Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spider-Man and his Amazing Critical Mood Swings No. 1 (Skottie Young variant)

Hey, everyone, Spider-Man’s back! Or, more accurately, Peter Parker’s back in his own body, so Spidey’s gonna seem like less of a cocky tool.

Amazing Spider-Man #1 hits stands today, marking a return to status quo brilliantly delayed roughly 18 months by writer Dan Slott, a man who’s spent at least three-plus years masterminding a longform arc that almost – ALMOST – makes you forget about that "One More Day" business.

But that’s the funny thing about Spider-Man, isn’t it? For every story that’s critically praised, there’s one that even more mercilessly panned. For every death of Gwen Stacy’s, there’s Norman Osborn impregnating Stacy at some point in the past and turning the children into monsters. For every Superior Spider-Man, there’s "The Clone Saga." For every "Kraven’s Last Hunt," there’s Kraven’s resurrection. Look ’em up, kids!

So in honor of Spider-Man’s spectacular quality pendulum, let’s do a bit of time-traveling and look at where his books and other assorted media were this time each decade, starting with the presentmost present.

Amazing Spider-Man #1, April 2014 
Written by Dan Slott, penciled by Humberto Ramos. 

After spending a year and a half as a shell for Doctor Octopus, Peter Parker is back in his own body, and Marvel has an “Amazing” Spider-Man title again. And hey, I’m sure that wasn’t timed to the fact that the second installment in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man film franchise is set to bow next month, giving Marvel an accessible jumping-on point for new readers. It’s probably only a coincidence that the villain of the book is Electro, who also happens to be in the movie. Or that the movie will be out the weekend of Free Comic Book Day. You’d have to believe in Da Vinci Code-style conspiracies to tie all that together! All kidding aside, it’s a good time to be Spider-Man. In addition to the newly relaunched comic and the ongoing film franchise, there’s also the highly enjoyable Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon on Disney XD, in which Drake Bell voices Spider-Man as a SHIELD trainee alongside Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Nova, White Tiger and Agent Coulson as himself.

Amazing Spider-Man #504, April 2004 
Written by Fiona Avery and J. Michael Straczinski, penciled by John Romita Jr. 

Spidey teams up with a pre-he's-so-hot-right-now Loki to save Loki's daughter from Morwen, a mystical being whose first appearance was that issue. This was the same year Spider-Man 2 bowed in theaters, starring Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus, generally considered the best installment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-trilogy. There was no Spider-Man cartoon airing during this time, though “Spider-Man: The New Animated Series” had aired the year before on MTV starring the vocal talents of Neil Patrick Harris as Spider-Man, Lisa Loeb as Mary Jane Watson and Ian Ziering as Harry Osborn.

Amazing Spider-Man #388, April 1994 
Written by David Michelinie, Penciled by Mark Bagley. 

Peter Parker finds out his long-lost parents, Richard and Mary Parker, who’d claimed to have been held prisoner overseas for years, were actually robots serving the Chameleon, who at the time was working with the Vulture, who himself was in the middle of a big “I’m gonna make myself young and stay that way” kick. (Interesting to note that the Chameleon and Vulture are the first two villains Spidey had ever faced, if you don’t count the guy who killed Uncle Ben.) And if you thought that was a weird storyline, a little something called "The Clone Saga" was but months away. The mystery surrounding Parker’s parents has played a key role in Webb’s Spider-movies. Fox’s Spider-Man cartoon aired that fall and would run for three years and change in an animation block that included X-Men for a one-two Marvel punch. Among the most high-profile members of its voice cast were Ed Asner as J. Jonah Jameson, Hank Azaria as Venom and Mark Hamill as the Hobgoblin (which wasn’t too far a stretch from his Joker on Batman: The Animated Series).

Amazing Spider-Man #251, April 1984. 
Written by Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco, penciled by Ron Frenz. 

The end of a three-issue story featuring the original Hobgoblin, arguably Spidey's hottest ’80s villain, pre-Venom. It also marks a handoff of writing duties from Stern to DeFalco. Stern had not revealed Hobby's identity during his run, so the task eventually fell to Peter David, who revealed it to be Ned Leeds, who was killed, to be replaced by Jason Macendale. Not willing to leave well enough alone, Stern would retcon the whole thing in 1997 with the Scooby-Doo ending. A month later, in issue 252, Spidey would begin wearing the black costume he acquired during the Secret Wars. This was also a year after the cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends ended its two-year run, in which the titular hero was teamed with X-Man Iceman and created-for-the-show character Firestar, who would go on in the comics to become a Hellion, a New Warrior, an Avenger and, as of a few months ago, an X-Man. There was also an adorable dog.

Amazing Spider-Man #131, April 1974
Written by Gerry Conway, penciled by Ross Andru. 

That classic storyline in which Doctor Octopus attempts to marry Aunt May, who has inherited a private Canadian island rich in uranium, because those sorts of things should be gifted to frail old ladies who have made a career out of being on death’s door. The wedding, of course, never happens, and Doc Ock and Hammerhead end up presumed dead in an atomic blast on the island. Decades later, Doc Ock will again try to bond himself to the Parker family, by marrying his brain to Peter Parker’s body. That same year, PBS’ The Electric Company ran the first of three seasons’ worth of live-action shorts called “Spider Super Stories.” Our hero was played by puppeteer and dancer Danny Seagren. He remained in costume the whole time and did not speak, communicating solely via word balloon.

Amazing Spider-Man #11, April 1964 
Written by Stan Lee, penciled by Steve Ditko. 

Doctor Octopus returns for the first time since debuting in issue 3. This is also the first issue since Uncle Ben’s death that a key player is offed, namely Betty Brant’s brother Bennett. Betty, J. Jonah Jameson’s assistant at The Daily Bugle, was Spider-Man’s first love interest, and seeing as Betty blamed Spider-Man for her brother’s death, this of course threw a wrench in their relationship. At this point, Spider-Man the intellectual property was less than 2 years old. His first cartoon, the one with the catchy theme song, did not debut until 1967.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/28

All Star Western #30
Story: Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray
Art: Staz Johnson/ Jose Garcia-Lopez

It's not good to be a love interest for Jonah Hex. After burying the girl who he brought back from his brief sojourn to the 21st century, Jonah heads to town to find a room and finds Tallulah Black. For those of you not in the know, or who have only experienced that character through the unfortunate Jonah Hex film, Tallulah is a female bounty hunter Jonah trained initially to hunt those who killed her family, and became his recurring love interest and partner throughout the initial Palmiotti & Gray run on Jonah Hex. This issue is a good jumping on point if you're not familiar with either character, since Jonah has to establish his identity because his historically scarred face was fixed in his time in the future. You see that they are both coldblooded killers with little regard for pretty much anyone else. You see the fireworks between them, the perfect chemistry, and the final page of their story sets up what looks to be a bloody beginning to the next issue. This issue is also the first issue of All Star Western in a while to have a back-up story, something that was a regular feature when it debuted, and this issue features the New 52 introduction of Madame .44. A more obscure old DC western character, the origin is slightly altered, but still features most of the original aspect: father who was a miner, seeks revenge on those who wronged him, but it also adds a supernatural aspect that wasn't there originally. The extra big draw on that back-up is art by living legend Jose Garcia-Lopez, who hasn't lost a step in portraying the old west.

