Friday, 30 April 2021

The Immortal Hulk #45 - Marvel Comics

IMMORTAL HULK No. 45, June 2021
Whilst “Marvel Worldwide” were undoubtedly referring to both the physical and mental condition of this comic’s titular character when their pre-publication blurb intimated that “The Hulk is at his lowest point” in this particular book, those readers unable to navigate their way through Al Ewing’s goulash of grisly ideas were probably thinking the same could be said for this particular instalment’s writing too. Sure, the British author somehow manages to cram an incredibly large cast into this twenty-page periodical’s narrative, but in doing so few individuals enjoy much ‘screen time’ and even when they do, it is debatably hard to ascertain just what is actually happening to them.

For starters, having been completely ‘crispified’ by the U-Foes, Joe Fixit and the Hulk’s emaciated psyche once again face the Leader in the bedrock of Hell. However, having apparently had the One Below All enter his flesh so as to ‘complete their circuit’ a horribly mutated Sam Sterns has suddenly been transformed into a mass of writhing, tentacled mouths which fully intend to tear his opponents to pieces; “You will be a true hulk -- A wandering carcass, wreaking destruction. Making me ever stronger. I will be your leader -- And you will follow. As my good and faithful servant.”

This head-scratching situation is made all the more bemusing, as the action unrelentingly leaps to Jackie McGee’s ‘ghostbusting’ on the plains of New Mexico, Doc Sasquatch’s discovery that his body is missing from the vaults of Shadow Base Site G, Walter Samson’s bizarre surprise appearance as a hitchhiker, and X-Ray’s continuous assault upon the Hulk’s frazzled corpse with Cosmic Radiation, before finally bringing some sort of resolution to Fixit’s precarious predicament by having the Grey Hulk’s former alias fortuitously utilise the U-Foes attack to contrivingly reenergise his physical body.

Disappointingly, even Joe Bennett’s usually first-class pencilling seems to be slightly off-key for Issue Forty-Five of “Immortal Hulk”. Indeed, it is hard not to shake the impression that some of this comic’s set-pieces featured on “the bottom layer of reality” were specifically penned by Ewing simply to provide the Brazilian artist with an excuse to go mad sketching a multitude of disconcerting mouths biting limbs asunder, rather than progressing the actual overall storyline.

The regular cover art of "IMMORTAL HULK" #45 by Alex Ross

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Black Widow #5 - Marvel Comics

BLACK WIDOW No. 5, April 2021
Featuring one of the most emotional incarnations of Natalia Alianovna Romanova arguably ever seen within the pages of a “Marvel Worldwide” publication, Kelly Thompson’s superbly enthralling narrative for Issue Five of “Black Widow” must surely have gone down well with its audience. For whilst it might be hard for some of the super-spy’s fans to reconcile the ex-K.G.B. agent's heartfelt grief at the sudden loss of both her beloved husband and infant son inside a horrendous fireball with that of the ordinarily cold-hearted killer, the sheer sense of deadliness these deaths bestow upon the black-suited assassin is truly palpable; “Natalia. People are coming to kill us. We must kill them instead. You must put aside your grief and move. There will be time for grief later. I promise you. It is not going anywhere anytime soon.”

This disconcerting sense that an Avenger may well kill if provoked strongly enough is additionally heightened by Hawkeye shooting the Weeping Lion straight through the head whilst the criminal is foolishly trying to set his sniper rifle’s sights upon the world famous archer. Perhaps somewhat disappointingly, this debatably defining moment loses some of its gravitas when it is later revealed by Yelena Belova that the crime-lord simply “lost his eye”, but it is the thought that counts, especially when Clint Barton later willingly sets off an explosive arrow within a warehouse crammed full of hapless Hydra goons.

Romanoff’s sister-in-arms, Clone 3, also makes a lasting impact within Thompson’s finale for “The Ties That Bind” story-arc, when she literally smacks a distraught Natasha to her senses one moment and then lays down a serious beating upon the Viper in the next. Indeed, Belova’s battle against an absolute horde of Madame Hydra’s seriously outfought henchmen is one of the highlights of this comic, and the notion of her subsequently accompanying the titular character as a partner-against-crime in future instalments will doubtless have proved an irresistible hook for many readers.

Pulling all this book’s numerous punches together into a visual treat for the eyes, is Elena Casagrande and her marvellous ability to interject the savage violence which Thompson’s narrative demands with some superbly endearing moments, such as when the Black Widow briefly cuddles her dead son’s toy duck. However, the Italian artist’s finest moment within this twenty-page periodical has to be her double splash of Hawkeye watching from a high roof rafter as both Romanoff and Yelena dispatch numerous goons with a variety of kicks, missiles and bullets.

