Sunday, 7 September 2014

Primer: Essential Marvel NOW!

Marvel NOW! has impressed me. Marvel has come out with some lackluster books, but I feel the NOW! initiative has reinvigorated things and have allowed for new narratives to be told, books I never thought would exist to exist and give some new blood we wouldn't have had before that give books an independent identity.

For new readers and for old, here is my list of the best books to read out of the NOW! initiative.

Avengers/New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman
I'm of the opinion that Bendis' Avengers devolved from a great concept into prolonged stories full of double-page spreads and not a lot of story. After the first volume of New Avengers, not a lot of good happened.

Hickman is hitting it out of the park. He's expanded the Avengers roster into an international team with a lot of new members, and into intergalactic space sagas like Infinity. New Avengers is given a much more interesting concept than we had before - rather than the lower-tier Avengers who live at Avengers Mansion, it's the Illuminati who are trying to prevent the destruction of Earth. Hickman explored the alternative universe concept in Fantastic Four, and this is an extension of that theme - but in a much more central way which grounds both books in a long-term plan which will end in the incursion: either "everybody dies" immediately, or another earth is destined to die,

Uncanny Avengers by Rick Remender
We started off with a good arc, with art by John Cassady, which pitted the newly formed Avengers Unity Squad against the 1942 clone of the Red Skull.

Then we had some interesting mutant politics, with Havok (an awesome inclusion to the team) asking to the press "Call me Alex."

But what follows is an amazing multi-volume arc picking up on threads from Remender's Uncanny X-Force, and going ahead and destroying the Avengers, in many literal senses. Oh, and we get the heroes of 2020 in there too (and let me tell you, Iron Man 2020 is always a positive.) With a roster with female heroes like Rogue and Scarlet Witch, given some awesome new costumes, Remender has created the perfect blend of the Avengers and the X-Men in one book. Acuna is reunited with Remender in art, and it is perfection. As much as I love Cassady, Acuna gives the book a really great and epic feel. It's all but been confirmed that the book is ending within a couple of issues, but damn, what a ride it's been.

Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
I LOVE THIS BOOK AH. I mean, I already loved the Young Avengers before going into this. It screams: go read Phonogram. Go read WicDiv next year. Look at McKelvie's prettiness in Suburban Glamour.

It's experimental, with brief arcs and overarching themes and some interesting panel layouts. It's teenage. The art is very very pretty. It explores everything from parental relationships, good and evil, sexuality, awesome music choices, and also the manipulations of Loki and eating at breakfast bars.

It's 15 issues (being collected in Omnibus form), but to paraphrase Gillen, "this book is so last year." And in a good way.

Avengers Arena by Dennis Hopeless
Ex-Runaways and Avengers Academy members in Lord of the Flies/The Hunger Games/Battle Royale vs. Arcade. What's not to love?

All-New X-Men #1-15 by Brian Michael Bendis
All-New X-Men now seems to have fallen into the standard Bendis trap: extended decompression which just ends up either making everything unreadable, or a 5 minute read. I enjoyed the [I]Battle of the Atom[/I] crossover storyline, but sadly All-New has failed to pick-up since then (although The Trial of Jean Grey was decent.)

It's kind of what we saw in the Days of Future Past film, really. Our present is the dystopia. It's not an explict dystopia with mutant camps, fire and lots and lots of dead people, but following events like House of M and AvX, it's hard not to view the (glamorous in looks, not in events) present in that light. It's a subversion of the typical idea of time traveling forward to the future, which I like. Instead, Hank McCoy removes the original X-Men from the past to try and prevent the past, what has already happened for both the reader and the characters in the X-books. It develops naturally, there's questions of paradoxes and also what year the X-Man exactly came from, with controvesies over the existence of bottled water and the development of Times Square - standard 'fish out of water' stuff. Plus it feels like the most natural way of reintroducing Jean Grey to the present books, without forcing a resurrection in there.

Uncanny X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis and Chris Bachalo
Uncanny X-Men, in contrast, has remained great. It continues the Schism idea of a split X-Men, but this time it's more villainous, with Cyclops, Magneto, Emma Frost, Magik (a character I absolutely adore) along with some new mutants. Chris Bachalo's art is awesome, and I honestly feel this is the X-book everyone should be reading right now. Even the Original Sins tie-in has introduced a thought-provoking addition to Xavier's history, with some sweet moments with She-Hulk and Nightcrawler too.