Duffman Adventures #1
Story: Max Davison/ Ian Bootby
Art: John Delaney/ Jacob Chabot

OH, YEAH! Bingo's Simpsons comics are consistently fun, but I have gotten a real kick out of these "One Shot Wonders," single issues focusing on single characters. This issue clearly focuses on Duffman, the pitchman for Homer's favorite beverage, Duff Beer. The issue features two stories, both of which are parodies; they're pretty on the nose, not very subtle, but are so full of in jokes and well put together, who needs subtlety? In the lead story, mild mannered Kyle McKagen is called by an extraterrestrial beer can to join the galaxy's leaders in partying, the Duffman Corps. Not only do we see Duffman versions of such legendary Green Lanterns as Kilowog, Salaak, Tomar Re, and G'Nort, but there are also Duffmen from the Rigellian species (Kang and Kodos of The Simpsons), and Nibblonians and Decapodians (Nibbler and Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama respectively). When you factor in Vinostro, king of the buzzkills, you get a fun Green Lantern parody. In the second short, we get previews of shows on the new Duff Network, including "CSI: Duff," "Duffton Abbey," and "DuffTales." "DuffTales" was my favorite, with Duffman in a Scrooge McDuck costume and bill, and three of the Seven Duffs as the Beagle Boys. If you watch The Simpsons, you know that Duff Beer is from a corporation so corrupt it would only fit in Springfield (or Wall Street), and so their product placement ads work as a good lampooning of corporate greed. And the next one shot features Kang and Kodos! Nothing better than wacky tentacle aliens!

Eternal Warrior #8
Story: Greg Pak
Art: Robert Gill

I haven't talked about Valiant Comics as much as I probably should have since their return, and I feel bad that I'm only now hitting on Eternal Warrior with its last issue. This arc finds Gilad Anni-Padda, the titular immortal warrior, aged and in the year 4001, a world that has returned to an almost Middle Ages level of technology. There, he has been on a quest to find a cure for radiation poisoning to save the village he has been living with an most importantly his grand daughter, Caroline. Gilad must lead a group of men and women to defeat a death cult that has claimed the bunker that holds the cure, and to do it, must teach them how to use weapons from the old days, including mechanical war suits and laser blasters. Gilad knows that teaching them to use the weapons could again bring about the destruction that was brought about by the high technology. In the end, while Gilad wins and saves his people, he also loses, as Caroline, enchanted by the technology, seems to be the one who will bring it back and doom the world again. This theme, that of the cycle of destruction and rebirth, is important in apocalyptic literature, and Pak adds the extra personal punch of Gilad seeing it's his own blood who will bring it about again. The series ends with this issue with some plot threads left dangling, and I'm hoping to see some of those dealt with in Valiant's new future set series, Rai. But Gilad is the eternal warrior, so I can only expect to see him back.

Herobear and the Kid: Saving Time #1
Story and Art: Mike Kunkel

A couple weeks ago I did an advanced review of the new Scratch 9 series, and said how glad I was to see another great all ages back. And now here's another of the best all ages comics I've ever read back with a new series! Herobear and the Kid is the story of Tyler, a young boy who got a very special inheritance from his grandfather: a pocketwatch that tells Tyler of someone is good or bad and a stuffed bear that, when Tyler presses his nose, turns into a full size flying, talking, superhero polar bear called Herobear. This new series takes place not too long after the first series, at Tyler's first New Year's since his family moved into the house his grandfather left them. He and Herobear have an adventure doing battle with a crocodile, and when he arrives home, he learns the secret of his butler, the always punctual Henry: Henry is Father Time, one of whose jobs it is to aid Santa Claus in his deliveries (oh, did I forget to mention that Tyler's grandfather was Santa, and Tyler is in line to be the new Santa?), and once a year, on New Year's, he turns into Baby New Year, and it's up to Tyler to protect him or there will be dire consequences. Of course, Tyler isn't even a teenager, so you know he's going to get distracted, and the evil Von Klon is waiting in the wings. Herobear and the Kid is the product of cartoonist Mike Kunkel, whose gorgeous black and white art is a major draw to the series. This is a well written comic, with plenty to read; I would be surprised if there were any books from either Marvel or DC that took as much time for me to read. That is not to say it is overwritten; nowhere does the book feel like I'm slogging through too much narration or dialogue. Kunkel really gets into the mind of a child who still can experience the magic of the world in a way we adults can't, while still keeping the stakes high and the action and humor coming. If you have a kid, or are a kid at heart, then you should be reading Herobear and the Kid, and this issue is the perfect time to come on board.

The Manhattan Projects #20
Story: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Nick Pitarra

This is it, the issue I've been waiting for since the series began. Early on, Albert Einstein discovered how to open a gate between worlds and dimensions, only to be left trapped in another dimension by his alternate self, Albrecht Einstein, who took the place of the great thinker. I knew Albert would be back, and now we get pay off on that long dangling thread. This issue is the story of what Einstein had to do to get back to his home world, and of what he experienced. We see exactly the kind of world Albrecht escaped, a crazy fantasy world where they believe science is magic and magic is science. We see Einstein passing through numerous other alternate Earths. And we see him having a conversation with his alternate self. Now, Albrecht has fit in pretty well with the narcissists and maniacs who make up the Manhattan Projects team, and no doubt he's not a very nice guy, but seeing the world he's from not only clearly makes him the lesser of many evils, but even Albert understands why he would do anything to escape it. And the reasoning behinds Albert's immediate assassination of Oppenheimer a couple issues ago becomes very apparent, and I feel is going to important as the series continues. I've always felt like Jonathan Hickman's strength as a writer has been his big crazy plots, but this issue does a nice job of giving us a character piece with a character who isn't a lunatic. And who could pass up a comic titled "Einstein the Barbarian"? Not me.