The regular cover art of "BLACK WIDOW" #5 by Adam Hughes

Sunday, 25 April 2021

The Mean Arena Volume One: All To Slay For - Rebellion [Part Four]

THE MEAN ARENA VOLUME ONE: ALL TO SLAY FOR, March 2021
Following on from a fascinating two-part interim tale based upon incidents taken from left-flank blocker J.T. Venner’s biographical book “With A Mate Like This, Who Needs Enemies?”, Tom Tully’s sense-shattering conclusion to the Slater Slayers’ heavily-sponsored challenge match against the Southampton Sharks is certainly well worth the wait. For whilst the game’s disappointingly short-lived night-session isn’t covered anywhere near as long as the first-half, its narrative debatably gets as dark as Street Football can probably get following Matt Tallon’s truck with a savage gang of armed Fan-actics; “Mindless vermin who use sport as a tribal war! Any other time I wouldn’t even spit on them! But now..! Maybe they can help me to rid his game of the biggest street-rat of all..!”

Interestingly however, despite this pulse-raising romp towards the old Saints Soccer Stadium arguably portraying the Slayer as actually being even more of a cold-hearted killer than the players and officials he has vowed to hunt down, “the longest-running writer of the popular football-themed strip Roy of the Rovers” still somehow manages to make the central character somewhat sympathetic to the reader. This quite disconcerting feeling is probably in part due to the sheer sense of poetic justice the storyline’s road takes as the audience discovers just how Jaws Jensen got rid of Port Vale Pirates’ Paul Simpson by messaging a bunch of crazed Southampton followers to mercilessly ambush the player when he was isolated and without help.

The fact that Tallon manages to almost engineer a similar fate for the Sharks’ captain somehow allows the anti-hero to seemingly get away with badly breaking both the game rules and the actual law. Indeed, by the time an absolutely terrified Jensen is ruthlessly dispatched by a “gun-happy old codger” who simply refused to leave his shop unattended during the match, many bibliophiles were probably elated at Matt’s nefarious actions, even though the star Striker had clearly conspired with a bunch of brainless thugs to commit premeditated murder.

Sadly however, this cataclysmic conclusion does contain something of a sole disappointment following John Richardson’s replacement as Art Robot by Johnny Johnson for the very last part. What with Steve Dillon pencilling the aforementioned interlude spotlighting Venner, this substitution means that no less than three different artists end up sketching four successive instalments, and despite Johnson’s similarity in style to his predecessor, definitely jars the mind away from Tully’s storytelling.

Script Robot: Tom Tully, and Art Robots: Steve Dillon, John Richardson & Johnny Johnson

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Iron Man [2020] #8 - Marvel Comics

IRON MAN No. 8, June 2021
Considering that Christopher Cantwell’s narrative for Issue Eight of “Iron Man” doesn’t actually feature the Golden Avenger in any way whatsoever, preferring instead to replace Tony Stark’s ongoing battle against Michael Korvac with a bizarre exploration of Hellcat’s seriously damaged psyche, it is somewhat doubtful “America’s #1 Teenager” landed particularly well with Shell-head’s fanbase. Indeed, considering that the vast majority of this twenty-page periodical arguably just concerns itself with a lack-lustre rehash of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” it was probably hard for some readers not to shake the impression that the American author was, for some inexplicable reason, having to pad out Patsy Walker’s attempt to rekindle her long-dormant psychosomatic powers for almost the entire comic book.

Of course, the sudden appearance of Moondragon and Walker’s subsequent surprising visit back to her old High School days does produce a modicum of momentary interest when first presented, especially when Hellcat’s “old friend and psychic mentor” indicates she hopes to make her pupil’s access to “the ol’ psychoactive radio waves” stronger than ever. However, Heather Douglas’ guest-star appearance does raise a few questions considering the Guardian of the Galaxy is apparently perfectly capable of reaching out across time and space to Patsy in order to imbue her with a considerable cerebral boost, yet unable to mentally attack Korvac when the “would-be deity” is in close proximity to Hellcat.

Similarly as illogical is Walker having to cheat at a history examination by reading the mind of her old teacher and fending off her former husband, Daimon Hellstrom with a couple of office chairs. This entire sequence lurches from set-piece to set-piece, including a disagreeable hospital bedside scene in which the heroine’s mother actually tries to convince her daughter to kill herself, simply so the Defender can supposedly show her own inner fear some kindness; “Your fear. Fear of your own mind. With a soft touch free it. Accept it. Hold it. Deep down, Korvac is afraid. If you are not… You can win.” 

Adding to the feeling that this particular publication is little more than a ‘filler’ edition are Angel Unzueta’s layouts, which whilst proficient enough, debatably lack the visual impact of series regular artist Cafu. This difference in consistent quality is particularly noticeable in the Spaniard’s pencilling of the events housed within Centerville, with the sketching of Mister Brown’s angry outburst over a decimated red apple proving particularly poor when compared to the drawing of Jim Rhodes’ desperate attempt to loop back upon an enemy spaceship in an attempt to destroy it with missiles.

