Review: Punisher – Soviet by Garth Ennis & Jacen Burrows

Garth Ennis returns to “The Punisher” with the six-part miniseries collected here in “Punisher: Soviet,” illustrated by Jacen Burrows, Guillermo Ortego and Nolan Woodard.

When Frank Castle discovers a battalion of Russian monsters shot to death, he admires the craftsmanship of the killer. The Punisher couldn’t have done a better job himself. But if it wasn’t him, who was their executioner? Frank’s hunt for their killer leads him to a Russian named Valery Stepanovich, who served time in Afghanistan, and witnessed the brutal torture of his comrades at the hands of the Mujahideen. The nightmares that have plagued him ever since have twisted him into a killer with just one target in mind: the man in the Russian military who sold out Stepanovich and his unit, Konstantin Ponchenko, now kingpin of the Russian mafia. That’s a mission Frank is more than willing to support.

Garth Ennis has always used The Punisher as a tool to explore the darkest and nastiest elements of society: from street violence, terrorism, corporate greed and war, Ennis has exposed it all through the lens of Frank Castle. He understands: The Punisher is not a hero. He is vengeance personified, fixated on simple solutions — murder — in a complex world. And in “Punisher: Soviet” he delves into the broken psyche of a man scarred by war, with nothing left to lose. Ennis has done this all before, but honestly, I’ll return to it every time he does.

The artwork is fantastic. If anything, it’s too crisp and clean given the violence and bloodiness of the story. I’d love to see Burrows and Ortego on a classic superhero comic, with Woodward’s bold colours in support. I detected a touch of Tom Grummett the pencils — who is probably one of my all-time favourite Superman artists — and I’d love to see this art team’s take on the Man of Steel.

ISBN: 9781302913410
ISBN-10: 1302913417
Series: Punisher
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 136
Published: 18th August 2020
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Review: Spider-Man – Miles Morales, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli

spider-man-volume-1Until the series ended, Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man was a staple of my comics reading. When it launched in 2000 I was thirteen-years-old, and the perfect age to read about a teenage Peter Parker. As I got older, and my interest in the medium fluctuated, Ultimate Spider-Man remained an essential component of my reading life. Even when ‘ultimate’ Peter died, and was replaced by the Hispanic teenager Miles Morales died – by which time I was a full-fledged adult – I remained whole-heartedly invested in the world and its characters.

And then everything changed.

During the 2015 mega-event “Secret Wars,” both the Ultimate Marvel universe and the mainstream Earth-616 universe were destroyed.  When the dust finally cleared and the crisis concluded, Earth-616 was restored — along with Miles and his family. Thus, when Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 opens, Miles is one of two “Spider-Men” operating in New York City; and he’s a card-carrying member of the Avengers, too.

My biggest fear was that this opening volume would focus on Miles’s transition from one universe to another; but that’s not the case at all. There is a real push to make this a fresh start and a true first chapter in Miles’s story. The only problem is, it cheapens the drama that’s come before, and brings into question the continuity of what we read in Miles’s adventures in the Ultimate universe. One of the most devastating moments Miles experienced was the death of his mother; now that’s reversed. There was real emotional when Miles’s father discovered his son was Spider-Man, and his anger and refusal to converse with his son was deeply affecting; now that’s been wiped away.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 is a callback to the archetypal high-school superhero story. Basically: I have to save the world but I have homework, too. And while we’ve seen it time and time again, Bendis does it so well, and frankly, it’s nice to read a superhero comic working on a smaller-scale. Between you and me, I’ve a little over world-ending scenarios. The best Bendis comics– Alias, Daredevil, Ultimate-Spider-Man — have always been character-focused, which suit his heavy-dialogue style, and it’s the quieter moments that prove the most memorable here. Miles’s confrontation with his grandmother over his flailing grades is hilarious; so too his conversation with best friend Ganke about whether it’s better to be “skinny and black” or “chubby and Asian” in America. Sure, there’s a whole plot-thread in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 about Black Cat and Hammerhead teaming up to take out Spider-Man; but what makes the volume resonate is the building friction between Miles and Ganke over his secret identity. The super-heroics are just the backdrop for a fun, emotive high-school story.

