Monday, September 5, 2016

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/31

Deadpool V Gambit #4
Story: Ben Acker & Ben Blacker
Art: Danilo Beyruth & Cris Peter

There have been a lot of groups of mutant villain henchmen over the years (if you want to learn more about them, check out Dan Grote's posts here and here). And when there are that many members of a team whose main purpose is to hench for some big bad, there's a good chance that those characters are one note characters. So it's interesting when writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker pull back from the comedic caper that has been the first three issues of Deadpool V Gambit to spend pretty much the entire fourth issue not focusing on either of their leads, but instead telling the story of Scrambler. Scrambler is a member of the Marauders, the group that works for Mr. Sinister, but that isn't even important to know for this issue. Acker & Blacker start the story off by establishing the basics, that Scramber was a bad guy who fought the X-Men and who has tried to go straight. Acker and Blacker make us care about Kim Il Sung, a villain who has had very little development before this. Not only do they logically update his power set, which is trickier than you'd think, but they also give him a love interest, a family, and a logical desire to be a better person for them. I encountered Acker & Blacker through The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which is one of the funniest things, well, ever, and the earlier issues of this series have been lighter in tone. Even their Thunderbolts work, which had something of a darker tone, had a large portion of humor to it. And while this issue isn't grim (the reason Scrambler has it in for Gambit and Deadpool spins out of a scene that is actually pretty darn funny), this issue is much more a character study. We see Scrambler at his lowest, then his best, ans then dragged down back to the lowest by situations beyond his control. It's a really solid single issue in the middle of a mini-series, and while the series' two leads are pretty much incidental, it doesn't feel like something completely outside the scope of the series. There's a big reveal at the end of the issue, actually, that casts the events of the series in a completely different light. If you've been suffering from Gambit withdrawal since he hasn't been a regular in a series in a while, you just need some more Deadpool, or you like to see the other side of villains, you should really check out Deadpool V Gambit.

Gotham Academy Annual #1
Story: Brenden Fletcher & Becky Cloonan
Art: Adam Archer, Msassyk, Michael Dialynas, Chris Wildgoose, Sandra Hope, Serge Lapointe, & Rob Haynes

We've been away from Gotham Academy for a few months now (unless you've been checking out the very fun Lumberjanes/Gotham Academy, which you all should be), so the choice to do a one off annual to refresh current readers and introduce new ones before the new Gotham Academy: Second Semester starts was a good one, and this issue is a great jumping on point for new readers. A mysterious ailment is sweeping Gotham Academy, and our leads, the members of Detective Club, are split down the middle on what they think is responsible: Pomeline, always looking for a magical explanation, thinks it's a vampire, while Colton believes visiting professor Derek Powers is behind this. So Colton takes Kyle, and Pomeline takes Tristan, and Maps is left trapped in the middle. We get to see Olive, who is usually in the center of everything, on the sidelines in this issue, which allows the other characters to really stand out. What this issue does, which is a great example of what Gotham Academy does best, is balance the character work with the mystery and the macabre, while also tying into the deep mythology of Batman as a character. Note I didn't say the history of Batman, as what this issue ties into is actually the future of Batman. If you're at all familiar with Batman Beyond, either the animated series or the comics that have been released to tie into it, you know the name Derek Powers and know that no good will come of it. Also returning this issue is Warren McGinnis, introduced back in issue four of the series, who also has ties to the Batman Beyond universe. There's ealso an appearance from a supernatural one-off Bat villain, a character I never thought would pop up again, which is something that just fills me with joy; no other series from either of the Big Two embraces the crazy history of comics like Gotham Academy does. But what's even better is that if you're unfamiliar with any and all of that, nothing of the issue is lost on you. Instead you get two interlocking mysteries featuring two sets of likable protagonists. Pomeline is at her most demanding, and Colton at his most slick, but we get hints that there's more to Colton than we've seen before; of all the regular cast, he's the one who's gotten the least development so far, more or less being the campus ne'er-do-well, so it's nice that we're beginning to see more of his personality and his backstory come out. There are multiples artists across this issue, but fortunately Rob Haynes did breakdowns across the whole issue so the art has a consistent feel, but each plotline has a distinct look. Gotham Academy Annual #1 is an exciting romp across the grounds of the titular Academy and a treat for Batman fans of all ages and knowledge.

Suicide Squad: War Crimes Special
Story John Ostrander
Art: Gus Vazquez, Carlos Rodriguez, & Gabe Eltaeb

Now THIS is the Suicide Squad. I haven't written as much about the Suicide Squad as I feel like is deserved for how much I love the concept and the characters on this blog, mostly because the series as it's been running since I started writing here has rarely been a book I really loved. But this one-shot, written by the man who redefined the Squad in the '80s and a writer I have written a lot about, John Ostrander, hits every note that makes a good Suicide Squad story. Let's count them down, shall we?

1) It has great characters and character moments: The Squad in this issue is mostly made up of staples of the Squad: Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Rick Flag from the original series; Harley Quinn and El Diable from the New 52 era; and a new member, Mad Dog, who you know is not long for the team right out front. Flag and Deadshot have a great rapport in the issue, working together, and Ostrander writes one truly funny Harley moment. But it's Boomerang who Ostrander really captures. The arrogant, smarmy, easy to anger, quick to seek revenge Boomerang of those classic books is on display here, to the point that he is responsible for Mag Dog's death just because the bounty hunter rubbed him the wrong way. Boomerang is often played as comic relief or the team punching bag, but Ostrander remembers that he is a nasty piece of work at heart.

