Sunday, February 26, 2006

Comics Review: February 26

Captain America #15

After an exhaustive thirteen issues revolving around the Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker takes a bit of time to explore an unrelated plot thread from the preceding storyline: the return of Synthia Schmidt, daughter of the Red Skull.

It's painfully apparent that we're dealing with some very convoluted continuity here. There's accelerated aging and de-aging, cloning, brainwashing... it's a bit of a mess, really. But Brubaker streamlines the history, telling us everything we need to know without turning it into a Marvel Handbook entry.

The catch, of course, is that there's simply too much backstory to relay, and the actual plot of the issue is a bit thin: Crossbones tortures Synthia until she breaks through her SHIELD reprogramming. That's about it, really; the rest of the issue is given over to the retelling of Synthia's story, both for her benefit and ours.

Still, the end result is achieved, reintroducing the character and setting her up as a new antagonist for Captain America. It's a bit ironic, actually, because according to Crossbones' story she was always meant to replace the Red Skull, but she never got the chance because he survived. In fact, Brubaker may have inadvertantly undermined Synthia himself - we know what she and Crossbones don't, that the Red Skull is alive in some capacity. Which means we already see her as an also-ran, rather than a genuine heir.


Academy X: Childhood's End (20-23)

To avoid confusion with the Grant Morrison run (and also because there's only one "New X-Men" for me and this ain't it), I'll be using the alternative title of this series.

"Childhood's End" marks the beginning of the Craig Kyle/Christopher Yost run. These were the writers responsible for the "X-23: Innocence Lost" miniseries, which was surprisingly good. It's also one of the few ongoing X-books that underwent a major change, both stylistically and with relation to the core premise itself, as a result of "Decimation".

I'm only passingly familiar with the Weir/DeFilipis run that preceded this storyline, but even in the book's previous incarnation as "New Mutants", it was clear that their approach was problematic at best. Originally set during the Grant Morrison years, the remit was to focus on the expanded student body - fair enough, and to their credit the writers did manage to come up with a wide variety of mutants. Unfortunately, none of them were particularly compelling, since the heavy-handed teen melodrama tended to reduce characters to stock types, for the sake of efficiency. Even after the book was restarted and revamped during the Reload of 2004, nothing particularly changed... in fact, by the end of their run, Weir and DeFilipis were dealing with a cast of almost thirty students, and that's not even including the various X-Men who popped up from time to time.

Based on "Childhood's End", Kyle and Yost seem to be veering this book away from the 90210 paradigm. In fact, their first storyline strikes me as much more in line with the original "New Mutants" series than anything Weir and DeFilipis came up with, ostensibly because they never understood the need to balance the love triangles and the petty rivalries with the fact that these were mutant superheroes in training.

This arc actually makes for a good jumping-on point, because it's largely devoted to dismantling the Weir/DeFilipis run. It's a story that starts with, and is dominated by, destruction; and for the purposes of this introductory arc, you don't have to know who these people are beyond the obvious, because everything is being redefined anyway. It begins with M-Day, leaving multiple characters depowered and quietly shipped off. Then Reverend Stryker (of Claremont's "God Loves, Man Kills") makes a comeback, and the death toll starts rising. X-23 joins the cast, and is relegated to the periphery (assuaging many readers' fears that she'd take over the book a la "Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes"). Meanwhile, Emma Frost sets up a brutal competition to whittle down the cast even further.

Like their previous collaboration, "Childhood's End" is a very solid story. A bit padded, especially with the rather pointless "Danger Cave" sequence, but overall it achieves its goal, generates interest, and uses the "Decimation" premise to great success. Proof, I suppose, that if you want to grow a good crop, you need manure. Future arcs will, of course, require a closer focus on whoever's left standing when the dust settles, but for now characterization isn't an issue (though Stryker is rather over-the-top with the Bible-thumping speeches). Issue 23 ends with a cliffhanger leading directly into the next storyline, which promises to bring the Stryker/Purifiers story to a head.