Sara Pichelli’s illustrations are gorgeous. The action is dynamic, but the way she nails the smaller moments – the mannerisms and expressions of characters during their conversations – is peerless. In issue #4 she draws ten pages of dialogue between Miles and Ganke in the school cafeteria. Boring, you might be thinking. But just check out the way she lays it all out. It’s incredible. Just like the whole book, really.

No, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 doesn’t redefine superhero comics. As a standalone tale, it’s not even particularly memorable. But as the next phase in the Miles Morales story – as another part of an unfinished collage – it’s fantastic.

ISBN: 9781846537165
Format: Paperback  (198mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 120
Imprint: Panini Books
Publisher: Panini Publishing Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Ant-Man Vol. 1 – Second-Chance Man by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas

Ant Man coverI’ve never read an Ant-Man comic, but the impending release of a blockbuster film, plus the creative team collaborating on Marvel’s new series, persuaded me to check out the first volume of the revamped title. I’m so glad I did. Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas have created a funny, thrilling, and heartfelt superhero tale that deserves to stick around for the long haul.

Ant-Man has a convoluted backstory – – then again, name a superhero who doesn’t. Several characters have donned the mantle made famous by the original, Hank Pym; more recently, ex-con Scott Lang has been wearing the suit, and it’s he who stars as the protagonist in this latest incarnation. Nick Spencer does a nice job making all that history palatable for newcomers, never sweeping continuity under the rug, but not getting bogged down in it either. When Second-Chance Man opens, Lang is applying for the role of Stark Industries’ Head of Security, a job he desperately needs to ensure he retains visitation rights with his daughter. His narration is laced with sarcasm and self-deprecation; this is a guy who stumbled into the superhero business, and doesn’t believe he deserves a seat at the same table as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. And given his tendency to give into temptation – – he’s an ex-thief, after all – – he’s probably right.

Spencer litters his scripts with humour, and for the most part the jokes land perfectly. It’s not all light and fluffy, though – – especially when an old foe surfaces and kidnaps Lang’s daughter. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the old villain-kidnapping-heroes-daughter trope. Been there, done that. But Spencer makes it work, due in no small part to artist Ramon Rosanas, whose work reminds me of Chris Samnee, with its clean, slick line-work. Much of the book’s humour relies on visual gags, and Rosanas pulls this off with the required subtlety. He’s equally adept at the big action scenes; one of this volume’s highlight’s is Ant-Man’s battle with the Midasbot – a Nazi-gold spitting killer machine.

Ant-Man works because it humanises its titular character. Scott Lang is an everyman, who has screwed up, and will continue to do so. But deep down, despite everything, he has a good heart, and he wants to do right by his daughter; wants to be the father she deserves. Ant-Man doesn’t possess universe-shattering threats, but it packs a ton of heart, and offers a refreshing change of pace from the other titles on Marvel’s list.

ISBN: 9780785193876
Format: Paperback
Pages: 120
Imprint: Marvel Comics
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Publish Date: 23-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Avengers – Rage of Ultron

Rage of UltronMarvel’s latest original graphic novel, Avengers: Rage of Ultron, is an unabashed attempt to take advantage of the buzz surrounding the impending release of the destined-to-be-a-mega-blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron. Nothing wrong with that. This is business, after all. And it’s not like Marvel just slapped something together. No, they paired two of their headline creators for the project, Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña, who’ve collaborated on critically-acclaimed runs on Uncanny X-Force and the creator-owned series Fear Agent. What’s strange is how imbedded in current Marvel continuity it is; which, for those unaware, is starkly different from their film universe. For example, in Rage of Ultron, Captain America is Sam Wilson, who previously went by Falcon; Hank Pym is Ultron’s creator; the Avengers team consists of Spider-Man, Wasp, Sabretooth (what?!), Thor (now female), Vision, and Scarlet Witch. So those jumping from the film to this OGN are in for a surprise. Not necessarily a bad one by any means, because Avengers: Rage of Ultron is a damn fine story. It just strikes me that Marvel would’ve been better served providing a graphic novel more in tune with the universe they’ve built in their films; particularly as they’re so close to blowing up (or something similar) the comics universe in the looming monumental story arc Secret Wars.

