Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Thor (2007), Vol. 1

Thanks to a fantastically heroic and bright art style Thor’s return to Earth leaps off the pages and becomes a captivating and fun quest to restore Asgard.


With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

thor volume 1Writer: J. Michael Straczynski

Artist: Olivier Coipel

Issues: Thor (2007) #1-6


I’d never before read a Thor comic nor had any interest in the character growing up. I saw him as just a silly founding member of the Avengers that was based on a Norse god. When the Thor film released a few years ago I was surprised as anyone that this goofy figure would receive his own stand-alone big screen debut and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the earnest, likable character full of his own unique lore and background.

Comics-wise Thor has been out of commission throughout the entire era I’ve been reading so far (2004-2007). Sometime around the events of “Avengers Disassembled,” Thor’s story went through Ragnarok, the life and death cycle of the gods, and ended with all of Asgard dying in an attempt to stop the endless cycle.

Thor is gone for a solid three years (an eternity in comic book time) before being reintroduced in this 2007 series written by J. Michael Straczynski (Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four) and drawn by Olivier Coipel (House of M). The timing couldn’t be better for being introduced to the God of Thunder as he’s awakened by his old human host Dr. Donald Blake and summoned back to Earth. Thor quickly works to restore Asgard and find his fellow Asgardian warriors hidden away within stalwart human bodies. Thanks to Coipel’s fantastically heroic and bright art style Thor’s adventure leaps off the pages and becomes a captivating and fun quest despite the patient build-up and pacing.

thor #1

Instead of following a standard six issue story arc, each issue of Thor is given its own titling, and feels more like progressive episodes of a television show rather than a constant stream of finales like most comics. While never fully explained, Thor is inhabiting the same body as Donald Blake, the man that originally became Thor. Blake has the power to turn into Thor by slamming a stick against the ground dramatically, and Coipel plays with this fantastical transformation in some fun, flashy ways (I’m getting fond flashbacks of He-Man – I HAVE THE POWER!).

By issue #2 Thor knows what he needs to do. Since he’s the last Asgardian left, he decides to build a new Asgard in a giant empty field near a small town in Oklahoma. Straczynski has a lot of really fun and funny scenes with the locals that mostly manage to steer away from country bumpkin stereotypes and just focus on the craziness of suddenly having the mythical space-city floating above the ground just down the street.

Not everyone is happy to see the God of Thunder back on Earth, and much has happened since Thor left, as Iron Man is quick to remind him. There’s a poignant scene where Thor visits a post-Katrina New Orleans (not the first hero to do that) and reflects on his absence and the things he could have done to help. Iron Man shows up to explain the then-recent Civil War and Thor’s need to register with the U.S. government (and also that the whole floating Asgard thing is viewed as a threat).

thor #3Thor responds by kicking Iron Man’s ass in a flashy battle of lightning bolts and lasers. Thor’s power has never been greater and he easily dispatches Stark, ripping off his helmet and threatening him to his face. While I’ve enjoyed Stark’s solo series, he still definitely comes off as a total asshole in everyone else’s comics and events and it’s very satisfying to see somebody simply stand up and say Nope, and Don’t Come Back. Stark saves face by declaring Asgard an embassy on U.S. soil and leaves it at that, at least until Asgard takes center stage in the Siege event in 2010.

Of course Thor isn’t content to roam the halls alone. His next order of business is to find and free his fellow Asgardians, now also sharing mortal bodies. He finds Heimdall in New Orleans after sensing his grief-stricken soul, and finds The Warriors Three in Africa as volunteer soldiers at a Doctors without Borders campsite. There’s a fun battle when Dr. Blake and company are attacked by a neighboring tribe, and he He-Mans into Thor and kicks everyone’s ass.

The concept of a normal person able to transform into a superhero is as old as the genre itself, but it’s amazing how fresh and fun it feels here. I also love how Coipel draws Thor with his super flat, broad, serious face, giving him an exotic and interesting look along with his iconic armor.