And a little additional recommendation. One of the seemingly exponentially number of podcasts I listen to is NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, a weekly discussion of different pop culture topics. Occasionally, host Linda Holmes will have a fun quiz that the panelists have to take, usually to their shagrin. Well, this week, she handed the quiz duties over to Glen Weldon, their resident authority on comics, who happens to be writing a book about how Batman intersects with pop culture, and so naturally his quiz was about Batman. It's multiple choice, but pretty darn tricky; I wound up getting eight out of twelve. Check out the episode and see how you do.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Recommended Reading for 4/25: Batman: The Cult

Some stories take on a life of their own and live forever. Batman has his share of these: Dark Knight Returns, Year One, A Death in The Family, Long Halloween, and Knightfall to name a few. Then there are stories that are simply stories of the month; perfectly fine stories but not going to go down in the annals of history. And then there is an odd category that falls somewhere in between, a story that is resonant, that at the time sees to do something new, or different, or momentous, and is something big at one point, and then slowly falls out of that favor or canon. Batman: The Cult is one of those stories. I took a straw poll of some of my customers, and while many had heard of it vaguely, very few aside from fans who were fans at the time or hardcore Batman fans like me, had actually read it. So I decided to talk about it today, both because it is a great comic, and because it looks like certain elements of it are coming around again.

Batman: The Cult, with a script by Jim Starlin and art by horror comics legend Bernie Wrightson,  is a dark story. It came out on the heels of Dark Knight Returns (DKR) in 1988, so it was directly in the shadow of that story, and matches it in format, as a four issue prestige format series. It's not a perfect Batman story, and has some controversial elements in regards to its portrayal of Batman, but when you think about its timing, that was a big deal. This isn't twenty years after Frank Miller and we're still treading water. This is a story that takes this new Darker Knight and really breaks him down, both thematically and literally. It isn't directly a sequel or knock off of DKR, but a story telling a Batman story from that with its own mature edge, and exploring themes that Starlin is comfortable with (Although I will admit there is a clear attempt to tie in to DKR, by having Batman more or less build that Batmobile-tank from that story in here, for good or ill depending on how you feel about those kind of things).

The story of The Cult centers around a new villain in Batman's world, Deacon Blackfire. He is the leader of the titular cult, a possible immortal who bends people to his will, and has a frightening agenda of conquest, using his devotees to kill any criminal, no matter how small the offense. If you're at all familiar with Jim Starlin's writing, or have read any of the commentary I've made on his work on Warlock, you'll know Starlin has a real issue with organized religion, and while this story isn't as heavy handed as Dreadstar, Infinity Crusade, or his recent work with DC, Blackfire is the sort of religious figure that Starlin writes about, the ones who use religion to nothing but benefit themselves. He's not a particularly complex villain, as he is Ra's al Ghul from Batman Begins without any of the subtlety brought by Liam Neeson's performance. He freakin' bathes in human blood once a month to maintain his immortality! There's no sympathy to be found for the Deacon; he's just a bad guy.

The story opens with an extended hallucination, and pretty soon we find Batman tied up and being tortured and conditioned by Blackfire. We get a flashback to how Batman came to be in this predicament, and pretty soon, Blackfire breaks Batman and turns him into one of his mind controlled slaves. Its not easy material, and while it isn't a mature readers book, its not something I'd give to a little kid. Wrightson's art is especially effective in some of the more horrific hallucination sequences, and his vision of Gotham's sewers are clearly sewers but still have the gothic vibe; only Gotham City would have overly designed sewers.

What was different here, and is different than many other interpretations of Batman since, is that Batman is broken here. There's no way to deny it: at the end of the first issue, Deacon Blackfire wins, and if not for the rogue actions of one of his cult members later, he would have kept Batman under his thumb. I often see people comment that the Batman in comics now, at least since Grant Morrison, has more or less been a Batgod, brilliant and unstoppable. This is not that Batman. He's a very fragile, very human figure.

Another character presented with a more well rounded interpretation than was usually seen at the time was Jason Todd. Yes, the infamous second Robin, the one everyone hated so much they voted to have the Joker kill him, was Robin at the time of The Cult. And Jason acts heroically throughout the story. He is clever, sneaking into the sewers and following Batman until the right moment to save him, and supports Batman throughout the entire ordeal. As a matter of fact, he doesn't act particularly bratty at all. This might be viewed as out of character for Jason at the time, but it was probably his most heroic moment in his entire career as Robin, and it was a nice bit to give him right before he was, well, unceremoniously killed.

The story progresses to a point where Gotham is taken over by Blackfire and his cult, and again we get story elements similar to DKR. Gotham belongs to Blackfire as it seems to belong to the Mutant gang at the beginning of DKR, and even moreso, since Blackfire has made public pronouncements on TV saying so. He's clearly a madman, but people still seem to be siding with him; this is again Starlin's anti-religion theme coming out, showing how the sheep are lead by a mad shepherd. Naturally, Batman wins in the end, and Blackfire is defeated, but Starlin ties things up a bit too neatly and the ramifications are never dealt with.

The thing that makes this book controversial in some circles of Batman fans, and the key point in any real discussion, is that Starlin breaks pretty much all the rules of Batman throughout it. Batman starts using, and training Robin to use, guns, even if they're just loaded with tranq darts. And more damning is the fact that Batman kills. Not just while under Deacon Blackfire's mind control, although he assuredly does there, but after he has defeated Blackfire (and his entire cult, with nothing more than Robin, a Battank, and his own two fists), he lets the mob that has now turned on the mad preacher tear him limb from limb and simply walk away.

If you're at all familiar with Batman as a character (and if you're reading this blog, I have to imagine you are), the main thing you know about Batman is that he DOES NOT KILL. If he did, would you imagine the Joker would be around today? Starlin had a very loose interpretation of this in his time writing the Batman titles. This wasn't the first time Batman just let someone die; in Ten Nights of the Beast, Batman locks up the titular villain, the KGBeast, in the sewers, and leaves him to suffocate, starve, or die of thirst (as I think about it, a lot of Starlin's Batman stories have sewers in them). And at the end of A Death in the Family, Batman seems as close to killing Joker as he ever is. This stuff is very problematic to anyone who conceives of Batman as someone who holds life sacred. Starlin seems to view Batman's code more flexibly than pretty much any writer before or after, even moreso than Miller, which is saying something. It makes me more than a bit itchy, I admit.

While so much of the story leaves you scratching your head or possibly irritated, the art is completely entrancing. Bernie Wrightson is one of the modern masters of comic book art, and a true master of horror. His Batman is one whose cape is alive and swirling. The horror of Deacon Blackfire's hanging corpse room is palpable. The action is smooth, with a Batman who moves at times like an acrobat and at times like a heavyweight boxer. The final battle between Batman and the cult is one of the most stunning Batman battles ever visually. The only thing that might have made it better was if it was presented in black and white; I've always thought Wrightson's work looks better in black and white.

