Review: Nova, Volume 1 – Origin – by Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness

NovaWhenever I see ‘origin’ as the title of a trade paperback, I groan. Not always discernibly; I am, if nothing else, acutely self-aware and wary of public displays of emotion. But if you were watching me from afar, you’d notice my shoulders slump. The spring in my step would revert to concrete blocks. The healthy glow of my skin would fade to sickly pale.

It’s not that I abhor origin stories. They’re essential, obviously. We need to know where characters come from. Their backstory. We need the layers of the onion. I realise that. I do. But origin stories that are so self-aware that they call themselves ‘origins’ are exasperating. And more often than not in superhero comics, these origins follow a standard path. There are few surprises. It’s like there is a blueprint, which must be followed precisely, with one or two fleeting moments of innovation allowed.

So when I grabbed a copy of NOVA, VOLUME 1: ORIGIN I was wary. Excited too, of course – who wouldn’t be, knowing you’ve got more than a hundred pages of superb artwork by one of comics’ superstars, Ed McGuinness – but disappointed I was in line for another run-of-the-mill origin. That’s the problem with judging a book based on preconceptions; if you allow it to, it can prohibit your enjoyment from all forms of fiction. And while NOVA, VOLUME 1: ORIGIN isn’t a pioneering origin effort, it’s great fun; an all-ages comic that readers of all ages will appreciate. Kudos to Loeb and McGuinness: they’ve hooked me into the Marvel cosmic universe.

Sam Alexander is a kid loathing life in the small town of Carefree, Arizona. His father, the school janitor and 24/7 drunk, tells Sam’s sister bedtime stories about the ‘Nova Corps’ and their adventures throughout the galaxy. Fuelled by contempt, Sam is certain these stories are fiction, and wishes his father would spend more time getting his act together than concocting tales. When Sam’s father goes missing, he’s sure the old man’s off on another bender. But then he’s visited by Rocket Raccoon and Gamora, from the Guardians of the Galaxy, who have with them a Nova helmet, which is attuned to Sam’s DNA. When he pops the helmet on, he discovers incredible abilities – and soon he’s meeting The Watcher, combatting enemies of earth, and learning what it takes to be a hero.

There’s a great thrust to ‘Origin.’ Loeb and McGuinness, long-time partners in crime, have fine-tuned their partnership. Loeb’s script is pared down, leaving room for McGuinness’s art to breathe, and boy does he take advantage. He has an exaggerated, cartoony style that’s perfect for the Marvel cosmic universe; his depiction of Rocket Raccoon is fantastic. There are several full-page and double-page spreads sprinkled throughout; awesomely dynamic shots that few of his peers could pull off. McGuinness improves with every new venture; his storytelling in NOVA is superb.

The story is lightweight, but again, it feels like Loeb did this intentionally for the sake of the artwork. He leaves plenty of dangling threads for the next writer to untangle, or cut entirely. Some of the humour falls a bit flat, and Sam’s incessant monologue begins to grate, but when you reach the story’s conclusion you’ll be left with a smile on your face. NOVA is entertainment, pure and simple, and further solidifies the Loeb / McGuinness partnership as one of comics’ best.

Wherever they land next, I’ll be there.

Review: The Punisher: Vol 1 – Black & White – Nathan Edmondson & Mitch Gerads

The PunisherThere have been several world-class runs of “The Punisher” in recent years. Garth Ennis set the tone with his “Marvel Knights” series, then raised the bar with “Punisher Max;” Jason Aaron built on that foundation, propelling “Max” to even greater heights; and Matt Fraction, Rick Remender and Greg Rucka adeptly molded the character for Mavel’s 616 universe. “The Punisher” is now synonymous with quality. And “The Activity” creative team of Nathan Edmonson and Mitch Gerads certainly deliver that.

Punisher detractors label the character as very one-note. He is, essentially, an action hero with archaic tropes, who exists in a world of tights and capes. What purpose can he possible have in a world of superheroes? This is a point that is reiterated throughout BLACK AND WHITE, the first volume in this new series: The Punisher exists to handle the villains too dangerous for cops, but not big enough for the superheroes. He cleans up the dirt that falls between the cracks, and does it exceedingly, and brutally, well.