To be fair, Avengers: Rage of Ultron starts with a kick-ass battle scene featuring the classic team up against the mechanized menace of Ultron. There’s something reverent about these first twenty or so; a perfectly rendered depiction of the Avengers taking down a villain threatening Manhattan. Ultron is disposed of – a narrow victory, as the Avengers’ wins often are – and the story flashes forward several years. Cue the ‘new’ Avengers!

Ultron has conquered a new world, Titan, and plans to use its inhabitants to crush Earth; in particular his ‘father,’ Hank Pym, and ‘son’, the Vision. Pym wants to ‘kill’ Ultron, which is obviously against the Avengers code, but brings into question whether his mechanized creation is truly alive. Can a machine have a soul? Does its deactivation equate to murder? Vision – a cyborg entity himself – certainly thinks so, which leads to an interesting conflict. Pym is haunted by his failure, both as a scientist who created a flawed robotic killing machine, and as a father, who couldn’t overturn the beliefs of his son. He’s a man who constantly strives to do the right thing, but inevitably ends up causing more harm than good.

Opeña’s art is stunning, as always; the looming threat of a planet-sized Ultron is suitably terrifying, and few illustrators are better at choreographing epic battles. It’s just a shame he wasn’t able to pencil every page of the book; while Pepe Larraz is a fine substitute, his art lacks Opeña’s spark. Remender’s tale is tightly plotted, utilising the real estate of the graphic novel form. He’s penned several hundred pages of Avengers comics now, so he’s a pro, nailing the character voices, and presenting a fearsome Ultron.

Avengers: Rage of Ultron is a highly satisfying Avengers story. Its open-ended finale begs for a sequel – but with Secret Wars imminent, will we get one?

Review: Daredevil, Volume 1 – Devil at Bay

Daredevil 1 Devil at BayIn the lead up to the launch of Marvel’s first Netflix show, Daredevil – which is fantastic, by the way – I delved into Matt Murdock’s recent adventures in the form Devil at Bay, the first volume of Daredevil under the Marvel Now! label. Unlike many of the Marvel Now! books, Daredevil maintained its preceding creative team of writer Mark Waid and illustrator Chris Samnee – and for good reason. Waid and Samnee revitalised Daredevil after too many years of dark, harrowing and overly-gritty stories, which eventually (in this reader’s opinion) outstayed their welcome. It’s incredible how a slight shift in tone reinvigorated my interest; not that the series is suddenly sunshine and lollipops, but by leaning more into its superhero roots, Daredevil has once again become a Must Read series.

Following the events of its preceding volume, Matt Murdock has been outed as Daredevil, and thus been disbarred from practicing law in New York. Determined to continue serving the people as both a masked crusader and as a lawyer, Matt and his new partner, Kirsten McDuffie, have moved to San Francisco. Coincidentally, so has Daredevil’s long-time nemesis, The Owl, who’s none too pleased at Daredevil’s new base of operations; neither is the enigmatic vigilante The Shroud. This trio’s confrontation is the core storyline in Devil at Bay, and emphasises the intriguing directions Daredevil’s new status quo can take.

