On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

REVIEW: The Avengers

It’s been a long road to The Avengers.  I’m sure the comic fanboys reading this can remember like it was yesterday that initial squee of excitement upon sticking around for the post-credits scene in Iron Man, when Samuel L Jackson showed up as Nick Fury and spoke of “The Avengers Initiative”, but since then we’ve actually had 4 years of build-up leading to this film.  When it was first announced, it was a hugely ambitious project, the kind that previously seemed like it could only exist in geek dreams: establishing numerous superhero film properties, all existing in the same universe and becoming increasingly linked, building to a massive crossover film uniting all these characters in a blockbuster superhero spectacular on a scale unlike anything seen before.  It seemed like The Avengers was going to be the biggest film ever.

But in those intervening 4 years, a lot happened to deflate that initial rabid anticipation.  While Iron Man has held up to multiple repeat viewings and is still highly enjoyable, Thor and Captain America (and even The Incredible Hulk, which came out a mere few weeks after Iron Man when that Avengers buzz was still fresh) were closer to good than great.  And the disappointing Iron Man 2 was heavy on Avengers prelude, but light on making the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem particularly engaging.  The mystique of The Avengers had been tarnished a bit.  Behind-the-scenes drama further dampened proceedings, with Ed Norton’s departure from the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk removing arguably the second biggest name in the crossover ensemble from the table, and rumors of Marvel Studios’ dodgy dealings with talent suggesting that things weren’t too rosy in this shared universe.  More recently, on an admittedly subjective level, I’ve been left underwhelmed by the trailers for The Avengers, which made it seem like pretty generic summer action fluff.  Factor into that the looming shadow of The Dark Knight Rises, and I went into The Avengers (in 3D IMAX!) with moderate expectations.

Well, I can say those moderate expectations were blown out of the water.  The Avengers (which I’ll continue to call it, I refuse to use that lame Avengers Assemble title the movie got here in the UK) is easily the best film to come out of Marvel Studios, and while it doesn’t quite topple the reigning titan of the genre The Dark Knight, it has breezed into that upper echelon of Nolan and Burton’s Batman films, the first couple of Superman movies and X2 to be ranked as among the all-time great superhero movies.  For me, the story of Marvel Studios’ cinematic output has long been amazing potential, not quite realised.  It’s realised here.  And who do we have to thank?  Joss Whedon.

I talked a bit about the various ways Marvel decreased my excitement about The Avengers, but I should mention the one key way they increased it: the announcement that Joss Whedon would be writing and directing the film.  I’m a big Whedon fan, and I was confident that this would prove to be a canny move on Marvel’s part.  I was right.  With a proven knack for impeccable structure, deftly handling large ensembles, snappy dialogue, and the depiction of strong women, Whedon seemed like a tailor-made choice to address some of the nagging flaws often holding back Marvel’s previous films, and he more than delivers with some of his strongest work in ages.  Whedon’s touch is all over this film.  As a director, he handles himself well, with plenty of stylish flourishes and ambitious camera setups, and an increased comfort with framing action sequences that arguably leads to better fight scenes than we’ve seen in any other Marvel film thus far.  But it’s as a writer that Whedon truly shines.  The plot is steeped in reverence for what came before, and everyone’s dialogue is all utterly in-character, but it has that added Whedon sheen fans of Buffy, Firely and the like will instantly recognise.  What everyone loved about these characters in the earlier films is still there, only moreso, amplified and enhanced under Whedon’s pen.  Indeed, when I first left the screening, my initial Facebook post summing up the film was, “All the fun of the other Marvel movies, with the added benefit of a Joss Whedon script.”  And that remains the best way to describe this film’s appeal.

As much as The Avengers succeeds as a culmination of all the previous Marvel Studios films, on another level this also works as a spritual successor to Serenity and even Whedon’s acclaimed TV work.  This is a film where everyone does their job well and their is plenty of credit to go around, but I won’t hesitate in saying that, more than anyone else, it’s Joss Whedon who makes this film soar.  It’s his movie, and after Serenity so sadly and undeservedly tanked, the guaranteed success of The Avengers should hopefully give Whedon some well-overdue glory on a larger scale.