I really sat back after looking this story over again, and thought about whether or not to recommend it, or to talk about it in a more general sense. It's not exactly the kind of story I usually recommend, since I clearly have some issues with how it's told and with the interpretation of Batman. But it is an interesting story, and lives in its world completely; there are no half measures here. It's a great story for debate, about its relative merits and what it says about Batman as a character. Also, it will be worth it because, if you've read the second issue of Batman: Eternal, I think we're going to be seeing aspects of this story showing up there. I won't say anymore, but I think between the first page of Eternal and a hint in that second issue, Batman may still have to meet Deacon Blackfire in the new DC Universe.

The four issues of Batman: The Cult are available as back issues, and a trade of the series is currently in print.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/16

Batman #30
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo

The final arc of Zero Year begins here, and "Savage City" answers some questions that have been in this book since the first page of the first part of the story. After the end of the last issue, we see exactly what the Riddler has had planned for Gotham all along, and its not what I expected. There is a touch of the Dark Knight Rises in the story, but Snyder has done a great job over the course of Zero Year of picking and choosing the best of Batman's history and working them together, and his use of the last of the Nolan films is no different. Bruce is recovering from the trouncing the Riddler has given him so far, and its good to see a young Batman who still has doubts; Miller's Batman in Year One, while inexperienced, had that singularity of purpose that epitomized Miller's Batman, the Batman who was always right on the edge of madness. Here, Bruce isn't sure if he can really beat Nygma for a moment, despite feeling he needs to and of course making the decision to with little doubt. It's also great to see Snyder's Jim Gordon as a man of action who doesn't give up. Gordon as tough guy also really has its origins in Miller (although there were times in the earlier Bronze Age before where Gordon proved that he was a good cop), but here we see him working with whatever and whoever he can to get Gotham back. After the somewhat tenuous relationship between these two characters the story started with, it's nice to see that they've now grown to the point where the friendship readers are used to is something that can be built over time. The Riddler is often a character who is hard to write, coming off as silly or simply obnoxious, but Snyder gives him a real air of menace, of being a threat to Batman. Snyder has each of his characters pitch perfect, and does something fun with his new character, Duke Thomas, the young boy who saved Bruce Wayne. Snyder has spent the past year fleshing out the early days of Gotham, and now the endgame is in motion. Buckle up; it's going to be a bumpy knight.

Batman and Wonder Woman #30
Story: Peter J Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

The quest for the body of Damian Wayne continues, as Batman heads to Paradise Island, chasing Ra's al Ghul, who plans to resurrect his grandson, and Batman's son, by using a Lazarus Pit he knows to be on the island. One of the first things that impressed me about this issue was how it deals with a lot of the events that are currently playing out in Wonder Woman (it didn't hurt that I has just read the most recent issue of Wonder Woman right before this issue). I'm hoping that this gets some people who might not have tried Wonder Woman to give that book a try, as it is excellent as well. We see Aleka, Wonder Woman's chief Amazonian antagonist, interact with Batman, and we see just how near the edge of things Bruce is right now. It's interesting to see how Tomasi deals with Bruce and his feelings for his lost son, and Wonder Woman and her feelings for her lost mother. The emotional connection between the two characters is something I've always enjoyed, be it in Joe Kelly's JLA where he teased the possibility of a relationship, to other Justice League stories that simply play the two as good friends. And the end of the issue, where Bruce reflects on the choices Damian made in life as a sun rises over Paradise Island, is touching; writers are mining some excellent character material out of Batman through the death of Damian. In the middle of the issue, between the Amazonian politics and the introspection, we get a battle between our heroes and Ra's al Ghul's League of Assassins, as well as an ancient monster trapped in Paradise Island's Lazarus Pit. Artist Patrick Gleason draws the hell out of that monster and the combat. He also does the introspection well, with great facial expressions from Batman as he rages at Aleka, but boy, that monster was something creepy. The team-up book has a long tradition in comics, and Tomasi and Gleason have done a good job with this one. As the end of the "Search for Robin," story nears its end, as much as a new Robin centric book will be nice, I'll miss this format when the book becomes Batman and Robin again.

Justice League #29
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Doug Mahnke

As Forever Evil limps to an end, we actually get one of the best tie-ins yet, with the resolution of Cyborg's battle with The Grid in Justice League #29. So much of The New 52 is gory, and dark, and at times hard to look at. While this issue does have a couple of gorier moments, it is actually full of happiness and hope. The Metal Men are inherently silver age characters, crazy robots who want to be human, but it would be very easy for writers to try to make them edgy and modern. Instead, we see them as they always have been: hopeful, helpful, and just a bit goofy. It's also good to see Cyborg out there, really up front and making a name for himself. The problem with a team book is usually that the characters in it are in their own books and that's where the that character gets most development; this is why a team book usually has one or two characters who are unique to that book to allow character growth and a central arc. This issue wraps up Cyborg's development from his first appearance, with Cyborg coming to terms with his own dual nature. As for the villain, The Grid, his arc is also wrapped up, with him dealing with his inability to feel emotion; that Pinocchio syndrome ends with a dark little twist. The issue ends with a cliffhanger that ties into the final issue of Forever Evil, which is still three weeks to a month off, but if you ignore that last couple pages, it's a great resolution to one of the plots that has been running since the first issues of the New 52. It feels like the end of the first act of this new regime is really playing out.

The Unwritten: Apocalypse #4
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

Speaking of endings, the first arc of the final year of The Unwritten ends with the return of a couple of characters and a revelation or two. Tom Taylor gets to finally have it out with his father, the manipulative Wilson Taylor. Tom has been through so much, and has learned so much about his past, its good to see Tom confront Wilson and have it out when they're both in their right minds, have their memories, and are alive. Tom gets a pleasant moment where he gets his private reunion with Lizzie Hexam, his love interest, and after he drifts off to sleep, he heads off to meet with the person he thinks can help him defeat Pullman, the man responsible for the collapse of stories. Madam Rausch, the puppeteer who can effect reality, makes her final plans clear, and how Tom factors into them. It's a strange and somewhat creepy confrontation, when Rausch demands her boon for giving Tom the information he needs, and while he accepts it, I feel there's more to this than what we've seen, despite Madam Rausch saying this is the last time she will see Tom. The presence of the fictional friends Sue Sparrow and Peter Price, which seem to be with him even when he is out in reality, and who seem to see him as Tommy and not Tom, is a sign of the continuing slippage between reality and the fictional world. With these deeply nested stories, the wheels within wheels, I am going to miss The Unwritten when it wraps in less than a year.

And on a couple of Batman 75th Anniversary related notes:

I really do intend to get around to writing some general Batman posts in celebration of the 75th anniversary, I swear, despite having missed the actual 75th anniversary.

I will be doing weekly analysis of the weekly Batman: Eternal series. The next couple weeks are busy for me, but I will be doing the first four issues daily after Free Comic Book Day, and then moving on to a weekly piece after that.