X-Men by Brian Wood
X-Men has struggled to find its place as a title in the last couple of years. But Wood is able to craft all these great characters where the female side of the X-Men is represented as their own group. Jubilee is the best she's been in ages, given an awesome role as mother. Storm is great, Rogue is great, Psylocke is great... it's great. The middle arc dips a little, but the first and third arcs are both excellent explorations of a corner of the X-Men which has been somewhat sidelined. Storm's daughter from the future, Kymera, is in the third arc and makes everything worth it.

Amazing X-Men: The Quest For Nightcrawler by Jason Aaron
Resurrections are hard to deal with. It's such an overused conceit in comic books that it hardly lacks worth. But Aaron makes it unique: Nightcrawler is literally yanked from Heaven. Literally. Azazel may not have sat right in Chuck Austen's best forgotten run, but here Aaron uses a forgotten piece of canon to an advantage. It makes a perfect exploration of Nightcrawler, his faith and ancestry, but also of the nature of comic book resurrections.

Nightcrawler by Chris Claremont and Todd Nauck
Chris Claremont writes a good book in the present day for once. Who knew? In places, it reeks of nostalgia. But Claremont brings good old fashioned adventure that doesn't feel out of place; Claremont doesn't smother us with over-wrought narration either. At the same time - in really an extension of those first six issues of [I]Amazing X-Men[/I] - he looks at Kurt's faith and also that revolving door of resurrection. It's really cool to see Kurt back in his place, now at the Jean Grey School. Plus, you get to see Kurt back in Deutschland again, something everyone can appreciate.

Magneto by Cullen Bunn
Cullen Bunn isn't a writer I like. Yet somehow, he gets to write a book with what is essentially a villain killing people with metal and making it a good book. There's reference back to the Nazis (not the Holocaust, but events outside of Max's life in the camps - a story Greg Pak told exceptionally well in Testament, but Bunn gives us different pieces to the puzzle) but also Magneto's life with and against the X-Men. He is this lone force, much as we saw him in X-Men: First Class, acting outside of the helmet for a lot of the time. His powers have weakened and he's adjusting to that life. And I love this book.

Storm by Greg Pak and Victor Ibanez
Two issues in, and I'm already in love. Storm, with her punk mohawk and her powers of the sky has captivated me. This book balances everything great about Storm - her African heritage, her life with the X-Men, her relationship with Wolverine, her punk nature, and merges it into this conglomeration of all these different elements. A characterisation which shows she is powerful yet can misjudge things, and also judge things correctly. She gets to pair off with Beast, and it's all wonderful to see. Plus the art is a thing of beauty.

It's impressive. It really is impressive.

Savage Wolverine
I've never really loved Wolverine, and in its initial concept as an anthology book Savage Wolverine didn't really book. But whenever it delves back into history, it's great. From #9 onwards, we explore Logan in World War One, the Prohibition Era, the Kennedy assassination, and all this links together to make this great little book outside of the present day but establishing its own stuff. Cornell's stuff isn't as much to my taste, but this book gives us a feral Wolverine at his best.

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z by Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.
I'll admit, I'm excited for Sam Wilson to take on the mantle of Captain America. I like the idea that Cap has lost the effects of the serum and is now a very good looking 90 year old. But the readability of the book has been pretty weak recently.

What Remender did well, though, is in his introductory arc. We get to see Steve's growth during the Depression juxtaposed against a Cap stranded in another dimension - the dimension of Arnim Zola. It doesn't compare against Brubaker's run, sure, but it doesn't need to. It sets up its own story, one which I wish had played out better. But, as it introduced itself, it makes for a fulfilling read.

Indestructible Hulk #1-5 by Mark Waid
How far have we fallen. Waid sets up a great new status quo - Banner would be controlled as the Hulk, he'd get a new haircut, he'd work for SCIENCE! at S.H.I.E.L.D. It's gone almost as soon as it started. The first volume is a great exploration of Banner, along with a team-up with Iron Man. Soon the run descends into silly time travel stories, Banner losing his intelligence and now a new title written by Gerry Duggan which doesn't seem great. Hulk is one of the big (not literally big, although that also works) characters who has struggled to get a series which lasts or has much of a legacy. But heck, that armour was cool and Hulk and Maria Hill's interactions are fun to see.