The pace of the film is absolutely relentless.  We start, and are launched into the action and drama almost immediately, with only a bare minimum of setup.  From there, could luck finding a quiet spot for a bathroom break at any point in the 2-hour-plus running time.  But despite the plot rampaging along at breakneck speed, The Avengers is simultaneously a very character-driven film.  And even with the big (some feared overcrowded) cast, every major character has an arc, and is given something substantial to do.

Of course, Robert Downey Jr continues to excel as Iron Man.  Even the flawed Iron Man 2 was kept afloat largely (and at some points solely) by the charm and engaging charisma of his Tony Stark, and remained watchable throughout thanks to his presence elevating every scene.  So imagine how great the character is in a film that matches his performance!  Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr was always going to be a match made in heaven, and indeed they fit together like hand-in-glove.  Stark gets to fire out rapid-fire zingers at all the major players – Loki gets called “Reindeer Games”, Thor “Point Break”, etc, etc – and his irreverent treatment of his all-star peers is where the film derives much of its many laughs.  Downey Jr also gets to rekindle his fantastic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper Potts unexpectedly showing up for a few welcome scenes.  But Tony Stark isn’t just here to serve as a joke machine.  He gets a compelling dramatic arc, based around an accusation from Captain America that he’s not a real hero, that for all his showboating and self-aggrandising, he’s the kind of person who’ll fold when it comes to making the hard, self-sacrificial choices a real hero has to make.  While admittedly, it seems like Tony Stark goes through arcs of learning to be less self-serving and a better, more mature human being almost as often as Jeff Winger on Community, here Downey Jr does a particularly good job at wrestling with his mixture of arrogance and self-doubt, and the journey comes to a satisfying, dramatic conclusion…. while still allowing for some laughs.

I remember in the early stages of the Avengers cast, there was a fear among some (me included), that it could become the Robert Downey Jr show, with him acting everybody else off-screen.  Thankfully, that is far from the case, with Downey Jr’s performance complementing rather than overshadowing his castmates with how he plays off them.  As Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, Chris Evans works well as the yin to Stark’s yang: earnest where Stark is playing things with a wry smile and a wink.  This leads to the two quite often coming to odds, and at some points nearly coming to blows, though as they find respect for one another they end up making a good team in battle.  A lot of it is left unspoken, but we get the sense that Captain America is more invested in this group than any of the other heavy-hitters, that perhaps he has more need of it.  He’s a man out of time and without a world, and so he throws himself into this new mission.  As he naturally assumes the role of strategic leader, there’s a tangible sense of Captain America finding his new place in the world.  The film does a good job in portraying how Captain America inspires people, both by having Agent Coulson (whose hero worship of Cap leads to some cute, funny moments) outright say it, and showing how people respond to him at various points in the narrative.

Thor doesn’t show up until a little later, but when he does, he makes an impact.  The presence of Loki and Dr. Selvig perhaps makes The Avengers more of a follow-on from Thor than anything else (though the film is skillfully able to feel like a follow-on from all the previous films), and perhaps this is why, more than with any character, Whedon acknowledges the journey Thor went through as a character in his solo film and continues the development from there.  Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor here as a man (or god, if you prefer) who has come from a place of pride and arrogance to increased maturity and nobility, but who at times struggles to keep that old temper and pompousity in check.  At a glance (perhaps because he doesn’t get the same “moving from the solo world of my film universe into the larger Avengers universe” setup scenes as the other major characters), it might seem like Thor has less to do than the “big two” of Captain America and Iron Man, but he actually has some pretty meaty character work, which results in some of my favourite dramatic scenes in the film.  The dynamic established is that Thor is on Earth ostensibly to capture Loki and return him to Asgard to face justice, but in fact wants to bring his brother home and attempt to rehabilitate him.  Thor still loves Loki, and while everyone else sees Loki as pure evil, Thor sees him as essentially good, but lost in a haze of madness that could yet still be temporary, and so he may not be beyond redemption.  The film cleverly teases and goes back-and-forth on whether or not Thor is correct, but we’ll talk more about that later.