Thor’s search for Asgardians leads him into a battle with the Destroyer (the same robot thing from the Thor film, though much smaller here) and he finds yet another soul trapped in the monster, fueled by regret and rage. He also finds Loki whom he originally mistakes for Lady Sif – it’s female Loki! A fun twist on a classic character, though I imagine this transformation doesn’t last given Tom Hiddleston’s incredible performance and popularity to the big screen persona.

thor #5

At the end of issue #6 Thor flies up into the atmosphere and releases a powerful blast, releasing all the Asgardians on Earth at the same time, for better or for worse, and draining himself in the process. Other than a brief scene showing Loki talking with Dr. Doom and a cabal of other villains there really isn’t much of a conflict yet.

Straczynski’s pacing feels like a slow, deliberate build up as he gathers all the pieces and sets the stage for future events. Because of the enjoyable writing and fantastic art I’m completely on board with this approach. I never though a Thor comic would become one of my favorites, but I’ll be damned If I’m not loving this series.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New Avengers (2005), Vol. 7

Volume Seven acts as a prologue to Secret Invasion as our heroes reel from the discovery of a disguised Skrull and the implications of a major Body Snatchers-style invasion.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

new avengers 2005 vol 7Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Artists: Leinil Francis Yu, Carlo Pagulayan (Annual #2)

Issues: New Avengers (2005) #32-37, Annual #2


Poor New Avengers. You started off as the primary Avengers trade following the events of “Disassembled.” Then Tony Stark won the Civil War and the rebels of the New Avengers went underground, refusing to register but also not wanting to disband. Stark built his own government-sanctioned Mighty Avengers team, leading to two concurrent Avengers trades for the next few years.

So far Mighty Avengers has benefited from all the big stories while our rebel team mostly picks up the pieces and ties into the story-lines of their bigger brothers, first briefly in the “Ultron Initiative” then directly during the “Venom Bomb” crisis. More importantly, this seventh volume acts as a giant extended prologue to the then-upcoming major event Secret Invasion in 2008 as our heroes reel from the discovery of a disguised Skrull and the implications of a major Body Snatchers-style invasion.

“The Trust” revels in the horror (and dark comedy) of the team suddenly unable to trust each other after revealing that Elektra was really a disguised skrull at the end of the previous story arc. Spider-Man especially gets some genuinely funny dialogue (“Maybe I’m a skrull? Or maybe all of you are skrulls and I’m on the universe’s weirdest reality show”). The first few issues involve the roster of Dr. Strange, Hawkeye (as costumed ninja Ronin), Echo, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist arguing amongst themselves.

Spider-Woman defects from the team during the violent weather attacks produced by Ultron during the first story arc of Mighty Avengers. Her plan is to take the skrull body to Tony Stark to make him aware of a possible invasion. The rest of the team is justifiably worried that Tony Stark could easily be a supplanted skrull himself. The plane carrying the team goes down in a lightning storm, leaving Spider-Woman able to take down a wounded Wolverine and escape with the body (and we later see her carry through with her plan to talk to Tony Stark in Mighty Avengers #7), and at that point she officially joins with the Mighty Avengers.

There isn’t much of an actual plot for the first few issues until we’re introduced to a new villain organization, organized by The Hood. The Hood, a dual-pistol wielding, demonic entity powering badass, gathers a bunch of D-list bad guys into trying to form a criminal organization to take advantage of the fractured superhero community.

new avengers #34

Since the Mighty Avengers are tackling bigger problems, our group takes on the Hood’s head-on. It’s also approrpriate as the New Avengers roster includes some of the more well known “street level” heroes like Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The gritty battles and dialogue scenes are accentuated by Leinil Yu’s incredibly stark, pencil-heavy art style.

Yu took over as the main artist for New Avengers after Civil War and the dark shaded art provides a very strong contrast to Mighty Avengers‘ bright, typical tones. In fact this style is more in line with experimental stuff you’d see on random solo books rather than a major Avengers tie-in series. Kudos to Marvel for differentiating their two Marvel books, and really making New Avengers a unique and fun read.