Edmondson and Gerads don’t reinvent the wheel; instead, they refine the elements that’ve made the character resonate for decades. The biggest change is the shifting of locales, from New York to Los Angeles – a welcome amendment, as Marvel characters are habitually based in NYC – and the introduction of a new supporting cast of characters. While Frank Castle remains a methodical killing machine, Edmonson makes the character a little less cold and stoic than what’s customary – and it’s refreshing. I can’t remember the last time I saw Castle’s lips curl upwards; but he does it a couple times here.

PUNISHER: VOL 1 – BLACK & WHITE sees Castle taking on the powerful Dos Sols gang, who have formed an allegiance with A.I.M. and have set in motion a plan to take over the city with a “secret weapon.” Meanwhile, the shadowy military unit known as the Howling Commandos have been tasked to bring Castle in – and these dual storylines coalesce with a grand finale, and of course, a cliff-hanger ending. The plotting is tight, and Gerads’ artwork is spectacular, the action scenes executed superbly; I was a big fan of this creative team from their work on their creator-owned series “The Activity” and it’s great fun seeing them adapt their style for the mainstream.

For the foreseeable future, THE PUNISHER will remain synonymous with quality. A remarkable feat for a character who, really, isn’t all that remarkable.

Review: Astonishing X-Men – Xenogenesis by Warren Ellis and Kaare Andrews

XenoIn the East African city of Mbangwi, a new-born crackles with electricity and explodes, taking out an entire hospital. The X-Men – in this incarnation, a team comprised of Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Emma Frost, Storm and Armour – soon learn this isn’t the first manifestation of possible mutation; there have been a spate of similar births. Could this be the mutant rebirth the X-Men have been praying for since their kind was decimated on M-Day?

ASTONISHING X-MEN: XENOGENSIS can be read as a standalone, but Warren Ellis dips into subplots he’d sparked in his earlier run on Astonishing X-Men, specifically relating to Ghost Box technology. He introduces Joshua N’Dingi, whose militants have been charged with executing the babies to protect the population, much to the obvious chagrin of the X-Men, who believe they have the facilities to care for these children, and want to find an amicable solution. But N’Dingi is accustomed to the West’s idea of ‘help;’ as he says, “What happens when you good people inevitably get bored of aiding an African country? What happens when you give my people hope and you fail, and they learn of their child’s slow, agonized death?” N’Dingi’s methods are brutal, but he can live with that burden, with that young blood on his hands, if it means the civilian population is safe. Before the X-Men can argue the point, a paranormal threat emerges, and both sides are forced to work together…

Kaare Andrews’ art is polarizing: his over-sexualisation of the female characters is irksome, because he’s a superstar artist, and his renderings of the X-Men in action are fantastic. All of his characters are exaggerated – nobody is as broad-shouldered as Wolverine, just as nobody’s waist is as thin as Emma Frost’s – but when her breasts are font and centre of several panels, it becomes a problem, and a distracting one, because draws focus away from the narrative. But he works well, overall, with Ellis’ script, which is punctuated with plenty of sci-fi jargon and dialogue that perfectly encapsulates the personalities of the cast.

There is nothing ground-breaking here, just a solid X-Men comic that might not stand the test of time as a monumental storyline, but is a good, fun distraction, and worth dipping into if you’re after an X-Men story without the baggage of long-winded continuity.

Review: Hulk – Gray by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

Hulk - GrayHULK: GRAY is another volume in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s ‘colour’ series, which recount quintessential moments from the histories of Marvel Comics’ greatest heroes. With HULK: GRAY, the esteemed writer/artist pairing takes on the days following Bruce Banner’s exposure to the gamma radiation that forevermore altered the trajectory of his life, and the Hulk’s first conflict with General Ross.