It could be easy to view the trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor as the film’s major players, when previously it might have been a four-way split, had Ed Norton returned to his role as Bruce Banner.  Hulk fans be thankful, then, for Mark Ruffalo, the first actor to play both Bruce Banner and (through motion capture magic) The Hulk, who ensures that – despite the recasting – The Hulk remains an equal partner amongst his more tenured co-stars.  I’m not the biggest Hulk fan, and have said as much before.  But this film has done more than anything before to make me a fan.  The character serves as the uber-badass of the group, and is surprisingly hilarious, getting some of the film’s biggest laughs.  Watch out for the Loki VS The Hulk battle, possibly my favourite part of the whole film.  But perhaps the real revelation is Ruffalo as Banner.  Eric Bana and Ed Norton are both great actors in their own right, but as Banner, Bana felt wooden, and Norton felt cold and distant.  Neither were quite able to nail that character and make him click with audiences in a way that Robert Downey Jr did with Tony Stark.  Mark Ruffalo does.  He brings a warmth and likeability to Banner that makes you emotionally invested first in him not losing control and unleashing The Hulk (he’s been “on the wagon”, if you will, for over a year as the film begins), and later in him learning to control this burden, and make it a gift rather than a curse.  In paticular, Ruffalo plays off Downey Jr well, and more than any other two members of the cast you get the sense that Stark and Banner could be good friends.  It’s reportedly unlikely to happen, but I for one would be happy to see Ruffalo’s Hulk get his own solo movie.  Going into the film, people might have been wishing Ed Norton was playing The Hulk in The Avengers.  Going out, I suspect they’ll be left wishing Mark Ruffalo had played The Hulk in The Incredible Hulk.

Another character who fares much better in The Avengers is Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow.  Underwritten in Iron Man 2, here Whedon’s penchant for strong, nuanced female characters pays off in spades.  Not only does Natasha kick more ass in her fight scenes, but we are given glimpses of a dark past and sins she is struggling to compensate for.  Much of her role in the film is tied into her complex relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.  I can’t say much about Renner’s role in the film without veering into spoilers, but while I was worried the character could have come across as a bit of an unnecessary third wheel, he is in fact given plenty to do, and slips effortlessly into the fabric of the film.  As far as the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson continues to be the relatable face of the super-intelligence organisation and almost our access character that connects us to each of these disparate universes, while Cobie Smaulder’s Marie Hill gets a couple of cool moments despite having little to do than support Nick Fury.  Speaking of Nick Fury, Samuel L Jackson is more Samuel L Jacksony than ever, which is most certainly pleasing, and the script allows for some of that notorious Nick Fury duplicity to come into play, while still allowing Fury to reside firmly on the side of the angels.

But what of the side of the devils?  A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and thankfully The Avengers has a cracker in the form of Loki.  Probably my favourite Marvel character, I was more excited to see what Loki would be up to than any of the assembled heroes, and he did not disappointment, probably stealing the show in a film full of worthy performances.  Tom Hiddleston was already the best thing about Thor, and once again he gives us a slick, enigmatic Loki who always keeps us guessing at his true motives.  But Loki is darker now, and we get the sense he has been through the wringer since we last saw him at the end of Thor, that all the resentment and bitterness accumulated in that film has been festering and eating away at him in the intervening time inbetween.  In spite of this, Hiddleston still deftly weaves in flickers of doubt, fleeting glimpses in his eyes that suggest regret, or hesitation, even if they don’t stop him from doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.  It continues to be a mesmerising performance.  My only niggle is that the whole “Loki possessing Dr. Selvig” beat teased at the end of Thor seems to have been dropped and forgotten about, with Loki introduced back into the fold in an unrelated way.  But that’s a forgivable oversight, I’d say.

One aspect that gives Loki plenty of fresh fuel in this film is that he spends it on Earth.  While in Thor Loki was largely confined to Asgard and interacted solely with his fellow Asgardians, here Loki interacts extensively with the people of Midgard, and the result is almost like a twisted mirror image of Thor’s “fish out of water” Broxton scenes in their solo film.  Loki’s initial response is contempt, of course, but as these lowly humans continue to challenge and occasionally even best him, Loki becomes by turns confused, flustered, and ultimately bordering on throwing a childish temper tantrum.  In this respect, Loki seems to channel that classic trait shared by many of Whedon’s “Big Bads”: the increasingly harrassed, put-upon villain, who you almost sympathise with when things start to go wrong for them, because they handle it in a petty, but relatably human way.  I won’t tell you if I was pleased or disappointed, but I was watching The Avengers hoping that Loki would survive to stir up trouble in another film in the coming years.  Tom Hiddleston’s star continues to be on the rise, and he handles himself incredibly well against the star-studded team opposing him.

