BOOK REVIEW: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This flashback-laden volume revolves around Natasha Romanov’s relations with various men but especially Ivan, a man the Black Widow saw as a father figure. Ivan’s death is an impactful moment in the life of this femme fatale, and it seems like it might be just the start as all the men in her life begin to come under attack (mostly fellow Avengers and other superheroes from the Marvel pantheon.) The story unfolds as the Black Widow tries to unravel the mysterious plot to eliminate her prodigious corps of boyfriends while protecting said friends and (ex-)lovers.

This comic might seem like it would be the perfect entry point for a reader new to the Black Widow character. It offers flashes of insight into the character’s origin, but without the dated feel of old comics that were often marketed toward ten-year-old boys and that didn’t anticipate technological progress and cultural trends any better than most sci-fi does. However, I would argue that it’s a bit of a chaotic read for a newbie to the character (speaking as one.) It’s a four-issue volume and so the glimpses of backstory and the references to arcane Marvel characters and events come in rapid succession.

I found this book a fun and entertaining read, if a bit helter-skelter. I should point out that by the time one gets into the latter-half of the volume everything starts to come into focus.

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BOOK REVIEW: House of M by Brian Bendis

House of MHouse of M by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book pics up in the wake of a tragedy triggered by Wanda Maximoff’s (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) descent into madness. Normally, a losing one’s mind would be a cause for sympathy and assistance among heroic individuals, but there are those among her former teammates and friends who think the Scarlet Witch needs to be killed. The reason for this extreme view is that Maximoff’s tremendously powerful reality-warping abilities make her insanity not merely a risk to herself and to her loved ones, but to the nature of reality itself.

The book opens with Charles Xavier trying to help Wanda keep her delusions in check – largely unsuccessfully. We then see a meeting between survivors of the Avengers and key X-Men to discuss the Scarlet Witch’s future (or lack thereof.) When they go to track Wanda down, in a flash of blinding light, the world is changed. The next day, almost no one remembers the way the world was – except for Wolverine and a young girl named Layla, a girl who confirms Wolverine’s telling of events, a story that would be outlandish and unbelievable if not for the girl’s independent corroboration.

The new world is Magneto’s dream world. The mutants have won a war and are in control. Most of homo sapiens humanity is accepting of this, even if many are having trouble coping, though Luke Cage and a few others have created an underground resistance movement. In the new reality superheroes are doing pretty well. Even the homo sapiens heroes such as Spiderman are not bad off because they are generally believed to be mutants.

While Wolverine can merely remember the world as it was, Layla has an additional ability; she can project or unlock these memories in the minds of others. It’s using this ability that the Wolverine / Cage team put the band back together, taking Layla around to free the minds of Kitty Pryde, Peter Parker, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, She-Hulk, etc.

As the superheroes take the fight to Magneto’s stronghold, Doctor Strange sneaks in to see Wanda Maximoff as she blissfully plays out her imaginary life with her imaginary children, until the battle around her turns tragic and, fed up, she changes the world again.

This book collects issues #1-8 of “House of M,” and includes a great deal of bonus content including: character profiles and back ground information (conveyed by way of a fake newspaper) for the alternative reality that Maximoff created – the mutant-dominant world, as well as an interview with the author and sketchbook pages from the illustrator (Oliver Coipel.)

I enjoyed this story. I think because the ensemble cast is so huge – i.e. it has to squeeze in so many Marvel characters – it’s not as emotionally intense as it could be. Bendis goes to the trouble of showing us how hard-hit Peter Parker / Spiderman is hit by the discovery that his new blissful world is not real, knowing that actions must be taken to return the world to its previous status quo. However, the pacing required makes it hard to feel this strongly. What I think this story did very well is keep everything clear, which is not easy task when one is dealing with shifting realities. I thought Bendis and Coipel did an excellent job of being clear about when things changed, how things changed for the crucial characters, and did both without getting bogged down. This is definitely a story that is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III, et. al.

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the KingMarvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 28, 2021

The edition that I’m reviewing includes episodes one through thirteen, covering an entire story arc that revolves around a present-day conflict with its origins in the policies of Wakanda’s previous king, T’Chaka – hence, the subtitle. I mention this because the single “issue” / episode-only books seem to be what are currently posted on Amazon and GoodReads (though the blurbs they display are consistent with the story under review.) While I try to avoid being too spoiler-y, it’s hard to talk about a thirteen-issue collection without spoiling something about the first issue. [If you are only getting 15pp, that’s just Ep.1.]