The tale is narrated by Bruce Banner, speaking to his long-time ally, psychiatrist Leonard Sampson, soon after the death of his only love, Betty Ross. These sequences are rendered in beautiful black-and-white, with colour reserved for the green of Banner’s eyes. The flashbacks, which comprise the majority of the collection, embrace Matt Hollingsworth’s wonderful painterly colours, which gel perfectly with Tim Sale’s illustrations, who accentuates his reputation as one of comics’ premier storytellers. Equally adept at portraying raw emotion on the faces of the large cast of characters as he is at double-page slashes of the Hulk smashing, bashing and crashing, it’s a shame Sale has stepped away comics; his style is distinct and unrivalled.

Jeph Loeb’s script is nuanced, as they always are when he works with Sale; almost like the artist’s style has a pacifying effect that dampens some of the more outrageous moments we saw in his later run on “Red Hulk.” The framing sequence, of Banner talking to Sampson, is a tad redundant, and doesn’t offer much to the overall narrative, besides allowing for an emotional climax. The story begins at the precise moment Banner was exposed to the gamma radiation, and flits between his transformation into the behemoth, General Ross’ determination to destroy the beast, Rick Grimes desperate attempts to hide Banner’s secret, and the Hulk’s obsession with Betty Ross. The emotional beats come in the moments between the Hulk and Betty, as she desperately tries to explain, as if to a child, that she wants nothing to do with the mindless beast, that she’s afraid of him; and the monosyllabic Hulk unable to elucidate his feelings.

HULK: GRAY is another fine addition to the ‘colour’ series, and a perfect sampling of Hulk for those, such as myself, who aren’t especially enamoured with the character, but don’t mind dipping their toes into his world. It’s a short, action-packed, and ultimately emotional tale. In my mind, it’s up there with the best Hulk stories.

by Simon McDonald

Review: Spider-Man – Family Business

Family BusinessWriting partnerships aren’t uncommon in comics, but I’m always cautiously optimistic about them. Oftentimes the pairings don’t work, and the writers end up trouncing the facets of their storytelling I admired about them in the first place. In THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: FAMILY BUSINESS, fan-favorite writers Mark Waid and James Robinson partner with penciller Werther Dell’Edera and painter Gabriele Dell’Otto to throw a new curveball into the life of our Friendly Neighborhood Wall-Crawler: a sister. The result is a fun, if fleeting, action-packed romp, which takes Spidey from Manhattan all the way to Cairo, with several stop-overs along the way.

Whether events in this narrative affect future continuity in the on-going monthly Amazing Spider-Man series seems unlikely: but for all intents and purposes, FAMILY BUSINESS throws the spotlight on the Peter Parker we know and love. Waid and Robinson, long-time pros, avoid excessively detailing ‘the story so far;’ we’re thrown into the action immediately, and pick up the necessary pieces along the way (such as the fact Peter Parker’s parents were CIA operatives). In this tightly-plotted 100-page adventure, Spidey is cast as the Jason Bourne archetype, and he and his never-before-seen sister (a CIA operative, like their mother and father) partner together to deny the bad guys (lead by Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin) whose diabolical schemes link back to the deceased Richard and Mary Parker. Of course, everything is not what it seems: there are double-crosses and revelations along the way, and the writing duo ratchet up the tension nicely. We’ll never know how the writers plotted and scripted this graphic novel, but it’s a partnership that works.

Dell’Otto and Dell’Edera work in beautiful tandem to create 100 pages of stunning artwork. The painted style isn’t integral to the success of the story – FAMILY BUSINESS would’ve worked with a more traditional artistic style – but in this oversized format, their work really benefits. Waid and Robinson allow the illustrators the space to let their artwork breathe; the full-page shots of Spider-Man swinging into action are, well, amazing. The action-sequence inside a lavish Monte Carlo casino is especially wonderful.

There’s a lot to like about FAMILY BUSINESS, and it’s a fantastic package, reiterating the decision by Marvel Comics to completely overhaul their line of original graphic novels. But as fun and action-packed as the story is, it’s perhaps too light-hearted. Given the format and the marketing push behind these graphic novels, I’d like to see writers offering readers something special, something different. There is no denying FAMILY BUSINESS is a fabulous Spider-Man story, and my copy will eventually grow dog-eared from recurrent readings; but it’s nothing that wouldn’t be possible in the monthly comic book series. That minor quibble aside, for new and long-time Spidey readers, you’ll get your money’s worth here.