I’ve said this before, but I think perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned by Marvel Studios from the success of Loki as a villain here is that a performance by a good actor is always going to trump a special effect.  I think the third act problems in the likes of Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk stem partly from the fact that, while the villains are played by great actors, by the end they’ve donned CGI robotic costumes or become CGI monsters, and are uniformly less compelling in this form than they were when giving an actual performance.  Loki is an actual performance, and as such makes for a more tangible, engaging villain.  The same can’t be said for the Chitauri, a rather anonymous alien race who serve as the main threat to be overcome in the film’s climax.  And while this extended end battle is exhilerating, if there’s any criticisms to be made, it’s that the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather nebulous, indistinct threat, and a match for The Avengers only in sheer numbers rather than any real individual formidability.  Indeed, they are so disposable that at points it feels like we’re watching a video game, with our heroes as expert players effortlessly knocking off foes as they progress through a level.  Fortunately, Loki’s presence keeps us invested in the threat.

My excitement for the Marvel film universe may have diminished going into The Avengers, but now I find it expanded once more, perhaps to greater heights than ever before.  Based off this brilliant film, I’m more excited than ever for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and after that post-credits scene (stick around for it, folks!), whatever sequel to The Avengers comes down the line.  Marvel Studios has been rejuvenated, and The Avengers have never been more awesome: I was left wishing that the comics could be as rewarding as this.  If you’ve loved Marvel’s films up until now, you’ll love this more.  If you’ve been disappointed in Marvel’s previous films, this will win you over.  The Avengers is the first in a summer of big-time superhero movies.  While I might have thought this was going to be overwhelmed by The Dark Knight Rises, after seeing The Avengers, now I think it’s Christopher Nolan who’s going to be feeling the pressure to deliver.  He’s going to have to work hard to top Joss Whedon.

REVIEW: Journey into Mystery #631

Journey into Mystery is Marvel’s best comic.  I thought that would be as good a place as any to start with this review.  At one point I was buying a pretty healthy slate of Marvel titles, but over the past year or so I found myself steadily dropping them until all that remained were Journey into Mystery and Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s PunisherMAX, and with the latter book not being canon, that makes Kieron Gillen’s Thor spin-off the only comic set within the Marvel Universe proper that I’m currently buying.  But as long as this title remains alive, hope is not lost for the House of Ideas, as while I’ve not yet got round to reviewing it, month in and month out (and recently, more than once a month) Gillen provides us with one of the most consistently entertaining comics on the shelves.

Of course, I could be a little biased in my praise, considering that Loki is my favorite Marvel character, and Journey into Mystery casts him in the leading role.  In his brief but stellar run on Thor back in 2010, Gillen showed a real knack for writing Asgard’s god of mischief, particularly in the oneshot Siege: Loki, which managed to not only serve as a satisfying Loki character study while simultaneously enrichening the main Siege narrative, but also engaged in some pre-emptive damage control by suggesting that Bendis’ deballing of the character with a rushed, undignified death at the hands of Sentry-Sue in the climax of Siege was in fact part of Loki’s elaborate master plan.  So, of course, Gillen was a natural choice to pen Journey into Mystery, a sister title to The Mighty Thor that focused on the renewed misadventures of a reincarnated Loki.  The twist is that Loki has been brought back as a child, and like the young Loki of ages past, he is still mischevous and scheming, but has not yet lost his innocence.  And so we get to see a Loki fighting against turning into the villain he is destined to grow into, even when all in Asgard hate him and believe him to be this villain already, and we see him using his tools of trickery and deceit for good rather than evil.

Since its launch, Journey into Mystery has carried the Fear Itself banner, but despite carrying that weight around its neck, the title has managed to thrive on its own merits: as someone who hasn’t been reading Fear Itself, that I felt like I was getting a full, rewarding story from this title alone, and I was being told all I needed to know about the crossover event I was missing.  Now, with #631, Journey into Mystery at last has its own cover dress and logo, and we can get a sense of how the book will move forward now that Gillen is in no way beholden to Fear Itself.  As it turns out, it’s largely more of the same, which is a good thing.