Beyond the Owl / Shroud / Daredevil skirmish, this volume also presents the ‘death’ of Foggy Nelson, in a wonderfully entertaining single issue, which sees the portly Foggy save New York from certain annihilation. It’s delightfully preposterous, but incredibly heartfelt, and showcases the deft line treaded by Waid and Samnee. The artist’s layouts are never less than ingenious; Samnee is one of the best storytellers in comics, with a wonderful knack of producing emblematic moments that deserve framing. Highlights here include Matt Murdock, clad in a suit and tie, dropping into a fiery death trap, and Daredevil’s fist careening into the face of a hovering villain.

Devil at Bay also includes the short story Daredevil: Road Warrior, originally released as a digital-only tale. Written by Waid, and illustrated by his frequent collaborator Peter Krause, Road Warrior explains Matt and Kirsten’s journey from New York to San Francisco; which, as you can imagine, takes several unexpected detours when a man without a heartbeat snares Matt’s attention. It’s an action-packed romp, and deals with a complicated moral issue over what it truly means to be alive, and is a nice counterpart to Waid and Samnee’s story.

Daredevil, Volume 1: Devil at Bay is a delight. Readers jumping in from the Netflix show might be startled by the comic’s lighter tone – but they’ll be appeased by the grittier runs by writers Miller, and Bendis, and Brubaker. But for everyone else, those just seeking a quality superhero comic, should look no further.

Review: Avengers Prime by Brian Michael Bendis and Alan Davis

Avengers PrimeNews hit last week that the Marvel Universe is coming to an end in May. As someone who has been reading comics for almost twenty years now, I took the news in my stride: the way I see it, universes on both sides of the fence have undergone minute revamps, as well as massive overhauls, since I became invested in their characters. I have no ownership of them; I’m merely along for the ride. If the powers-that-be choose to reinvent their respective wheels, go for it. I’ll try out the comics when they come out, and if I don’t like them I’ll step away. Such is life.

Until then, I’ve got a bunch of unread collections to get through. And as the MU as we know it will soon cease to exist, it seemed fitting to reminisce on times-gone-by with AVENGERS PRIME by Brian Michael Bendis and Alan Davis; a limited five-series that focuses on the ‘core trio’ of Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.

Chronologically speaking, AVENGERS PRIME takes place after “Dark Reign,” and was the series that welcomed in the “Heroic Age.” What this means, basically, for the uninitiated, is that Norman Osborn’s (aka The Green Goblin) stint as the Director of SHIELD has come to an end with the fall of Asgard, and the Avengers as dysfunctional as ever; their mistrust has increased and fermented ever since the Civil War. AVENGERS PRIME begins right after “Dark Reign’s” final battle, when Cap, Thor and Iron are teleported to mystery mystical, and hostile, land. Separated, the three endure personal challenges, eventually regrouping in a tremendous culminating battle.

As always, Bendis’s dialogue is apropos, and in this instance he completely annuls his perpetual use of captions, allowing Davis’s timeless art the room it needs to shine. The story is a little one-note; little in the way of revelations or gasp-worthy twists. But it’s a fun story that underlines the differences between the team’s key members, and also the ties that bind them. It’s about friendship, and all too often nowadays that gets forgotten, with a greater focus on larger-scale threats and universe-ending apocalypses. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of relationship is forged between the trio in the forthcoming Marvel Universe.

Iron Man Cap Hug

Review: The Punisher, Vol. 2 – Border Crossing by Nathan Edmondson & Mitch Gerads (Marvel)

Punisher Border CrossingNathan Edmondson’s second Punisher collection, Border Crossing, begins shortly after the conclusion of the first, Black and White: Frank Castle, wounded and on the run from the enigmatic special forces team, the Howling Commandos, has made his way to Southern Mexico. Problem is, there’s no way Frank can get the medical attention he needs without tipping off a multitude of wannabe-killers, and small and big-time crime bosses. He’s “a prize, being bought and sold,” and worth far more alive than dead. He succumbs to unconscious, prepared for hell upon awakening: and when he next opens his eyes, he’s in the custody of El Diablito, who plans to have his fun with Frank, then auction him off to Crossbones, who’s working freelance – for who?

