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: Deadly Class, Volume 1 – Reagan Youth by Rick Remender & Wes Craig

Deadly ClassDEADLY CLASS isn’t exactly a realistic portrayal of life for the average teenager. The school young Marcus Lopez attends is Kings Dominion School for the Deadly Arts, which educates its students on murder. His peers are killers-in-the-making, or killers already, who are simply refining their craft, and have developed inseparable cliques within their fiefdom. It’s not a nice place but then, for a large portion of students, what school is?

Despite the hyperbolic events of Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s tale, there is an undeniable authenticity to Lopez’s reactions to the cards life has dealt him. His parents are dead and he has been living on the streets; he is constantly surrounded by absolute despair. So it’s only natural his perceptions have been warped, and that elements of his sanity have been stripped. Lopez is in no way likable; in fact, there are few (if any) redeeming characters in this first volume of DEADLY CLASS – but we understand how things got to this point; how life has chipped away at this young kid, and turned him into a vengeful, amoral monster.

The exaggerated violence and the fantastical portrayal of an acid trip are masterfully rendered by Wes Craig (aided by Lee Loughridge on colors), but without Remender’s robust narrative the collection would devolve into capricious absurdity; pretty to look at, but without any meat on the bone. Remender weaves a large cast of characters into the story, but the spotlight remains firmly on Lopez, whose internal monologue gradually humanizes him, allowing readers a glimmer of hope for the boy’s future; maybe he’s not as bad as he wants us to think; maybe he has a shot at redemption.

I’ll certainly be reading on to find out.

Review: Black Science Volume 1 – How to Fall Forever by Rick Remender & Matteo Scalera

Black ScienceFEAR AGENT is the science fiction comic book series that etched Rick Remender’s name in my mind and lured me into reading his stints on Marvel Comics’ THE PUNISHER, UNCANNY X-FORCE, SECRET AVENGERS, and most recently UNCANNY AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA. But however good – and in many instances, truly brilliant – Remender’s work on these company-owned characters has been, I’ve been hankering for his return to creator-owned work for a long time now; a series where he’s unshackled from the parameters of corporate comics; a series that allows him to unleash his ingenuity. Over the last six months, Image Comics has assuaged me with two new series from Remender: DEADLY CLASS and BLACK SCIENCE. Both are works of stunningly high quality, yet equally, very different kinds of stories operating in distinct genres. DEADLY CLASS (with artistic duo Wesley Craig and Lee Loughridge) focuses on a clandestine high school hidden under the depths of San Francisco. BLACK SCIENCE, meanwhile, while reminiscent of FEAR AGENT in that it’s another science fiction epic, is an examination of a diverse group of characters surviving in the most perilous of circumstances: wrenched through layers of parallel dimensions as they desperately seek a way to return home.

This first volume of BLACK SCIENCE, subtitled HOW TO FALL FOREVER, deftly introduces the series’ high-concept and the expansive cast of characters. Grant McKay, a former member of The Anarchistic Order of Scientists has finally achieved his life’s work with the creation of the Pillar, which punches holes through the layers of reality (“the onion”) enabling travel between dimensions. We’re assured McKay and his Anarchist League of Scientists have created this device for honourable reasons: with the ability to travel to parallel worlds they have the ability to locate and solve every problem mankind faces. But a member of McKay’s crew has sabotaged the Pillar, and instead of methodically traveling to new worlds, they are barrelling uncontrollably through the unknown, with indeterminable timespans to survive on each new world before the Pillar’s next launch. Even worse, McKay’s kids have inadvertently accompanied him on this journey while his wife – their mother – is back home.

McKay is a wonderfully fallible character, whose blemishes emphasize his humanity. He’s a workaholic, addicted to his field of forbidden science, while his family barely registers as an afterthought – yet he has found time to bed his lab assistant, Rebecca, whom he has promised to leave his wife for. We sympathize with McKay because of his circumstances rather than his persona. Alone, we mightn’t care about his survival, but with the crew relying on McKay’s genius to liberate them from perpetual terror, we root for him. This inaugural story arc (the first 6 issues of the monthly series) demonstrates McKay’s capacity to change, to become a better man if he’s allowed the time to do so – but Remender reveals he’s willing to kill off major characters from the get-go: nobody is safe, so there’s constant tension, and the cliff-hanger left me stunned.

Of course, Rememder’s script would matter naught if he wasn’t accompanied by an art team as stellar as Matteo Scalera and Dean White. While some characters look a little too alike, Scalera demonstrates his skill at designing and drawing alternate realities and the creatures that exist within them. Aided by White’s coloring, which has a painterly quality at times, the visuals are truly distinctive. This is an artistic duo that visibly improves as their collaboration endures.

BLACK SCIENCE: HOW TO FALL FOREVER is an incredibly strong opening arc for the series, and sets a course for potential greatness. Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White pull no punches: this is the sci-fi epic I didn’t realize I wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.