I love the presentation of this series, with its narrative captions presented in a faux-mythical style, as if we were reading legends from ancient scrolls, only to be slyly deflated by the odd witty aside.  It just makes this comic feel like no other comic I’m reading, giving it a distinct flavor.  The continuation of that makes this transition to post-event mode pretty much seamless.  We get a taste of Asgard’s new status quo, and this largely reads like an epilogue to what’s come before and a prologue for what’s to come.  But even with little plot progression, Gillen succeeds in keeping us immersed in his vision of Asgard and the surrounding mythological realms.

The big selling point of this book, and the element for which it has received deserved praise, is the characterisation of Loki.  He’s totally Loki, but he’s different too.  He’s a child.  And more than that, he’s a child who’s spent time on Earth, meaning that in this issue he can confuse his fellow Asgardians with talk of internet memes and BFFs.  He’s very much the star of the show, and surely one of the most compelling leads to be found in any comic out right now.  But this issue really hammered home (no pun intended) to me how much Journey into Mystery has always been an ensemble piece.  The Disir, Hela, Tyr, Leah, Surtur, and of course, perennial scene-stealer Mephisto all get a sequence or two to touch on their current status quo, with a suggestion that their roles in the series will progress beyond Loki’s initial interactions with them as part of his battle against the Serpent’s forces.  It would seem that Loki’s plates have kept on spinning away even though he thinks he’s done with them… and that may come back to haunt him.

If there’s any small downside with Journey into Mystery right now, it’s the art.  Doug Braithwaite was the ideal artist for the series, doing what was quite possibly career-best work and giving the title a slick, dramatic feel.  Since his departure we’ve had something of a revolving door approach to the visuals, with the most constant artist lately being Whilce Portacio, whose work I’m not the biggest fan of.  Some pages – such as Surtur’s ominous return to Muspelheim – look great, but other times the work feels too messy and scratchy for my tastes.

But while Journey into Mystery still needs to find stable footing on the art front, the writing is as consistent as ever.  Kieron Gillen has emerged as one of Marvel’s most dependable writers, and Journey into Mystery continues to be the best showcase for his immense talent.  As long as I can keep reading about what Loki’s up to, I’ll still have a Marvel comic on my pull list.

My Top Ten Comics of 2010

Hey all!

Been a while since I blogged, so I figured I’d post this up.  I’ve also posted this as part of my Comic Book Club column over on Project Fanboy, but I figured I’d post it here too.  Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

2010 was an interesting year in the world of comics. As the new decade began, both Marvel and DC seemed set to be making a move towards more optimistic storytelling and more heroic heroes, with Dark Reign giving way to The Heroic Age and Blackest Night giving way to Brightest Day. There was also a stated intention to move away from company-spanning crossover events, focusing more on smaller events within individual franchises. Neither promise seems to have held on long, with Brightest Day being as gore-addled and grim as any DCU story of the past few years and Daredevil turning evil for a while in Shadowland, and with Marvel recently announcing their latest big crossover event: Fear Itself.

It was a year where the comic book movie craze seemed to falter, with Iron Man 2 proving a disappointment, and both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim VS the World (undeservedly) underperforming at the box office. But on the other side, it was a year where a new frontier for comic book adaptation – television – began to be exploited more fully. The Walking Dead was one of the year’s biggest TV success stories, breaking viewing records for AMC by a substantial margin and already finding itself nominated for a Golden Globe. This has in turn paved the way for a glut of comic book TV projects, ranging from remakes of classic TV superhero shows of the past (Wonder Woman, The Hulk) to adaptations of thus-far untouched comic book properties (Locke & Key, Powers, Alias).

As ever, it’s difficult to provide a concise summary for the year in comics as a whole. There were a few great comics, some awful comics, and a whole bunch that fell somewhere in between. This list of mine is by no means all-encompassing. Instead, it is a deeply subjective reflection of my own limited, largely mainstream-leaning reading throughout the year. Graphic novels, mini-series’ and ongoing monthly comics were all eligible for inclusion as I put my list together. Here’s what I came up with:

HONORABLE MENTION: THOR

It’s been a turbulent year for Marvel’s god of thunder. After J. Michael Straczynski’s great run came to an abrupt, disappointing close, we entered 2010 with a sense of “Right, let’s hurry up and get on with Matt Fraction’s run, get Kieron Gillen in to tidy up Straczynski’s mess.” But then Mr. Gillen surprised people by coming onboard with a run that was very good in its own right, far exceeding the expectations of the transitional writer between two A-listers and in fact surpassing much of the latter part of the JMS run. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to those familiar with Phonogram or SWORD that Gillen would not disappoint. His first arc, “Latverian Prometheus” – in which hostilities between Asgard and Dr. Doom came to a head and Straczynski’s incomplete saga was wrapped up – was great fun, and delivered on both the action and characterization fronts. Arguably the high point of Gillen’s run came with the event tie-in Siege: Loki, which simultaneously explained some of Loki’s actions before and during the events of Siege and set up the next storyline for Thor once the event wrapped up, all while giving us a masterful insight into Loki’s motivations and treating us to some lovely art from Jamie McKelvie. It’s a shame then that the Siege tie-in issues of Thor itself were so poor they almost cost the title its place in the top ten. I don’t blame Gillen: the job of writing an arc set in Asgard where he couldn’t actually progress anything because the main activity was happening in the main Siege book, unable to even use any of the title’s main characters as they were also being used in Siege, was a particularly thankless one, which is probably why Straczynksi left the book in the first place. Thankfully then, Gillen got to end his run on a high note with an additional closing arc after finishing the grunt work that saw Thor and friends take a romp through hell. And now that Fraction is onboard (aided by some high-quality art by Pasqual Ferry), we’re getting the beginnings of what seems set to be an intriguing new era for Thor.

10. CHEW

After a stellar beginning that saw me rank the series at #8 in my top ten of the decade at this time last year, Chew seemed to falter slightly this year. Particularly at points during this most recent arc, “Just Desserts”, the series appeared to be lacking direction. But even in its weaker moments, Chew never fails to entertain, typically guaranteeing at least one out-loud belly laugh per issue. Rob Guillory’s art remains fantastic, giving the book its own unique identity, and with the last couple of issues it’s become apparent that John Layman has been carefully crafting a larger mythology, even when it appeared like the book was lacking direction. The stage has been set for Chew to reach new heights in 2011.

9. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN

Here we have another case of a title that reached heady heights in 2009 but couldn’t quite keep it up going into 2010. After the epic “World’s Most Wanted”, it appeared that Matt Fraction’s Iron Man saga had lost steam with both “Stark: Disassembled” and the current “Resilient” arc. With its almost-funereal pacing, Invincible Iron Man at times feels like one of the most decompressed comics on the market. But even when it’s at its most plodding, Fraction keeps things interesting, his mastery of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and co so refined that he can make an issue of them sitting in a café drinking coffee compelling reading: and there were a couple of issues that weren’t too far off that. But when the action does come, its kinetic, in-your-face, thrilling; Salvatore Larroca’s art (long a weak point in the series) greatly improving over the course of the year. Compliments also go to the fantastic Invincible Iron Man Annual, which gave us a Mandarin who was delightfully vile and free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And even when the narrative is moving along slowly, you get the sense that Fraction knows what he’s doing, that he’s carefully setting the pieces in place for something explosive down the line. So Invincible Iron Man still has my attention, and my praise, going into 2011.

8. MORNING GLORIES

I almost didn’t include this in my list. This is in fact a belated edit, after finally getting caught up on the series. I blame the oversight on the frustrating lack of availability the series suffered in its early issues, what with all the quick sell-outs. I managed to get issue #1 on its third printing, but had given up all hope on getting issue #2, and as such had given up on the series altogether. But I finally managed to get a hold of that missing second issue, and now I’m fully onboard. Of course, the plus-side of all those sell-outs is that Morning Glories is positioned as the breakout indy comics smash of 2010, much like Chew was in 2010. But while it was the original high concept that initially sold Chew, with this tale of a group of 16 year olds trapped in a prestigious prep school with dark secrets, it seems like Nick Spencer is crafting the comic book equivalent of a water-cooler mystery more typically associated with television. I’ve seen many comparisons to Lost, but with its off-kilter weirdness, comically monstrous characters and constant sense of lurking dread, I’d say it bears closer parallels to Twin Peaks. In the first issue, Spencer introduces us to six new characters and within mere pages makes them all feel rounded and nuanced. Artist Joe Eisna, meanwhile, provides visuals that deftly shift back and forth from cartoonish to horrifying. Each issue deepens the mystery, offering more questions in place of answers. It remains to be seen whether – much like Lost – this approach stops being tantalizing and starts being infuriating, but for now this series is off to a highly promising start.