The story opens in media res with a fight against Graviton that takes place in Rudyarda, one of Wakanda’s neighboring countries. This battle includes not only Black Panther and other Wakandan warriors, but also a partial Avenger’s roster including Vision, War Machine (Col. Rhodes,) Ant-man, and The Wasp. This Avenger’s team will be “re-assembled” in the climactic battle – against another foe entirely. However, the heart of the story revolves around T’Challa / Black Panther (and also Shuri and Okoye (of the Dora Milaje)) operating more or less independently. The Graviton opening is mostly about getting off to an exciting start, but the most compelling parts of the story occur later when the characters are more isolated and vulnerable.

After the Graviton battle, there’s a bit of intrigue in New York that lets the reader know there’s more going on than meets the eye. However, the big shocker of the book comes upon T’Challa’s return to Wakanda when he finds his deceased father (T’Chaka) is inexplicably back from the grave. The strength of this story comes in the middle issues (Ep. 6 – 9) when the Black Panther is isolated from his resources and must rely on his mind and his capacity to endure adversity. While the Black Panther is away from Wakanda, the nation comes under a kind of Trojan horse attack, requiring others to hold the fort while T’Challa extracts himself and brings reinforcements.

There is a false climax in Ep. 11, in which it seems that the forces of good have won – only for the battle to be taken to an unexpected domain. I would say the conclusion of the Ep. 11 battle was the least satisfying part of the story; the pacing and explanation gave it a deus ex machina feel. However, the fact that the ultimate battle was more satisfactorily concluded made the Ep. 11 victory less problematic.

I found this story to be compelling and cleverly plotted. It keeps the reader engaged and – for the most part – satisfied. If you get a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Vision #1 by Tom King

Vision #1Vision #1 by Tom King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue imagines a family of superpowered androids moving into suburban Washington DC, into a neighborhood where the denizens are the lawyers, bureaucrats, and political professionals. Vision is a member of the Avengers. Having been created by villainous Ultron, Vision changed sides to protect humanity, the android’s affinity for humanity subsequently led him to create his own family — a wife and two children, Viv and Vin. When Vision takes a job as the Avenger’s liaison to the Federal government, he moves his family into a Virginia neighborhood popular with the DC elite.

Being fish-out-of-water, these androids are challenged by the quotidian events of suburban life and they’re perplexed by the idiosyncrasies of mankind. Setting a household of super-bots in the most mundane human habitat imaginable provides a lot of comedic fodder. The “Visions” are welcomed to the neighborhood by a couple from next door. Vin and Viv attend their first day at school. The only real action is at the very end of the issue, and it’s clearly meant to carry the story onward through subsequent issues. [Though, if you are reading this as a standalone, it feels like all the action has been crammed in at the end — almost as an after-thought.]

The art and color palette are consistent with the laid-back suburban circumstance of the story.

This issue plays on an amusing premise, but – of itself – is more of a set up than a story. If you’re interested in the character and intend to move forward with reading more issues, you’ll probably want to give this issue a read. However, if you’re expecting this to be an action-packed superhero outing, you’re likely to be disappointed.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther (2016-))Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the first arc of a three arc story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 National Book Award winner. The volume contains “Black Panther” (2016), #1-4, and—as a bonus—“Fantastic Four” (1961) #52, which is the edition in which the Black Panther was introduced.

The premise is that Wakanda is on the brink of coming apart at the seams, and there are nefarious forces afoot trying to spur a revolution. A mysterious woman, Zenzi, uses mind control unleash people’s rage. This results in an episode of violence that is the inciting incident for the story. But Zenzi isn’t working alone; she has a powerful ally named Tetu, who can control elements of nature.

Some background maybe useful for those unfamiliar with this character and / or who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War”–the movie in which Black Panther / T’Challa was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU.) First, Wakanda is a fictional African nation. It’s quintessentially African with respect to culture, but it’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It achieved this first-world modernity and wealthy in large part because it possesses most of the world’s vibranium—a much desired, but fictional, metal. Vibranium can absorb huge amounts of energy and only become stronger. The metal is most famously known for being the material from which Captain America’s shield was made, but it crops up in Marvel stories quite frequently.

Second, the superhero Black Panther is the protector of Wakanda (though in some books—not this one—he does get drawn into global affairs) and is the alter ego of the Wakandan king, T’Challa. This duality is particularly relevant in this story line. On the one hand, the Black Panther must battle Zenzi and Tetu who are working together to bring the nation down. On the other hand, as King, T’Challa is forced to recognize his responsibility for the health of the nation, and he must be a good leader and not just a good fighter. There are the makings of an inner battle that must be fought concurrently with the battle against the enemies of the state. At the end of Volume #4, T’Challa is forced to face this through the words of a trusted maternal advisor.