2) Interesting foes: Ostrander gave the Suicide Squad some really interesting enemies in his original run. The international mercenaries known as the Jihad (changed to Onslaught after their first appearance) were a great collection of characters with interesting powers and looks. The Loa was another fascinating nemesis. This story introduces Strikeforce Europa, a team of European mercenaries. And while they don't exactly walk out of this unscathed, they don't feel like characters who were created simply to be disposed of; they have a backstory and work as characters who have potential.

3) Real world events effect comic book stories: There was an interview I read somewhere once that I wasn't able to find to get the exact quote where Ostrander said he stopped writing stories for Suicide Squad set in real places because it seemed like every time he did it seemed that place popped up on the news. And while recent Suicide Squad stories have taken place in real countries, they are often just using those places as a setting and not discussing the political realities. This issue takes something very real and while changing the names to protect the innocent (or to protect the publisher from libel suits), there is a reality to this story. The Secretary of Defense from the "previous administration" has been kidnapped by Strikeforce Europa to stand trial for war crimes, for starting the last "Gulf action" to benefit "Black Mountain" the private military security contractor he has worked for an with. If you have any notion of modern American politics, none of this is particularly veiled commentary on politics, and it creates an interesting mission, as the Squad must rescue him.

4) Action action and more action: Much of this issue is an elaborate heist type story, only with what the team is trying to take is a human being. We get the Squad in battle with Strikeforce Europa, with the assassin Shado, who was sent by Black Mountain to silence the Secretary of Defense before he spilled their secrets at the World Court, not to mention your standard issue security forces. You get car chases, super powered fights, and a really cool scene with Deadshot on a motorcycle. It has an excellent balance of action and character, which was the hallmark of the best Suicide Squad stories.

5) The Wall: John Ostrander created Amanda Waller, and there are very few, if any, writers who get her better than Ostrander. Whether it's giving the team a briefing with her patented hardass attitude and biting humor, or debriefing when the team gets back, and all her contact in between, this is the Waller I hear in my head when I think of best Waller moments.And I've seen people of two minds on how coldly homicidal Waller was in the recent Suicide Squad movie, but anyone with any familiarity with the character would see that her actions at the end of this issue, and the reasoning behind them, are so perfectly logical that it's one of my favorite Waller moments of all time.

Seriously folks, whether you miss the old Squad stories or are a fan of the new ones, this is a perfect gem of a Suicide Squad story that everyone should check out.

And look! Dan Grote is back, with a review featuring two of his great fan passions: the X-Men and '90s music...

X-Men ’92 #6
Story by Chris Sims & Chad Bowers
Art by Alti Firmansyah & Matt Milla

Matt often writes about how sometimes a book is so consistently good, he sometimes passes on reviewing it because there are only so many ways to say “This book is consistently good” month after month.

The same can be said for Marvel’s X-Men ’92, which is if nothing else a love letter to the 1990s animated series and the comics of the time period.

Except this issue ups the ante considerably by working in the music of the Extreme Era as well. Coming of age in the ’90s as I did, I spent my teen years a) devouring X-Men comics and b) listening to alternative radio. So to read a comic in which the X-Men work as bodyguards for Lila Cheney at a music festival that includes the Flaming Lips and the Toadies is to relive those years in their purest, most crystalized form. The only thing missing is all those Sunday afternoons I killed playing The Sims and Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo.

After a prologue that brings Joss Whedon creation SWORD into the ’92-niverse, the comic opens with intergalactic rockstar Cheney joining the Lips on stage for “Race for the Prize,” complete with lettered lyrics that sent me combing through my CDs to see if I still had a copy of “The Soft Bulletin.” Even Beast is singing along, and let’s face it, he would like an up-tempo song about two scientists competing to save a dying sun.

And seriously, the Toadies? The Toadies?! Raise your hand if you’ve thought about the Toadies at any point after 1996. They’re about as ’90s as Adam X the X-Treme.

Anyway, it turns out Lila’s on Earth because there’s a bounty on her head, and she’s being hunted down by British-import robot space bounty hunter Death’s Head. Hence her asking the X-Men to act as security.

Also lurking around disguised as a be-ponytailed roadie is none other than Acolyte-slash-Upstart Fabian Cortez, whom a narration box accurately describes as having “the power to make mutants mutant harder.” Cortez amps up Cheney’s already-considerable teleportation powers amid the fight with Death’s Head, transporting herself, the X-Men, Death’s Head and SWORD’s Abigail Brand to an alienated planet populated by [spoilers].

I can’t say enough how much of this book is sold on the strength of Alti Firmansyah’s art. Chris Sims and Chad Bowers get the cheesiness of the era and what characters will make fans wistful, but Firmansyah nails the fashion, the facial expressions and the fun of what, at its worst, was a melodramatically angsty time. It doesn’t mimic the animation style of the cartoon – if anything, she seems to take her cues from “Voltron” and the Joe Madureira style of manga-light art that took hold mid-decade – but you can see that she’s having fun, and I’d love to read more of her work.

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