7. ACTION COMICS

Caught up in the tepid “New Krypton” saga for much of the year, it would have taken something incredible to hit Action Comics over the latter half of 2010 for the series to rank in this list at all. Thankfully, then, Paul Cornell jumped on as writer of the book, and made Lex Luthor the star. Each month, we see Superman’s arch-nemesis pit against another popular DC supervillain in his ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of the black rings last seen in Blackest Night. Witty, charismatic, even likeable, but also unquestionably evil, Cornell has made Lex Luthor into my new favorite superhero. And the Gorilla Grodd issue was surely one of the best single comics of the year. If the comic hadn’t been subpar for the rest of the year, Cornell’s run could have earned Action Comics a higher placing on this list. We’ll see what next year brings!

6. SWEET TOOTH

Once again, I find myself saying that a comic that was amazing in 2009 wasn’t quite as good in 2010: is that the theme of this year? Sweet Tooth had a brilliant opening arc, but the second storyline, “In Captivity”, didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. There was one grim period where I briefly thought I had accidentally bought the same issue twice, as I read my new purchase and thought it was so incredibly similar to what I had read a month earlier, offering as little as it did in the way of plot advancement. “In Captivity” did, however, expand the mythology of the series, and introduce new characters to the mix. And despite not being quite to the level of “Out of the Deep Woods”, there was still plenty of emotional, heartbreaking story beats to be found. The current arc, “Animal Armies” has been a big improvement, and over the last couple of months Sweet Tooth has once again become essential reading. It’s just a shame the boost didn’t come earlier in the year, or Sweet Tooth could have cracked the top five.

5. KNIGHT & SQUIRE

I love this series so much. Three issues in, and I already feel totally immersed in this quirky, idiosyncratic and very, very British world that Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have created. A spin-off using characters originally revived by Grant Morrison, Cornell has nevertheless made Knight & Squire feel totally his own. Each issue so far has been so dense with in-jokes and subtle humor that they benefit greatly from multiple readings, and I’ve reread these comics perhaps more than anything else on this top ten list. If I were to use any word to describe Knight & Squire, it would be nice. This is a nice comic. Whenever I’m done reading an issue, I’m cheered up, I feel that little bit happier for reading it. And with the dark, emotionally-draining stuff that’s coming up as our countdown continues, something bright and joyful that captures all the weird, silly stuff that makes comics so much fun is certainly refreshing.

4. AMERICAN VAMPIRE

This actually started out a bit lower on my top ten. But as I wrote this summary of its merits, I kept on nudging it up and up until it finally settled here at #4, making it the highest-ranked new series of the year on my list. American Vampire debuted with much fanfare, billed as the first original comic written by Stephen King – that’s what first attracted my attention. And yes, King’s back-up story over the first five issues proved that the man’s creativity and knack for characterization and the building of dread is not limited to the prose medium. But the true revelation came with the core creative team. Immediately noticeable is the work of artist Rafael Albuquerque, producing some of the most gorgeous interiors of any comic on the stands right now. But more and more I’m coming to appreciate the input of writer Scott Snyder. It seems like every month, he moves the narrative forward in some way, be it through shedding new light on a character or expanding the mythology. He really shows an affinity for serial storytelling, with each installment both serving as a satisfying read in its own right, while having a cumulative effect as it builds on what came before and sets the stage for what is to come. And in the vicious Skinner Sweet, Snyder has created arguably the year’s best new character: one of the comic’s great pleasures is the way we are continually lured into thinking the eponymous American vampire could grow into an anti-hero, only for Skinner Sweet to turn around and do something utterly horrible and monstrous and remind us of what a villain he unquestionably is. 10 issues in, American Vampire keeps on getting better and better.

3. BATMAN AND ROBIN

A list of 2010’s best comics could very easily have been dominated by Grant Morrison’s Batman output. But in the interest of fairness, I limited myself to only including a single Bat-title on the list, and the winner by a narrow margin was Batman and Robin. The book was consistently strong throughout the year, but what really put it above Batman Inc and even the ingenious Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne for me was the concluding arc of Morrison’s run on the title: “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Serving as a kind of sequel to Batman R.I.P., we got to see Dr. Hurt and Professor Pyg make their welcome returns, and Frazer Irving floored us all with some spectacular art. But best of all was the long-awaited return of The Joker, and in particular Grant Morrison’s Joker, given that the Scottish scribe writes the character better than just about anyone. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman saga has made for one of the definitive superhero sagas of the decade and one of the finest runs in the character’s history, and I’m excited to see its next phase with Batman Inc.