The regular cover art of "IRON MAN" #8 by Alex Ross

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Conan The Barbarian #19 - Marvel Comics

CONAN THE BARBARIAN No. 19, May 2021
Providing its audience with the first instalment to Jim Zub’s “Land Of The Lotus” storyline, this twenty page periodical quite possibly lived up to its publisher’s boast of it being the “perfect jumping-on point for new or lapsed readers!” when it first hit the spinner-racks in early 2021. Indeed, for those fans patient enough to navigate this comic’s opening summary, the premise of the escapade starting with the titular character already being in grave jeopardy proves strongly reminiscent of many of Robert E. Howard’s original prose tales.

Enjoyably however, the Canadian writer doesn’t simply pad this comic out with the regurgitated ideas taken from the back catalogue of “Weird Tales” or “Thrilling Adventures”. But rather adds some innovative twists to the fictional sword and sorcery hero’s tried and tested formula, courtesy of some seriously terrifying Silver Apes attempting to slaughter the barbarian’s brutal captors when the prisoner-laden caravan foolishly travels a little too deep into the monsters' bamboo-infested domain.

Of course, the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Award-winner does admittedly somewhat quickly pair Conan up with the “one bright spot the Cimmerian sees in the pouring rain” in the guise of the beautifully na├»ve scholar Meiwei of Paikang. Yet, even this helpless academic, who unsurprisingly proves utterly inept when faced with a charging gorilla, is arguably of far stronger character than many of the damsels in distress who have gone before her. In fact, rather than being particularly motivated by a desire to be bedded by the barbarian, the woman seems far more interested in simply doing what is morally right; “Your conduct is disgusting! These prisoners should be treated with respect until they are properly judged for their crimes.”

Adding plenty of gratuitous gore to this comic’s prodigiously-penned proceedings are Cory Smith’s pencils, which genuinely imbue many a scene, such as Conan stabbing a Silver Ape straight through the brain with a spear-point, with buckets of blood. The artist also appears extremely adept at depicting the stinking squalor the Cimmerian must endure housed alongside his fellow inmates within the confines of a tiny cell on wheels, as well as the vile contempt shown on the faces of the Khitai warriors whenever they are goading the condemned.

Writer: Jim Zub, Artist: Luca Pizzari, and Colorist: Israel Silva

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Iron Man [2020] #7 - Marvel Comics

IRON MAN No. 7, May 2021
For those readers interested in Frog-Man discussing his religious thoughts on the existence of a one, true God with the likes of the Gargoyle, Misty Knight and the Scarlet Spider, or negotiating a twenty-six panel sedentary sequence in which Michael Korvac waxes lyrical about his “one single entity”, Christopher Cantwell’s script for Issue Seven of “Iron Man” debatably delivered. However, for those bibliophiles anticipating any action whatsoever from this particular publication, “Overclock” probably left them feeling bitterly disheartened; “This collective aggregate knows only peace and calm. All acts are ones of softness and grace. Universal good is omnipresent and owned by no individual. Not even myself. The Self melts away completely. It serves only the aggregate.”

To begin with, the vast majority of this comic is padded out with Hellcat and Shell-head receiving an utterly befuddling update from this ongoing series’ lead antagonist as to just what the villain’s central goal of establishing a “Universal Harmony” means. Word-heavy and stretched to almost breaking point by a couple of Cafu’s prodigiously pencilled splash page illustrations, this dialogue-driven scene eventually concludes with the bizarre revelation that Korvac wants to turn all galactic life into nothing more than an existence of “crystals eating crystals.”

Admittedly, such an insane admission definitely shows just how completely mad the “would-be deity” has become, whilst simultaneously making it abundantly clear that the resurrected android must be stopped from carrying out his diabolical plan no matter what the cost. But arguably this book’s American author could have accomplished a similarly convincing ‘reveal’ in a quarter of the sheet space, and subsequently have enlivened this periodical’s lethargic tempo by focusing more upon War Machine’s disappointingly brief battle against a faster-than-light spacecraft.

Perhaps this comic’s biggest curve-ball though is Cantwell’s somewhat head-scratchingly surreal cliff-hanger, which sees Tony Stark somehow teleported to another world which is apparently populated by a group of exotic-looking extra-terrestrials and a futuristically-armed Canadian. Such a sudden departure from this title’s long-running narrative must have proved a little jarring to this comic’s audience, especially for those already puzzled as to just how the billionaire industrial somehow managed to ‘piggy-back’ upon Hellcat’s telepathic conversation with Korvac beforehand.

The regular cover art of "IRON MAN" #7 by Alex Ross