And if you haven't seen them, check out the two animated shorts that have been released for Batman's anniversary from Bruce Timm (Strange Days) and Darwyn Cooke (Batman Beyond). They're amazing.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Field Report: Asbury Park Comic Con 2014

(This week, instead of your normal recommended reading, I have a special report from contributor Dan Grote, who took a trip to Asbury Park for this past weekend's con there, a con I had hoped to get to, but alas due to work around the new house, I was unable to. But we here at The Matt Signal love small cons, so I was glad Dan could report in. Without further ado, here's Dan -Matt)

This past weekend I journeyed north to what has become my favorite annual con of the few I’ve been to over the years, the Asbury Park Comicon, held this year at the Berkeley Hotel in Asbury Park. Asbury’s is a small but growing con, not big enough to bear the taint of Hollywood or to be a glorified autograph farm but certainly bigger and better than a dirt-mall graveyard for $1 back issues and $5 trades.

The highlight for me was a panel starring Chris Claremont, who wrote Uncanny X-Men from 1975 to 1991, then returned in 2000 and again in 2005. He's also writing Nightcrawler again in a solo series that debuted this month. Mike Zapcic of AMC’s Comic Book Men served as moderator.

Claremont is every bit as verbose as his captions, with a long story for the simplest of questions. A boy asked him what characters he created, and he, with audience assistance, rattled off a list that includes Rogue, Gambit, Dazzler, the New Mutants, Mr. Sinister, the Marauders, Sabretooth, Jubilee, Mystique, Psylocke, Emma Frost, the Hellfire Club, etc. He talked about his consultancy on the X-movies, his appreciation of Liev Schreiber as Sabretooth ("I didn't know Wolverine was Jewish"), righting perceived wrongs done to Carol Danvers in the pages of Avengers and his issues with Warren Ellis' sexualizing of Kitty Pryde in Excalibur (he says he de-aged the character upon his return to the X-books). As Ellis' Excalibur was among my favorite books in my early comics-reading years, my ears pricked up a little at that last bit.

Other creators at the Berkeley Hotel included Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD artist Jim Steranko, Ren and Stimpy co-creator Bob Camp, Milk and Cheese creator Evan Dorkin, Batwoman and Sandman: Overture artist JH Williams III, Longshot and Daredevil writer Ann Nocenti, longtime Marvel editor Jim Salicrup, Hate creator Peter Bagge, Wonder Woman artist Cliff Chiang, indie legend Denis Kitchen, My Little Pony and Adventure Time artist Stephanie Buscema and many others.

Of course, seeing as one of the organizers of the Asbury con is frequent Comic Book Men guest Robert Bruce, the men of Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash were among those in the house. With that in mind, you should be seeing a group shot of Zapcic, Ming Chen, my wife and myself either above or below this paragraph.

But I’m no stargazer or sketch commissioner. I go to cons for the nerdly shopping. Most of what I bought came from three tri-state area vendors with whom I was already favorably familiar: Wildpig Comics in Kenilworth, N.J., Conquest Comics in Bayville, N.J., and the Comic Book Shop in Wilmington, Del. My library of trades expanded as follows:

Essential Captain America, Vol. 5 (includes reprints of Jack Kirby's 70s run on the book, which I’ve been dying to read lately)
Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 (which my wife is currently reading, after the first two issues of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona's Ms. Marvel got her Carol-curious)
Mystique: the Ultimate Collection by Brian K. Vaughn
The Immortal Iron Fist, Vols. 2 and 3 by Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja, et al (Note: Need Vol. 1)
Captain America: Two Americas (completes my Brubaker run from the first omnibus to just before Fear Itself; only volume I won't have in hardcover)
A stack of $1 bin issues of Batman ’66, which my wife and I plan to give out as favors for my son's 3rd birthday party.

Additionally, I picked up three Funko Pops: The ’66 Batman and Robin, and a Winter Soldier (full mask)

One small quibble: I wish there’d been more apparel for sale. I could always use another T-shirt. Get on that, vendors!

In my wandering around I got to speak briefly with an organizer of next year’s inaugural Atlantic City Boardwalk Comicon, and while I wasn’t recording the conversation or conducting an official interview, I will say he got me looking forward to the event, which will be barely 20 minutes from my house the weekend before Memorial Day weekend.

And I definitely recommend a stroll through downtown Asbury. My wife, friends and I had some banging sushi at a restaurant called Taka for dinner, and browsed through some swanky vintage records, clothes and books in the local stores. And even though I’d just spent the day browsing through trade bins and racks of collectibles, and my messenger bag full of swag was digging into my shoulder, I still managed to pop into The Comic Crypt CafĂ© on Cookman Avenue and strike up a conversation with the staff about Joe Kelly’s Deadpool and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel.

Final verdict: A++, would con again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

I Used to Have the Runs: Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men

Here at The Matt Signal, we live by a simple code: If we don’t have anything nice to say about a comic or a particular creator, we don’t say anything at all.

So let’s talk about Chuck Austen.

(Cue record scratch)

Austen is an easy target. Just ask Chris Sims. When you Google Austen’s name, the first thing that pops up is a fan-requested treatise Sims wrote for Comics Alliance in early 2012 on the bizarre trajectory of Austen’s career, from penciling Miracleman for Alan Moore to porn comics to Little Mermaid comics to superhero comics back to porn comics.

To be sure, there’s oh-so-much he got wrong about the X-books. But like it or not, from 2002 to 2005, he put his stamp on Marvel’s mutants.

It should be noted that this was during the X-Men’s hellbent for leather period, when it was decided the team should look more like its counterpart in the movies and Grant Morrison was writing some of the most interesting X-stories since ’80s Claremont in New X-Men. Austen picked up Uncanny X-Men from Joe Casey (and would later pick up the other X-Men from Morrison) and inherited a team that included Nightcrawler, Angel, Iceman, Wolverine and a mutant prostitute who hits on everyone. Over time, he would expand this team to include former X-Factor members Havok and Polaris, reformed baddie Juggernaut, former Alpha Flight member Northstar and former Generation X member Husk. Generally the three main X-books were pretty compartmentalized at this point (though the idea of blue and gold teams had long gone by the wayside), so characters like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Bishop were all out of play. And Psylocke and Colossus were dead, but they eventually got better.

And, full disclosure, there’s a reason I unloaded my Austen X-books in a garage sale in 2009. I remember reading many an issue saying to myself things like, “This scene where Angel is lovin’ on Husk in the sky over her mom is clearly pushing statutory rape.”; “Wait, Nightcrawler’s dad is the devil, but not like the Mephisto or Belasco devil?”; “Why is this nurse in love with a coma patient?”; and “I have to believe there’s a way to make Polaris an interesting character beyond just making her a jilted, crazy witch.”