The narrative expands from there, shifting locales, and crossing over with another Edmondson series, Black Widow, before returning to Frank’s new habitat, Los Angeles, where things have spiralled horribly since his disappearance: the Del Sols have allied rival gangs and taken control over the city. The police have been paralysed, and while Frank’s allies have done what they can to stem the inevitable, the city needs the Punisher.

Edmondson briefly partners with bestselling author Kevin Maurer for the first two issues of this volume, diluting Edmondson’s voice in the process, and revealing the prose author’s lack of experience with the comic format. The pacing is slightly off, and the dialogue relies too heavily on Special Forces acronyms and terminology. The story itself is uninspired, ending with a cliché, as Frank’s partner, the Special Forces operator also in El Diablito’s custody, thinks: “We might be in different wars, but we’re both in the same fight. I will always consider Frank part of the team. And I’ll always feel like’s he’s got my back.” The artwork in these initial issues is solid: Carmen Carnero packs a lot of action into the pages, and does his best with a stuffed script, but there’s little here to get your blood pumping.

The team-up between Frank and Black Widow is deftly handled; it helps having the same writer scripting both components of the story. It’s a fun storyline, as Frank and Natasha infiltrate a cargo ship, both seemingly operating with opposing agendas. The climax sees Frank end up in prison, where we’ve seen him before, but it’s always amusing watching Frank exist among the rats, and still dealing out his form of justice. Mitch Gerads returns as artist for the final four issues in the volume (while the Black Widow issue is handled by Phil Noto) and his art has taken on a distinct flavour, becoming increasingly reminiscent of Gorlan Parlov (who worked with Garth Ennis on the eminent Punisher Max). His style remains perfectly suited to the grounded nature of the Punisher, though it would be interesting to see him tackle a high-flying hero. The coolest moment, by far, is the volume’s final image, as Frank finally returns to LAPD. No spoilers, but it’s the kind of scene that deserves to be displayed alongside rousing kick-ass music that screams, Shit is about to go down!

Border Crossing is an enjoyable follow-up to the outstanding first volume, but doesn’t quite reach its heights. It has the distinct feel of a middle act – The Punisher gearing up for his next (and presumably final) showdown with the Del Sols – and feels overstuffed with redundant material. Plenty to like; it’s just saddled by unnecessary detours. But when the action is focused on Frank’s exploits in LA, Edmondson and Gerad’s Punisher rivals the best runs in recent years.

Review: Moon Knight Vol 1 – From the Dead by Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire

Moon Knight From the DeadMOON KNIGHT: FROM THE DEAD is one helluva good collection. Its architects – veteran scribe Warren Ellis, illustrator Declan Shalvey and colourist Joride Bellaire – radiate assuredness in their craft. The script is tight and nuanced – you won’t find overbearing narrative captions here – and the artwork is stunning, the sheer white of Moon Knight’s costume – or suit, as he’s more frequently clad in here – almost an eyesore. Few creators could pull of a scene involving Moon Knight dejectedly facing the glower of the skeletal Egyptian moon-god Khonshu, alongside the two ghosts of his disassociated identities, and have it pulsate with the underlying dread conjured by Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire. This is a team working at the peak of their powers. Together, they have rebooted Moon Knight for a new audience, and rejuvenated the character for fans of yore.

Moon Knight’s backstory is overwhelmingly convoluted, even for a reader who has invested more than twenty years in the Marvel Universe. Rather than focus on the history, and try to explain the unexplainable, Ellis chooses to press forward with his six loosely connected tales, and lean on Moon Knight’s past only when it benefits the thrust of his own narrative. In MOON KNIGHT: FROM THE DEAD, the vigilante plays the role of the Marvel Universe’s Batman. Equipped with Batarang-like throwing-discs and a sleek automobile, as well as a variety of gadgets (albeit with a supernatural edge) Moon Knight takes on a variety of evil forces, including a deranged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, a rogue sniper, intangible ghosts, and a psychotic police officer desperate to take Moon Knight’s place.

