script is terrifically accessible, clearly defining the main characters in this insane world. Romero and Sam have a terrific conflict between them, and I'm sure it'll only grow when we finally discover what exactly has become of Sam's sister Juniper. And the jail itself, with its prisoners, guards, and their various abilities, is delightfully eerie, blending the best bits of the places Sam's supposed to be.

The only weak link in this entire episode comes early, when Pak suddenly flashes back to a time in Sam and Juniper's childhood. While it's perfectly all right to give a brief flashback--especially given the circumstance during which it arises--it's not drawn or colored any differently from the rest of the book. Aside from this quick faux pas, the narrative never falters and only grows more engaging with each page.

Quick Verdict: Buy It. This is a vision of Hell well worth the journey.



Vampires, Mutants & Hulks, Oh My! (Reviews: Astonishing X-Men #45, Hulk #47, I, Vampire #4)

Take it away, er.....um, me!

(Apropos of absolutely nothing, today and throughout the weekend I'll be wandering the floor of the Mesa Convention Center for the Amazing Arizona Comic Con. Hang around the Samurai Comics booth long enough and I'm sure to come around. Just don't wait too long or be too conspicuous, because Mike & Moryha will start to look at you funny.)

Now then, did somebody say something about reviews?

ASTONISHING X-MEN #45 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Greg Pak, Mike McKone & Rachelle Rosenberg

The "Regenesis" of Marvel's mutant teams continues with the second installment of Greg Pak's "Exalted" storyline this month. When we left Cyclops last month, he'd been hijacked off-world, to a parallel dimension full of strange yet familiar doubles of his friends in the X-Men. He awakens in a chamber tailor-made to contain and absorb his optic blasts. Now that he finds himself in this incredible new tableau, the question is...now what?

One wonders, with Cyclops being the proverbial stranger in a strange land, how or even if Pak's X-saga will impact the ongoing storylines set forth in the other titles. The situation's even more tenuous with the recent announcement that he, McKone and Rosenberg are only on board through #47, with a new creative team taking over henceforth. Still, I'm a sucker for alternate-reality stories, and this one is just plain fun. It helps that Pak only employs the most familiar of the modern X-Men in this story, and the twists upon the familiar formulae are intriguing. Kid Nightcrawler? A bearded Wolverine with more than a few tricks up his sleeve? A mostly-the-same, snarky White Queen? It's like home, but...not. And the biggest surprise--unless I am totally misreading the story--is on the last page, with the identity of the mutant known as Savior.

Through it all, Mike McKone delivers the same clear linework he's brought to various other series. Cyclops is appropriately heroic, Wolverine's somewhat haggard, Nightcrawler has the joy of a child, and the ladies--all the ladies--are appropriately sexy. He knows when to give us big, dynamic shots and knows when a few simple lines are all the expression that's needed. Rachelle Rosenberg once again fills the bill with pastel tones of red, yellow and blue in the prison scenes, darkening the palette as time goes on until the blinding finish. Kudos.

If you like alternate-reality X-sagas and surprises around every corner, Read It.

HULK #47 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Jeff Parker, Elena Casagrande & Rachelle Rosenberg

If you're suffering a dearth of Hulk-on-Hulk action in Incredible Hulk these days, you're in luck, for this issue marks the first part of a new saga co-starring Betty Ross, the Red She-Hulk. Currently one of the newest Defenders (in the title of the same name), she appears here to fill a different kind of niche. After all, she's not only the long-suffering wife of Bruce Banner, she's also the daughter of this title's lead character, Thad Ross. It's been some time since father and daughter had a heart-to-heart--or any kind of contact, really--and so this storyline's more than a bit overdue.

Parker pulls it all off with aplomb, showing that Betty and Red She-Hulk are the same in some respects, yet drastically different in others. Red She-Hulk expresses herself in ways that Betty represses, acting out toward her father instead of taking the time to talk things out. It's a thrilling opening for the book, certainly, leading to the main thrust of the story featuring one of Ross' newest enemies as one of the many ongoing threads in this book proceeds.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Italian import Elena Casagrande, who returns for art chores this month alongside regular (?) colorist Rachelle Rosenberg. Her figures are often unusually posed and stiff, compared even to her earlier work on this series (in the "Fear Itself" crossovers, #37-38). She's at her best outside of the huge action scenes, which means the middle third of this book is exemplary. Otherwise, file it under "nothing special." Thankfully, Rosenberg's colors save the work and make the entire story flow as ably as do Parker's words.

The storyline, with its intersection of two key plot points (old villain + Betty), makes for an intriguing caper, and I can't wait for next month's conclusion. If you can get past some of the artwork, by all means Read It.

I, VAMPIRE #4 - DC Comics, #2.99
By Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andrea Sorrentino & Marcelo Maiolo

Last but certainly not least in this triad of reviews comes the frequently brilliant I, Vampire by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino. This issue gives readers the first taste of the upcoming (or so it appears) war between super-heroes and vampires, courtesy a guest appearance by John Constantine, aka Hellblazer. When Andrew Bennett leaves his friends to feed, he meets Steve, a man to whom the curse of vampirism is nearly new. The two talk, and let's just say that Bennett's naivete is nearly his undoing. As if that weren't enough, there's an intense surprise on the final page that puts the whole adventure in perspective.

I have to hand it to writer Joshua Hale Fialkov for bringing this series to vivid, vampiric life. Any other writer could have played up the gore, or accentuated the more Twilight-like aspects of Bennett's struggle, but the subtle touches really make this book stand out. It's a relatively simple tale, but the combination of the spot-on dialogue for Bennett, as well as the low-key, powerful artwork by Sorrentino (aided and abetted by Maiolo), elevate it.

Similarly, adding characters from the greater DC Universe with whom Bennett can interact has really been a point ingrained from the beginning, and with Constantine here, the larger tapestry is starting to show. I do wonder, however, how Bennett, Mary and her kin will all react when characters outside the "Dark" side of DC arrive. It's one thing to have vampires rise up against members of, say, the Justice League Dark, but quite another to have the actual Justice League around. For that, I'm really looking forward to Bennett & co.'s upcoming jaunt to Gotham, just under a month away.

Oh, I still have my worries--for one, Sorrentino still likes working in those pages full of widescreen panels waaay too much for my taste, but he's diversifying and that's refreshing. But that's a small quibble among so much horrific goodness. I can't say this enough, month in and out: Buy It.

What did you think of these new releases? Buy 'em at your local comic shop, or online at Comixology, and post your opinions here!