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Herewith, a shortlist of the things Austen got right, in the X-books and beyond:

He gave Juggernaut a redemption arc: Before Austen, Cain Marko was ne’er not a ne’erdowell. He was a big lug who wore a helmet that made him look like a big, red chode. He liked to run through things and smash them. He hated his step-brother, Professor Charles Xavier. He fought the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk and others. And he once got punched from Canada to Hoboken. But it wasn’t until Juggernaut started forming a friendship with a young mutant named Samuel “Sammy the Squid-boy” Pare that anybody could rightly call Juggs a good guy. Austen made the character someone worth rooting for, to the point where, when the character ends up in bed with She-Hulk in issue 435, you can’t help but smile and say, “Go ahead and enjoy; you’ve earned it.” (Though if you ask Dan Slott, that never happened).

He returned Havok to the X-books: From 1999 to 2001, Alex Summers starred in a book called Mutant X, in which he led a troupe of alternate-reality X-Men that weren’t the Exiles. The book was canceled after 32 issues. Austen brought a comatose Havok back to the 616 almost immediately, albeit in a subplot in which the nurse who’d been tending to him falls in love with him (in her defense, as an X-vegetable, he was the strong, silent type).

He brought Northstar into the X-fold: Alpha Flight is a book that’s really great at being canceled, leaving its characters to be ignored until the next time a creator says, “Hey, I’ve got a pretty decent Alpha Flight idea.” Austen took AF mainstay Northstar and made him an X-Man, giving the team its first openly gay member and laying the groundwork for Marvel’s first highly publicized same-sex wedding about a decade later.

Azazel: Wait, hold on, hear me out. I said Azazel, not “The Draco,” the storyline that introduced him and canceled many a pull subscriptions. Did you see X-Men: First Class? Were you OK with the red demon guy who kinda looked like Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas with evil-Nightcrawler powers. Thank Chuck Austen. Did you think the first arc of Amazing X-Men was the Nightcrawler storyline you’d been waiting for since “Second Coming,” even with Azazel leading a horde of demon pirates? Thank Austen. Without Austen mixing Kurt Wagner up in a bunch of stories about exploding wafers and his never-before-seen demon father (flying in the face of the Cartman’s mom is his dad theory), you wouldn't have writers like Jason Aaron and Chris Claremont giving you make-good Nightcrawler stories today. [Matt's aside: Also have to add, that while looking for an image to go with Azazel, there are a much larger number of disturbing, shirtless, slashy drawings of Azazel in Google image search than I would have expected in my wildest nightmares. Way more.]

He cut the fat from the lesser X-teams: During a storyline involving the Church of Humanity (not to be confused with the Friends of Humanity or the Purifiers, even though it clearly sounds like a sex-baby of the two), the church crucifies a number of unused X-detritus on the front lawn of the Xavier Institute, including Generation X’s Jubilee (who survived), the New Mutants’ Magma (who survived), and X-Force’s Jesse Bedlam and Generation X’s Skin (who did not). Bedlam was introduced to X-Force long after I stopped reading the book, and Skin was basically Mr. Fantastic but worthless, so, to quote Jay Sherman, “And nothing of value was lost!”

He kept the Avengers warm for Brian Michael Bendis: Austen took over Avengers in 2004 from Geoff Johns, who of course went on to fix Hal Jordan for DC and mastermind many of its big stories and characters. During his brief period on the book, he created a new, female Captain Britain codenamed Lionheart. Lionheart hung around just long enough for Bendis to come along and Disassemble the team.

He supports the real heroes: In the early 2000s, Austen wrote a series of The Call of Duty stories for Marvel, starring New York City emergency responders, a fitting tribute to the city’s finest and bravest in the wake of 9/11. Except they fought ghosts, so now all I can picture is Ghostbusters, and I’m sad about Harold Ramis all over again. THANKS A LOT, AUSTEN!

Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men is available in six volumes of trade paperback. May God have mercy on your soul. 

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/9

All New X-Men #25
Story: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: David Marquez & many others

Issue 25 has often felt like an artificial anniversary issue to me. "hey, look, we're a quarter of the way to issue one hundred! Good for us!" Then again, in a day where there are next to no books on the rack from the big two anywhere near issue one hundred, maybe it means more now. But All-New X-Men takes that anniversary issue and does something very cool with it. A mysterious figure confronts Hank McCoy, the Beast, in his bedroom, and spends the entire issue giving him glimpses of possible futures he has either created or destroyed by bringing the original X-Men to the present. Each of these possible futures is illustrated by a different artist, and holy cow are there some great artists! Bruce Timm does two pages of Jean Grey, one a montage of her past and one a dark future. David Mack draws the fall of Cyclops, Skottie Young a Monster Iceman, and Art Adams a feral Beast. JG Jones draws a beautiful two page spread of a much more optimistic future, and Jill Thompson gives us some X-Women in space. Two of the indy creators involved did two of my favorite pieces: Maris Wicks provides a two page history of the Colossus/Kitty Pryde relationship from its beginning to its inevitable end, and Jason Shiga draws "Scott + Logan: BFFs Forever," which is as funny as it sounds. There are far more creators involved for me to list them all, but each provide something different. Plus, despite me thinking that there's more to the end of the issue than meets the eye, it seems the cosmos is showing up at Hank McCoy's bedside to just call him a jackass, so the Marvel Universe itself agrees with my current assessment of the character, so I feel pretty good about that.

Batman: Eternal #1
Story: Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Jason Fabok

It's been a few years since DC did one of its weekly comics (Trinity would technically be the last one, but the biweekly schedules for Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost made them an ad hoc weekly following up Blackest Night), and within the next couple months we'll be getting two. The first is the one I've been excited for, Batman: Eternal, a series that looks to change the face of Gotham as we know it. If the first page is to be believed, it will. After page one, which shows a broken Batman in a ravaged Gotham, we flashback to the present, where we see Jason Bard arrive in Gotham. If you know Jason Bard,well, good for you, for the rest of you, well, he's an old school Batman supporting cast member, former boyfriend of Barbara Gordon and Batman's day man from the "One Year Later" era (this was set up but rarely used after that, which was a shame). We see that corruption in the GCPD is not exactly a thing of the past in Gordon's regime, and then we get a fun action scene with Jim Gordon and Batman fighting Professor Pyg. But things go horribly wrong pretty quickly, and by issue's end, Gordon has seemingly caused a major tragedy and has been arrested. But clearly there is far more to this than meets the eye. This issue does a great job to set up the series, and gives the reader a view of Gotham from the eyes of a newcomer.  I know a weekly series is a major investment, of time, of money, of space. But if the rest of the series keeps up the quality of the first issue, this is going to be an action packed Batman ride, and well worth fifty two weeks of my time, and yours.