The story concludes in New Avengers Annual #2 as The Hood’s gang assaults the magically hidden sanctum of Dr. Strange that’s acted as the Avenger’s hidden base of operations. They found the location through a very uncomfortable side plot involving beating, torturing, and threatening a completely random (and mostly naked) female hero, Tigra. Heroes getting brutally beaten is nothing new, but the violence factor is suddenly ratcheted up to a degree that hadn’t been seen previously (or again, as in the final battle), and takes on a very sinister tone as our heroine is mostly naked throughout and one of the bad guys is filming it and taking pictures, so that the rest of the bad guys can cheer and laugh. Ugh.

The Hood threatens to kill her and her mother as revenge for a previous attack she had foiled, and they use her again to get the location of Dr. Strange’s base. At least in the end she does get to join in the final battle as the bad guys attack the New Avengers. Yu’s style lends itself more to moody dialogue scenes than standard comic book action, and indeed the art is best when it focuses on one-on-one fight scenes rather than grand multi-hero stagings.

Just as our heroes begin to lose the fight (they’re outnumbered at least two to one) an already wounded (like, presumed dead) Dr. Strange basically hulks out in demon form, taking everyone down but draining himself considerably. Only the Hood escapes, and Dr. Strange decides to permanently leave the group as he’s been losing more and more of himself in these events.

new avengers annual #2

Ms. Marvel of the Mighty Avengers shows up with SHIELD to help incarcerate the bad guys, and to her credit she lets our rebel heroes escape. Of the villain crew only The Hood escapes, an intriguing villain I definitely want to see more of. Initially I was worried about the villain organization plot thread to merely be a minor stepping stone between Secret Invasion but it ended up with a fun, satisfying finale, and other than the super uncomfortable stuff with Tigra, I really enjoyed it. Yu’s artwork continues to be memorable and different, and our New Avengers are a fun team to read about with lots of varying personalities and witty banter. I certainly root for them way more than Stark and Ms. Marvel’s incredibly lame team, and look forward to their tie-ins to Secret Invasion, coming up next!

Shadowrun 5E “Road Rage” Session 1 Report

Our second adventure picks up with plot threads and characters from the previous run, as our runners are given a dangerous highway escort mission. First they have to secure the shipment, and run into a hostage situation.

Watch our sessions live on every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central.

Read the Recap for “Not With a Whimper”

For our second Shadowrun adventure I knew I wanted to follow up on events and plot threads left dangling from the first mission, “Not With a Whimper.” The players had gained a valuable Fixer and contact into the criminal underworld in Jeremiah Redd, and this adventure kicked off with the more traditional meet and mission brief.

I’d written a Prologue to include the mission briefing and info dumping for the task at hand, as well an opportunity for the players to do any shopping or general preparedness before starting the adventure proper. This is actually new territory for us as the first adventure I simply threw everyone together and literally had a bomb explode in their faces to kick things off.

The mission picked up the pieces of “Not With a Whimper’s” finale. With Jay-T out of commission, his auto shop and garage was easy pickings for any gangers and low-lifes that wandered in. Redd wanted to box up all the various hardware and electronics and sell the lot for as much as he could get. He found a buyer, Ricardo Martin, an assistant in Buying and Acquisition for Ares Macrotechnology. Redd needed the players to help escort the armored truck full of crates to the docks near downtown Seattle, and make sure the sale went through smoothly.

The players accepted and we spent some time doing some shopping. We also went over some important features we didn’t touch on in the previous adventure such as fake SINs and how to buy and sell loot.

Sr street

For many aspects of Shadowrun I modify the rules to suit our needs better. For selling loot I use an extended Negotiation test to determine how much time it takes to find an appropriate buyer (threshold of 10, can roll once per hour for items up to $10k). Buyers will purchase goods at 50% purchase cost, plus 10% for every hit rolled on an unopposed Negotiation test.

Shadowrun isn’t a loot driven game compared to most other RPGs, and I definitely don’t encourage looting of every body they take down (it doesn’t really make sense thematically or realistically; these guys aren’t hauling around backpacks full of guns). Still there will be appropriate times when a runner wants to take a fancy gun or device that I’ve planted, and there should always be an opportunity to sell it.