In addition to the main plot in which the hero fights to keep the nation from collapsing, there are a couple of subplots. One involves an ex-member of the royal guard (i.e. the all-female Dora Milaje) using stolen technology to rescue her lover, another ex-member of Dora Milaje who was sentenced to death for killing a corrupt tribal leader. The two go on a spree of rescuing Wakandans. Another subplot involves T-Challa’s sister being trapped in a limbo between life and death called the Djalia—the plane of memory.

A word on the “Fantastic Four” comic book included: In it, T’Challa woos Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) into bringing the Four to Wakana by way of the gift of a flying car—a technology that seemed only slightly more feasible in 1961 than it does today. (Yes, I wrote that the way I meant it. In those days anything seemed possible. But after decades without a household jet-pack, we’ve become a more technologically pessimistic people… or is it just me?) Once in Wakana, the Black Panther battles the Fantastic Four, using not only his athletic prowess but also a series of technologies tailor-made against their powers. This makes it seem like the Black Panther was introduced as a villain, but he’s hunting them for the challenge rather than out of ill-will.

As would be expected from an award-winning author, this arc is well-written and sets up a fascinating story. As this is a comic book, I should also talk about the artwork, which was done by Brian Stelfreeze. However, I don’t know what to say beyond that I liked it well enough. I’m not particularly competent to speak on the subject–other than to say that it was generally easy to tell what was going on in the frames, and the action seemed to be well conveyed. I can’t speak at all to coloring as I read the Kindle edition in black & white (Not that I’d have anything interesting to say on the subject.)

I’d recommend this comic. There’s plenty of butt-kicking, but there’s also a thought-provoking tale of political intrigue.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Wolverine

I don’t normally do movie reviews because, for one reason, I don’t watch that many movies–at least not in the timely fashion necessary to be relevant. However, I figured I’d do one for The Wolverine because I did a book review of Clairmont & Miller’s Wolverine.

The Wolverine shares superficial common ground with the Clairmont & Miller book.  The setting for each is largely Japan. The movie and the book share almost the same slate of major characters. However, the characters don’t necessarily have the same relationships to each other or the same personalities as in the book.

If you’ve seen the trailers, my synopsis will be largely spoiler/surprise free. The movie opens with Logan saving a young Japanese officer. It then flashes forward to Logan living in the wilderness of the Pacific Northeast. The primary reference to the earlier films is that he is tormented by killing Jean Grey in X-men: The Last Stand (a.k.a. X-Men 3.) Yukio (a female warrior who the movie makes friendly to Logan from the get go) tracks Logan down to take him to see her employer, the same individual he saved during the war. That individual offers him mortality. After their meeting, Logan’s principal goal shifts from living by a vow to not kill to one of keeping Mariko safe. Mariko is the granddaughter of the officer Logan saved and she becomes his love interest. As in the book, Mariko is tangled in intrigues of family and company (i.e. kairetsu), but the nature of these intrigues is somewhat updated in the movie. In the book, Mariko is a helpless damsel-in-distress, but in the movie we see her strength.

The biggest strength of this movie is that Wolverine becomes mortal in the film–at least for a time. This creates stakes for Logan where none usually exist. The problem with Wolverine’s combination of rapid healing and indestructible skeleton is that there’s no nail-biting over his fate. You know no matter how much he gets tossed around, he’s going to get up and within a minute he’ll be right as rain.

In my opinion, the biggest flaw of the movie is the creation of a twist ending that fails to surprise but yet requires distorting a character. I realize it’s hard to write a good twist ending. If one foreshadows too much, one gives away the surprise. If one fails to foreshadow, then one annoys the audience with a “gotcha” type ending. In this case, one of the characters behaves in a manner that is out of character with the first act portrayal. This is a “gotcha,” but one that one couldn’t help but thinking was a possibility. There are a number of little forgivable sins that I won’t discuss, and which may be inevitable in film.

The film also contributes to the general continuity muddle of X-men films. Because this film attempts to be a standalone film, it may not seem fair to critique this point. However, by using the aforementioned piece of the X-Men 3 timeline, I think they open themselves up to this criticism. As an example, while in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film we are told that Wolverine can’t grow back his memories, he apparently grows back his memories of what happened in WWII just fine. There’s a post-credit scene which happens three years after The Wolverine timeline that is a set up for X-Men: Days of Future Past and Professor X appears in it, but they hint that there may be an explanation for this (Xavier died in the same X-Men 3 that this film references through about half a dozen dream sequences.) This is not so much an example of  discontinuity, also because the upcoming film features time travel prominently, but may or may not be example of the general X-Men muddle.

I’d recommend seeing this movie, but only if one goes in thinking of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If one does that one will find it an enjoyable step up. However, if one goes in expecting a movie of The Dark Knight caliber, one will be sorely disappointed.