Now I have a question to you, my loyal readers, one I probably should have asked last week: Who would like to see weekly, in depth analysis of Batman: Eternal? Page by page analysis with references to appearing characters and plot as the series builds? If you want that, let me know in the comments section.

Lumberjanes #1
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis
Art: Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes is one of those books that you want to describe with a cutesy little comparison to two other things, in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes to summer camp. But the good thing about this book is its clearly more than just someone who took two ideas and squeezed them together. A group of girls are away at Lumberjane Camp for the summer, and by the end of the first issue have fought kitsune (three eyed Japanese fox creatures), seen a bear woman, and been yelled at by the girl in charge of their bunk. Mal, Molly, April, Ripley, and Jo each get a moment or two that helps us understand who they are, from Ripley's charging into battle hellbound for leather, or April's taking notes on the surroundings and the creatures. After Jen, their councilor, catches them coming in after hours, they get brought to the head of the camp, Rosie, who resembles a famous historical character of the same name. Clearly she knows something about the surrounding woods that the councilors don't, and she warms the girls that there's more out there than what they'd expect. It's a story about friendship, and while we don't get a lot of plot momentum, other than what seems to be set up, the set up and the characters are charming. It's another great all ages book, something I'm always looking for, and one that has  a strong female cast, which as the uncle of nine and six year old nieces is a big plus. While the mystery of what's going on in the woods and the cryptic words of the kitsune and interesting, I have a feeling it's the characters that are going to keep readers coming back for more.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Special Advanced Review: Scratch 9: Cat of Nine Worlds #1

It's been a while since we've gotten a new adventure of Scratch, the cat who can summon his past and future lives to his side. I wrote about Scratch 9 in recommended reading for last year's Free Comic Book Day, and with a new series set to debut in June with a preview on FCBD this year, it's time to revisit Scratch and his friends. I got a preview of the first issue of the new mini-series, Cat of Nine Worlds, and I'm happy to say it's right up there with the previous series in terms of quality, meaning it's one of the best all ages books I've read this year.

This new series opens with Garogga, the first of Scratch's incarnations, a sabretoothed cat, investigating a bad feeling. And his investigation tins up... Scratch? Wait, Scratch calls his other incarnations to him, not goes to visit them. So, right at the beginning, we have a mystery, and we start to get the answers right off. We flashback (or is it forward?) to the present, where we see Penelope, Scratch's girl, getting ready to go to camp, and looking for Scratch to say goodbye. It's a sweet scene, and reinforces one of the central themes of Scratch 9: friendship. Penelope has to leave without saying goodbye to Scratch, and shortly arrives at camp Robo (not to be related to Atomic Robo, although wouldn't that be a great crossover).

Pretty soon, the action of the series starts, as Penelope and Scratch (who winds up at camp with Penelope. How? Read the comic!) once again run afoul of Dr. Schrodinger, the evil scientist whose fascination with sending his consciousness into other bodies and responsible for Scratch's powers, who is out for revenge for Scratch and Penelope stumbling across his plans. And by issue's end, Scratch has gone back in time as a result of Schrodinger's plot, and we're back at the beginning.

One of the real strengths of Scratch 9 is it's characters. Not only is Scratch clever, but his relationship with Penelope is endearing; if you've ever had a cat who really loves you, you can see that relationship in Penelope and Scratch. Penelope shows just how smart she is in her time at Robot Camp, an aspect of her character that gets more play this time around. While we don't get a lot of time spent with Scratch's friends from the previous series, we do get to see some of Garogga's cast from his short in the Cat Tails mini-series. Schrodinger isn't exactly a villain of great depth; he has no tragedy in his background as far as we know. He's just a jerk. And frankly, I'm fine with that. Not every villain needs to be Magneto, who you can sympathize with. Sometimes a villain who is a mustache twirling bad guy is fine.

The art for this new series is provided by a new artist to the series. Joshua Buchanan takes over for original series artist Jason T. Kruse, and the hand off is seamless. Buchanan's art is fun, light and expressive. Penelope's facial expressions are well rendered and full of emotion, and Scratch is feline while still being more expressive than a cat's face could be if rendered "realistically." The designs for Schrodinger and his robots are very cool, and the new villainous character, who I don't want to talk about and ruin the surprise, has a similar design to another character, but the coloring and the facial expressions make for a smart design and an excellent addition to the cast.

There are more good all ages comics out there now then there have been in a long time, but still, finding on this smart and fun is a rarity. Scratch 9 is smart and fun; it doesn't talk down to it's audience. I'm a cat person, and Scratch is the kind of cat I want, and would be even if he didn't have superpowers.If you're looking for a book to share with your family, this is definitely a book to look at. Scratch 9 is back, and there's nothing that could make me happier.

There will be a new Scratch 9 issue for Free Comic Book Day, and Scratch 9: Cat of Nine Worlds is going to be released in June. Issue 1 is solicited in the current issue of Previews, so if you're interested, head to your comic shop now and place your order.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Matt and Dan Go to the Movies- Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(This past weekend saw the release of Marvel Studios newest film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So your humble host, and contributor Dan Grote, went out to see if the movie lived up to the hype. Here's what we thought)

Dan Grote: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a movie of basements with sub-basements, secrets with sub-secrets, ops within ops, escapes via quickly created holes in the ground, and tall buildings with really long elevator rides and easily shattered glass. And Cap and Black Widow go to all the floors.

My friend Rob called it the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after he saw it, on account of storytellingwise, it's easily one of the best of the bunch (up there with the first Iron Man and Avengers). But I'd compare it to a different Star Wars movie, considering the mission at the end is essentially to blow up three death stars by exploiting the womprat-sized weakness at each of their cores. Also, Robert Redford’s character finds the lack of faith of the other members of the World Security Council disturbing.

Matt Lazorwitz: While I see both those comparisons, I would liken the movie more to The Dark Knight. Both are intense, action based films with plots that mirror current political fears. In 2008, urban terrorism was a fear that permeated every day, which granted hasn’t really changed, and that film’s Joker was this idealized (for want of a better word) urban terrorist; he just wanted, “to watch the world burn.” The Winter Soldier deals with a fear that has come to the fore in the past couple of years; the fear that Big Brother is watching. In a day of Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, the idea of terror using what the government has set in motion, or the government using that knowledge to itself instill terror, is a real one, and the film takes it to the logical endgame in a world where things like S.H.I.E.L.D. exist.

DG: Seriously, though, this movie is more than two hours long, but I would have gladly sat for three. As someone who loves Cap, especially Ed Brubaker’s run on the book, this movie gave me everything I wanted: Action heroes with dry, cool, wit; geopolitical intrigue, a WarGames reference, at least three cameos that made me smile despite my dropped jaw, what briefly appears to be an old British woman who isn’t Helen Mirren fighting people, and Alan Dale.