For buying loot I adhere closer to the rule book, which is to roll a Negotiation test versus the item’s availability. Players can add 25% to the cost of the item to give themselves +1 dice, up to 12 dice at 400% purchase cost. I was pleased to see the runners already working together to use the team member with the highest Negotiation/Social skills as their primary shopper.

The whole prologue took a solid hour, and I probably talked way too much but the players asked all the right questions and had a pretty solid idea what they needed to do. When they were done with shopping I advanced to our first real scene, and they received a rude awakening far earlier than they were planning on – Jay-T’s was under attack!

After the players car pooled and then stopped for coffee (heh, alright but that’s gonna cost ya!) they arrived back at Jay-Ts. I mentioned in my previous adventure’s recaps that reusing scenes in Roll20 is a huge time-saver as I spend quite a bit of time building them. Being able to reuse the finale of the previous adventure with a completely different situation and hostile scenario as the first exciting incident here helped speed my preparation up considerably.

Shadowrun Road Rage Lapis LuzilThe players found a hostage situation with a twist – both sides had a hostage! During the prologue I had introduced two NPCs that would be accompanying the players on the journey, one of them, elf adept and swordswoman Lapis Luzil was outside with a captive while the other, former ganger and wheelman Crank, was inside being held hostage by the group that had attacked. Redd’s night crew lay dead and Lapis and her captive were outside the building taking cover in the truck. The players had to assess the situation from her and the captive, then infiltrate the building and attempt to talk down or defeat the enemies inside.

In our previous adventure the players rarely had a chance to plan ahead, and when they did (the finale) they all kind of just did their own thing. That was technically appropriate to them having just been thrown in with each other by random chance, but they also expressed a desire to work together in the future to coordinate their tactics. I was pleased to see them do exactly that in this situation.

After gathering what information they could, they used a combination of their shaman’s clairvoyance spell and their decker’s video camera hacks to see as much of the inside as possible. The front door had been blocked by a large shelf, and the tension cords for the garage door had been severed (the upstairs window was also an option). The players’ defacto leader, elf adept and social guru Falkirk, gave orders like a seasoned commander to everyone, taking up defensive positions, and used their beefy troll shaman Ursev to lift the garage door.

At that point I had everyone roll Initiative, though of course on the Falkirk’s turn he used a Free Action to try and talk and diffuse the situation. It gets a bit awkward here as I kind of want him to get his say, but on the other hand still follow combat rules in terms of what actions everyone can perform on their Initiative Pass. Ultimately he exchanged some words with the mage, and she with another gang member but this group wouldn’t be talked down so easily.

I anticipated this to be a fairly tricky fight, but with the players incredibly prepared to rain hell on the garage it was actually very one-sided in their favor. Only one of the gangers was actually in there at the time (the mage). The leader could quickly step out of the office room and help, but their augmented muscle was quite far away in another room, and had to spend three full passes sprinting just to get to the garage. By the time he did, the other two were dead.

Road Rage Scene 1 Jay-T's gang fight

Damn my runners’ sniper street samurai! In an eerie similarity to our last adventure’s boss fight, Mauta managed a one hit kill with her high-powered sniper rifle on the mage on her initiative pass. She always seems to go last but her turn is always devastating. Killing the mage resulted in both Crank being freed from her Control Actions spell, and dissipating the fairly powerful Air Elemental that had just materialized into the garage. I didn’t get a chance to use him at all. D’oh!

The gang leader was quickly ganged up on by everyone else. Ironically our elf adept Falkirk used a Leadership roll to tell Lapis not to kill him after she had just sliced a good chunk out with her sword, and she begrudgingly agreed, only to have Falkirk then deal the killing blow with a huge roll on his taser. The way stun damage works in Shadowrun is once it’s full, the damage becomes physical. Since the leader had been about 50% damaged on both Physical and Stun monitors from previous attacks one 5 hit blast with me rolling 0 hits on defense took him down completely into negatives. He was on the ground with blood and smoke pouring out and wasn’t long for this world.