Thor: God of Thunder by Jason Aaron
I find Thor hard to get into. With literally millenia of mythology, he's the least down-to-earth character out there buckled up with the history of Asgard. Aaron embraces that history and mythology that has made me hesitant on Thor before and given us a saga that spans from the Dark Ages to the end of time. This is how to write Thor. Every issue in this series and I can't say there's a bad one. He explores Thor's home in Broxton; he explores Thor's destiny yet to come, and Jane Foster plays a (non-romantic) role too, like she did in Fraction's run. Esad Ribic's art helps a lot, too.

The Superior Spider-Man by Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos
The Amazing Spider-Man is terrible. But before Slott returned Peter to his normal self, we had a 31-issue run with subverted a hero into a villain. Not everything worked perfectly, but what Slott did here is miles ahead of what he's doing now.

She-Hulk #1-4 by Charles Soule and Javier Pullido
Soule, a lawyer, goes ahead and writes a book about a lawyer who isn't Catholic, isn't blind and isn't male either. I've always had an affinity for She-Hulk - Sensational is a favourite of mine - but to see Jennifer return to an independent attorney role, setting up her own business for people with powers (and people without powers, too.) It's kinda the She-Hulk and Hellcat team-up book, and that's okay. I love seeing these one-shot cases being tackled. The quality has dipped - #5-6 was basically no-one's cup of tea with fill-in art, and I really wasn't feeling the Ant-Man story (#7), but I'm hoping everything will return to the awesomeness of those initial 4 issues.

Black Widow by Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto
Edmonson gives Natasha both S.H.I.E.L.D. and a cat, and it works perfectly. And boy, can Phil Noto draw action - which each issue relies quite heavily on. The series crosses the globe, and we end up with some "Natasha vs. her ex-boyfriends" issues - namely, Daredevil, Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier, and it works perfectly.

The Punisher by Nathan Edmonson
Frank moves to L.A., adopts an intriguing new armoured costume and hangs out with a cop. I love Frank's alignment to the police, firstly because he's so anti-law in the first place and secondly because it gives me flashbacks to the 1989 film where Frank is an ex-cop hunted by the cops, a film which I also love.

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson
I never expected to absolutely adore a book about a 16-year old Muslim girl, but apparently I do. It's not a culture I know or understand well at all, but it's seen through the prism of a teenager growing up and carrying the mantle of a hero - one of which I can relate to, and the other being something I like. Congratulations to Wilson, because this beats my previous experience with Muslim culture - which is EastEnders subplots.

Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick
DeConnick takes Carol on the next logical step - into space. Her first run gave a Carol grounded on earth - or at least our own atmosphere - but, as many arugments as I have for relaunching again, this sets itself apart from that by taking her to the stars. As much as her being with the Guardians doesn't sound like a good idea, this isn't about her with the Guardians. This is her on her own, kicking butt. We get an alien lesbian couple to, which was such an adorable scene and I appreciate seeing a little hint of more diversity.

Moon Knight by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey; Brian Wood
I've seen people say they're jumping off this title because Warren Ellis is gone. I say don't. The awesomeness of this book extends beyond Ellis' writing and Shalvey's unique, minimalistic panel layouts. Moon Knight has become this silent speaking badass, going up against criminals of any sort. It's an action book primarily, and whilst each issue is light on exposition and dialogue and is a breeze to get through, it's a lot more fulfilling of a breeze than, say, the breeze of a Brian Michael Bendis book of the worst sort.

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Michael Allred
It's a nostalgic book, where we see Earth 13 years ago held by Galactus, we meet our Defenders buddies, Hulk and Strange, again, and everything from the lack of cellphones to Allred's art evokes that era. But fundamentally it's a story of the Surfer and a human woman in her 20s, who is not the romantic lead nor is magazine cover attractive. She's a down-to-earth woman who still operates in the vicinity of parents and is about to become, well, literally not-on-earth. Not sure how this book has been selling but I really hope it sells well, because damn. Slott may be terrible on Peter Parker right now but I am loving his work on Norrin Radd.

Loki: Agent of Asgard by Al Ewing
Young adult Loki, the internet, All-Mothers, reincarnated Asgardians and Al Ewing. 'Nuff said.

Rocket Raccoon by Skottie Young
The best of the solo-Guardians books, with a distinct light-hearted tone and a lot of fun. And Groot.

Spider-Man 2099 by Peter David

The best Spider-Man book right now, where Miguel O'Hara adapts to the present day knowing full well he might destroy his own present day in the process. A lot of fun and the best Miguel has been written since the 90s (by the guy who wrote him in the 90s, of course.)

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