Most refreshingly, it was leaps and bounds better than Captain America: The First Avenger, which, let’s be honest, was a two-hour-long Act I, as much as I enjoyed it.

ML: While I haven’t read the Mark Waid mini-series of the same name (and I know I need to, especially with some real good press on it lately), this is one of the best examples of showing how Cap is a, “man out of time.” He doesn’t dwell on it, and it’s not just played for laughs, with scenes of him looking at iPods and commenting about record players, like it could have been. But the general sense of not fitting in, of not knowing who he is and where he should be, was done perfectly, not dwelled on, but always there. And the final action scenes of the movie, where Cap re-dons his World War II era costume, both show who Cap is and when he is most comfortable, but also are physical representations on the theme of the world of the past in conflict with the world of the present being crafted by Hydra.

DG: The relationships between the movie’s main protagonists are spot-on, especially between Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie is a fantastic addition to the MCU, btw). There's always a danger of Falcon being treated as Cap's sidekick, but that was never the case. They were always partners. And in the movie they find common ground as soldiers having a hard time adjusting to being “home,” which provides a perfect way to weave in Sam Wilson’s background as a social worker in the comics.

ML: The rapport between Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie was clear from the film’s opening scene. The two played off each other perfectly, not just in how they were written, but how they were realized by two great actors. Evans has come into his own as an actor as Captain America, and while he hasn’t done a, “golly shucks,” sort of performance, he’s always stood apart. Giving him a friend in the present lets us see a different aspect of him. And Mackie plays the Falcon as a hero in his own right, looking to Cap for inspiration but not looking at him as his boss.

DG: Cap and Black Widow make great work spouses, which is good, because ScarJo eats up a lot of screentime. It’s pretty much a team-up movie the whole way through. She and Cap even go on a Scooby Doo-like adventure in a dusty old basement with a secret room behind a bookcase (which leads to my favorite surprise scene in the whole movie).

And Cap and Fury, well, it could have ended up being more of the same from Avengers, if they hadn't removed him from the equation early on.

ML: I was also happy to see Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill given a time to shine. Maria Hill in the comics is a hard character to like, as she seems to be just to the left of classic Marvel hardass government guys like Henry Peter Gyrich, always waiting for the heroes to screw up. Here, she is Fury’s loyal right hand, and has plenty of action scenes and plenty of brains, and works with Cap and company not begrudgingly, but as part of the team.

There are actually quite a few strong female characters in the film, especially when you look at it in comparison to other superhero movies. Black Widow and Hill alone would be impressive, but when you also factor in Emily Vamcamp’s Agent 13, who doesn’t get a ton to do, other than have some great fight scenes, but is set up nicely to be the female lead in Cap 3 (hopefully Black Widow will have graduated to her own film by then), you have more women fighting then in pretty much any movie I can think of that isn’t specifically an ensemble movie about women warriors. And one final note, Haley Atwell’s brief appearance as an aged Peggy Carter is both beautiful and tragic.

DG: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their work on NBC’s Community, and you can see that show's genre-bending humor in the movie, especially when they play with tired action flick cliches like threatening a low-level baddie with a fall from a tall building to extract information.

There are a couple of shots toward the end that are boldfaced homages. Cap plunges into the water - again - and after Cap is shot in the stomach, he lies in the exact same pose He did when he was killed in the comics. And of course the scene where all the fake D.C. cops attack Fury reminds of the Blues Brothers (and, uncomfortably enough, of racial profiling).

With that same Fury scene in mind, I want to tell whoever first thought of having a car or truck flip forward and explode in movies this: I love your work, but I'm worried it's been overused, especially in superhero movies (see also X-Men: The Last Stand, The Dark Knight).

Also as you watch this scene and the rest of the movie, ask yourself: Why was Fury the only person allowed to have bullet/shatterproof glass? If I lived in the MCU, after this movie, I would invest in a glass factory; that’s all I’m saying.

Audience observation: There were at least three people in a not-that-packed theater who gasped when the Winter Soldier took off his mask. Compared to some of the other surprises in this movie, this one was horribly kept, but I’m happy those people got an extra thrill.

ML: Before we get to wrap ups and final thoughts, I figured it best to actually talk about the film’s title character, the Winter Soldier. This film is so much more than that, more than just about that one figure, but I frankly couldn’t think of a better title, and it certainly is one that is dynamic and interesting. Sebastian Stan does a great job acting with just his body and eyes. His origin works well here, fitting seamlessly into the universe that has been crafted, and Stan plays the tormented side of the character as well as he does the ruthless side. I don’t know exactly where they’re going with him in the future, but I hope we get to see more of his interaction with Cap.

DG: Biggest quibble (and I don't consider it all that legitimate a gripe): Batroc was not Batroc-y enough. I'm not saying I wanted the purple-clad French martial arts master to be a joke, but I did want him to fight with more bravado and braggadocio. At the very least yell "Zut alors!"

Random observation: In the first action sequence on the ship, when Cap takes out the first pirate from behind, I really wanted the words "Y silent takedown" to appear on the screen, because I've been playing a lot of Arkham Origins lately.

Trailer notes: I was disappointed the Guardians of the Galaxy was the same one from two months ago. Next to Lucy in my notebook, I wrote "ScarJo is LIMITLESS SPECIES." Who the hell looked at Kelsey Grammer's resume and said "How have we not put him in the Expendables movies?" I do not buy Megan Fox as April O'Neill.

ML: This film had some of the best fight choreography I have ever seen. The up close fighting between Cap and Winter Soldier was that tight, Taken style, with tremendous economy of motion, while fights between other characters was broader and more open. I like how Black Widow doesn’t fight like Cap, who doesn’t fight like Falcon. That was smartly done.

As a personal pat-myself-on-the-back moment, when Agents of S.HI.E.L.D. debuted, I observed that it felt like the season’s seeming big bad, Project Centipede, were like Hydra, and wouldn’t it be great if that played into Winter Soldier since it would be coming out near the end of the season. This is being written Tuesday morning, so I haven’t seen the new episode yet, but judging by scenes from last week’s episode, I just might have been clairvoyant.

Oh, and just in case you don’t know, stay through the credits in this one. There are two scenes like in Thor: The Dark World, one mid-credits, teasing an upcoming Marvel Studios film, and one at the end, giving a final sting to this movie. It’s 2014 and we’re nine movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I was shocked at the number of people who got up right as the movie ended, and more shocked at the people who left after the first scene. You stuck with it this long; what’s five more minutes?

So, in the end, the consensus here on The Matt Signal is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a good film over all. On a scale of one to five, this one gets five cybernetic Soviet issue arms up.

(Post movie trip to the Bargain Book Warehouse. Yes, I wore an Invincible t-shirt to see Cap. You don't wear a band's t-shirt to their concert, you don't wear a superhero's shirt to his movie.)