2. THE WALKING DEAD

Aw, you gotta feel bad for The Walking Dead. Two years in a row now, it has ranked at #2 in my top ten. Looking at the series as a whole, I’d probably rate it as my personal #1 favorite comic. But based on the 2010 output alone, there is one comic I’d rate even higher. However, having said that, 2010 has still been a stellar year for everyone’s favorite zombie comic. We saw a shift in the dynamic this year as our survivors settled into Alexandria, the long sought-after safe haven they desired, populated by a community of largely good people striving to rebuild a sense of normal life. But the tragedy explored through the plights of various characters this year was that many of our survivors are so damaged by what they’ve had to go through to survive that they no longer have a place in a “normal” world. The result of this conflicted dynamic has been the steady escalation of tensions between the established cast and the new characters resident to Alexandria, all the while distracting us from the inexorable arrival of the zombie horde that now surrounds this “safe haven” as we head into 2011. “No Way Out” seems set to be a major storyline for the months ahead. When also taking into consideration the huge success of the TV adaptation, then I’d say it’s a great time to be a fan of The Walking Dead.

1. SCALPED

I heard alarming news lately, that – in the wake of the recent wave of house-clearing cancellations – Scalped is now currently one of Vertigo’s lowest-selling titles each month. That’s a real shame. Because it means people are missing out on one of the best books Vertigo has ever produced, and what was in my opinion the best comic of the year. 2010 gave us lots of quality developments within the pages of Scalped. The first few months of the year brought the heart-rending conclusion of “The Gnawing”, the storyline that has marked arguably the high-point of the comic’s history thus far. From there, the book adopted a change of pace (brave considering the amount of momentum build up off the back of “The Gnawing”) and gave us a collection of stand-alone stories that helped create a more rounded picture of The Rez and some of its inhabitants.

First came “Listening to the Earth Turn”, a single-issue tale of an elderly couple struggling to make an honest living on the outskirts of the reservation. This was a wonderful little story that challenged some of the negative assumptions that have been tossed in the direction of the series: that it suggests reservations are nothing but cesspits of crime and violence (the protagonists here are decent, law-abiding citizens) and that it is relentlessly bleak and miserable (this story had a happy ending). After that was a two-parter with the tongue-twisting title, “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, in which we got a little into the mind of Red Crow’s right-hand man Shunka, long one of the most mysterious members of the comic’s ensemble. The full page reveal of his man-on-man kiss was one of the more genuinely surprising page-turn twists of the year. Finally, and perhaps best of all, was “Family Tradition”, a single-issue tale notable on two counts. First, because it marked Jason Aaron’s return to the Vietnam War, the setting of The Other Side – the astounding comic that first made his name. And second, because we saw R.M. Guera (whose work started strong and has been steadily improving over the course of Scalped) reach a whole new level of excellence, with him delivering career-best work.

And after that interlude, it was back at last to the ongoing saga of Bad Horse and co. with “Unwanted”. Here, Carol Ellroy and the significant females of the saga, past and present, took centre stage, with Carol – having discovered she was pregnant at the conclusion of “The Gnawing” – agonizing over whether to have an abortion or to tell Bad Horse he could be a father, and in the process embarking on one of the few genuinely redemptive arcs we’ve seen in Scalped thus far. These issues of parenthood were further explored with the return of Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s deadbeat father, and a look at his difficult relationships with both his son and Red Crow. After that, we wrapped up the year with “A Come-To-Jesus”, another one-and-done, this time putting a spotlight on bit-part player Sheriff Wooster Karnow.

The unifying element throughout the year of Scalped was the raw, powerful, exhilarating writing skill of Jason Aaron, possibly the best writer working in the industry today. He’s done quality work over in Marvel in 2010 too, but his crowning achievement remains Scalped. I just hope that 2011 doesn’t mark the title’s cancellation, and that we get to see this epic narrative carry on until its intended conclusion.

So there we have it. My top ten comics of 2010. But I’m sure there are plenty of great comics I’ve overlooked. So let me know – what were your top ten comics of 2010?