Ellis wisely strips his script of surplus, allowing Shalvey and Bellaire the space required to concoct stunning renditions of Moon Knight in action, and expertly story-boarded set-pieces. Our first shot of Moon Knight strutting towards a crime scene is worthy of framing, and a later sequence involving his slow climb up the stairs of a villain-infested apartment is possibly one of the finest combat scenes ever penciled.

MOON KNIGHT: FROM THE DEAD is the kind of reboot that made the MARVEL NOW! initiative so successful. By allowing super-talented creators the opportunity to tell the type of story intrinsic to their tastes they have borne something truly marvelous. Moon Knight fan or not, comic fans owe themselves the pleasure of this collection.

Review: Iron Patriot – Unbreakable by Ales Kot & Karry Brown

Iron PatriotThis fast-moving techno-thriller sees Jim Rhodes become the unwitting tool in a grand conspiracy to destroy America.

Once War Machine, now Iron Patriot, Rhodes has quit the Secret Avengers to dedicate his time in the armour to military operations on American soil. It quickly emerges that shadowy figures in the government – themselves mere pawns in a mysterious enemy’s scheme – turn public perception against Rhodes. All the while, a new armoured threat emerges, referring to himself as a “true patriot,” who has taken Rhodes’ family hostage, guaranteeing Rhodes’s acquiescence. Of course, Rhodes’ father and niece aren’t quite the hapless civilians the kidnappers assumed they were…

Ales Kot and Garry Brown present a villainous plot James Bond’s archenemy SPECTRE would be proud of, while throwing in splashes of personal melodrama. There are real stakes in here; lives are on the line, and not everybody makes it out alive – almost unheard of in superhero comics, where the status quo remains constant; and when it’s not, it is telegraphed months in advance. Meticulously plotted and illustrated with aplomb, IRON PATRIOT: UNBREAKABLE is a rousing thriller with an ending that reminds us there are humans underneath the capes and cowls, or in this case, armour; and it’s these characters that keep us reading.

Review: Hulk, Volume 1 – Red Hulk by Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness

HulkJeph Loeb’s run on HULK doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a fun, glib, action-packed extravaganza, and a breath of fresh air in this age of humourless Hollywood adaptations; c’mon Superman, would it have killed you to crack a smile in MAN OF STEEL? Readers hoping for a deep exploration of Bruce Banner, or his supporting cast, should look to the esteemed Peter David run; those hoping for a roller-coaster ride of big, dumb fun, should look no further.

In RED HULK, the first volume in Loeb’s run, the veteran writer teams with frequent collaborator Ed McGuinness, whose style is perfectly suited to the action-oriented story. Large, dynamic layouts perfectly capture the cartoon violence of the mysterious Red Hulk pounding Wendigo into submission, battling with Iron Man atop the S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier, and going toe-to-toe with his green counterpart; not to mention a spectacular punch to the Watcher’s jaw. McGuinness has always exaggerated the physical characteristics of his characters, and he’s always made it work; here, it’s a match made in heaven. The Hulk has never looked more imposing.

Framed as a mystery, RED HULK is light on plot and heavy on the action set pieces. “Who is the Red Hulk?” our heroes want to know, consisting of Iron Man, She-Hulk, Maria Hill and more; but we never find out, as Loeb dangles potential clues without exposing the identity. Some readers might feel cheated by the lack of closure; but this is comics, and serial storytelling: if you want to learn the truth, you’ve got to stick around for a while. I certainly will. While I wouldn’t want such glibness present in all of my comics, every so often it’s nice to be reminded that, ultimately, we’re reading stories about irradiated humans wearing spandex, and shouting eye-roll-worthy lines such as “Oh the humanity!” It’s okay to have fun every once in a while; I get the feeling Loeb and McGuinness were beaming as they pieced together this blockbuster.