Saturday, February 4, 2006

Comics Review: February 4

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (8-9, 11-14)

(Note: I'm skipping over issue 10, which was a completely unremarkable "House of M" tie-in that has nothing to do with anything.)

This one's a bit of a mixed bag, really.

I'll start by asserting a general point: it's a sign of my faith in Ed Brubaker that I'm even reading this series - Captain America is, IMO, not a character who has aged well, and more often than not the writers who use him tend to lean towards very distasteful jingoism and hyperexaggerated patriotism ("If we give up... THE TERRORISTS WIN!").

But I follow the writer, not the character. And I do admit that Brubaker's first arc, "Out of Time", took care of precisely that problem by looping the focus of his run around Steve Rogers as a character, not as a symbol. The first six issues relayed the relevant backstories in an efficient manner, set up all the players and proceeded to dive headfirst into Brubaker's long-term plan. This complicates evaluating his individual arcs, of course, since the series is taking what Brubaker calls the "meta-arc" approach - that is to say, it's all one big storyline, broken down for the sake of TPBs rather than any intentional division. This is clear enough with "Out of Time", which ends with an open cliffhanger seguing directly into the second arc, "The Winter Soldier".

Of course, that method of storytelling doesn't quite work with the massive delays this series has suffered from. A lot of momentum has been lost, and that tends to color the perception of what's going on here. Basically, we pick up right where "Out of Time" leaves off: Aleksander Lukin has powered up his Cosmic Cube, the Winter Soldier who serves him may or may not be a brain-damaged Bucky Barnes (Cap's old partner, and previously the only other person aside from Ben Parker who was really, really dead), and the Captain himself is on the brink of losing his mind. It seems a confrontation with his best friend is inevitable.

The problems start when, having built up to said confrontation, Brubaker deflates it with cliches: Captain America snatches the Cube and uses it to restore Bucky's identity, and the horror-stricken Winter Soldier promptly teleports away to angst. Now, conventionally it's possible to properly end a story with an anti-climax - sometimes that's really the best way to go. But one major plot point throughout Brubaker's run so far is that the Cosmic Cube warps the desires of anyone who tries to use it: no matter what you wish for, it'll always go sour somehow. That's why Lukin gives it up, enabling the aforementioned showdown between Cap and Bucky.

All well and good, except Steve's wish doesn't backfire. He doesn't get the tearful reunion he might have been hoping for, but Bucky's reaction is pretty much what you'd expect given the murderous rampage he's been involved in for the last fifty years. Now, if Bucky had gone mad in a Drusilla way after getting all his lost memories crammed back into his head, it would've been tragic. It would've been precisely the "Monkey's Paw" twist Brubaker's referencing, and it would have put the blame squarely on the Captain's shoulders.

As it stands, it's a bit too color-by-numbers, and dissatisfying when read on its own because there's no real sense of gravity in relation to Bucky's resurrection. Brubaker has basically undone a death at the very heart of the Marvel Universe, but because the plot succumbs to cliche, we don't get to see how deeply this affects either partner. To make things worse, Lukin - who started out as a villain with the potential to match the Red Skull - turns out to be a bit of a lightweight; and that's without mentioning the very last panel of the arc, which seems to suggest that (promises and expectations aside) the major death from Brubaker's very first issue isn't as permanent as we'd hoped.

I'm tentatively listing this as a disappointment, though there's still plenty of room for improvement given that none of the plot threads have actually ended here.


Y: The Last Man #42

Another standalone issue, but this one is much better than the last one. Here we learn the secret origin of Ampersand, Yorick's monkey. Yes, Yorick's monkey. You wouldn't think there's much of a story there, I certainly didn't.

Lo and behold, not only is there a story, but it's a doozy. Seems Ampersand has a much deeper connection to what's been going on, as the issue begins quite a while before he and Yorick ever meet. We get our first look at the mysterious "Dr. M", whose connection to Allison is confirmed (her mother, most likely, though Vaughan also allows for the possibility that it's her father). We see a rather likely explanation as to how Ampersand could have protected Yorick from the plague. We even get an interesting look into the simian mind before catching up with current events.

Once again, Vaughan proves his skills: it's no small feat to tell a story from a monkey's point of view, especially when you have no narrative captions or thought bubbles. It's another thing altogether to actually weave such a story into the greater tapestry, so it becomes a major piece of the puzzle. Very well done indeed.


Legion of Superheroes #14

Hmm. This issue introduces Shrinking Violet/Atom Girl to the cast, and sets the stage for the next development in the Legion: the United Planets, embarrassed yet grateful for being rescued from the brink of annihilation, offer to fund the Legion's operations while promising them full autonomy and power equal to their oppressors, the Science Police. Of course, as Saturn Girl points out, there's no such thing as an arm that acts on its own volition - the strings are attached, whether they're visible or not. Meanwhile, Waid makes a pointed (and slightly juvenile) commentary on fanboys when a metahuman obssessed with the late Dream Girl goes berserk at the news of her death.

My enthusiasm for this book wanes more and more every month. Having concluded the "galactic war" plot, Waid is now turning his focus to interpersonal relationships within the core Legion... except those have been on the backburner for at least six months (if not more), and pushing them to the foreground because there's nothing better to do doesn't help. Also, there's a slight imbalance in this book between the main plot and the subplots, in that the former tends to dominate the page while the latter aren't consistently developed throughout. As a result, Waid can't really change gears because there's no foundation to build later stories.

The letter pages are still funny, though - despite their insistence on reminding me that Superbimbo will be joining the cast in two issues. Waiter! Check please!


Hard Time #3

This issue juggles several subplots: Cutter insinuating himself into the prison, Ethan learning more about his powers while suspecting Red of betrayal, and the return of Fruitcake. It's always fun having Fruitcake around, because more than any other inmate he knows what's really going on, and is willing to impart that information on Ethan. Gerber successfully balances the old and new characters here, and - probably for the first time - creates a nemesis for Ethan that transcends anything he's faced in jail so far. Another strong entry in this series.


X-Factor #3

Oh no he didn't.

Peter David did not just make me momentarily stop wishing Layla Miller into oblivion.


This series is generally moving upwards in terms of quality - it started off well, and is steadily getting better as the cast is consolidated and conflicts are set up. There's a lot of typical PAD humor here, which is a good thing: Monet and Rictor, the banter between Madrox and Siryn, and even Layla is amusing in a creepy kind of way (though her punchline is wearing thin). We see a little more of Singularity Investigations, and why they're so concerned about what X-Factor is up to.

However, PAD also seems to be heading specifically in the direction I was hoping he wouldn't: dealing with Decimation head on as a primary plot, as opposed to just using it as a distant platform for his own stories. To make things worse, it's not entirely clear why there's supposed to be this big investigation into M-Day and what caused it. Granted that the utter stupidity and lack of coordination during "House of M" means we don't know who remembers what, who did what to whom, and who came back to life/died as a result, but what is clear is that there are a number of people out there (including Wolverine, Emma Frost, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel and others) who know exactly what Wanda's magic vagina did. So why is it such a big mystery?

I'm still feeling a bit of uncertainty regarding this book; it's quite good, but it's also traversing ground I'm deliberately avoiding. But it's entertaining enough to hold my interest until the book's overall direction becomes clearer.