By the time the augmented muscle joined the fight he was hopelessly outnumbered, and after absorbing a shot from the decker, our elf leader easily talked him down into surrendering. Though his friends were dead or dying, the players had left Lapis’ young captive alive (and handcuffed to the truck), so he did have some incentive to surrender.

Even as shockingly one-sided as the fight ended up being, combat still takes a while and we went way later than our usual allotted time. It’s always awkward to end a session in the middle of combat, and I’d be lying if I said that the lateness of the session didn’t factor into the last foe’s willingness to surrender! Next week the players will undoubtedly have some questions for why this group was here, as well as what possible ties they could have to Crank, whom they seemed to know. Also of course, the actual road odyssey part of the journey will actually begin!

Watch our sessions live on every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Iron Man: Haunted

“Haunted” successfully ties plot threads and seeds from Stark’s previous stories while sending him on an emotional journey filled with mystery, political intrigue, and an action-packed finale.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

iron man hauntedWriters: Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf

Artists: Butch Guice, Roberto De La Torre, Carlo Pagualyan

Issues: Iron Man: Director of SHIELD #21-28

“How do you feel, sir?”
“How do I feel? I saved 97.5% of the human race. Proved everyone who doubted me wrong…and I kicked the living crap out of The Mandarin. I feel great.”

Considering Tony Stark became an even bigger asshole during the whole Civil War event, his solo series during that time has been surprisingly fantastic. As the Director of SHIELD Stark’s resources and reach have never been higher, yet neither has the emotional and psychological toll. In the massive eight part story arc, “Haunted,” the writing father/son team of Daniel and Charles Knauf successfully tie together the story elements and seeds that Warren Ellis planted back in the first arc while giving Tony Stark an emotional journey filled with mystery, political intrigue, and an action-packed finale.

Don’t be fooled by the trade paperback’s terrible decision to use the Iron Man: Director of SHIELD Annual issue as its cover – neither the art nor tone is reflective of the darkened styling and patient pace of the story, and it’s a completely separate, one-shot issue. “Haunted” begins like an episode of a murder-of-the-week TV show, as a pair of registered heroes in Omaha Nebraska are exploring a disturbance in an abandoned building. They stumble upon a minor villain named Gravitron, he says some cryptic stuff, and one of them is killed while the other lands in the hospital. Stark visits the hospitalized hero and villain to try and get some answers, and it’s there that he starts seeing dead people from his past like Happy Hogan, Sal, and Steve Rogers.

iron man #25Stark begins to piece the puzzle together and the comic takes on a forensics and investigative format, which is both familiar and yet a fun way to approach a comic book story. The art also compliments the tone perfectly with a dark, painted look that somehow achieves consistency despite three different artists being used throughout the run. Dialogue scenes and faces look especially fantastic, while the few action scenes suffer somewhat as colors and characters blend together a bit too much.

Stark’s investigations are stymied by his own Superhero Initiative. As he’s been displaying erratic and questionable behavior, including leaving his suit on for days at a time, psychologist and perennial guest-star Doc Samson is called in to treat him. Stark is forced to wear a power-inhibiting ankle bracelet and about to be put under house arrest until he proves to Samson that there is in fact a major cover-up going on. Dr. Maya Henson, the woman from the “Extremis” story line that created the virus (and later administered it to Stark), had faked her suicide and gone to work for a pharmaceutical company to continue Extremis’ research and development.

Unfortunately for everyone, the company is run by The Mandarin, Iron Man’s old nemesis. The Mandarin’s return was teased in Iron Man’s previous story arc, and in a classic comic book clash only Stark believed that he was back. The Mandarin is a fun villain in how he manipulates Dr. Henson, and in the end his desire is to unleash Extremis upon the world, forcing humanity to evolve with it even if ninety-seven point five percent of the world will die in the process.

With a massive eight issues to explore a fairly simple story, “Haunted” really takes its time diving into Stark’s stressful investigation, as well as the political ramifications of being the Director of SHIELD. When they finally discover The Mandarin and his plan, Stark battles him in an older, non Extremis-powered armor and has SHIELD deploy a special self-contained nuke on the entire research facility.

iron man #27

It’s an effective measure (though Mandarin escapes, it’s only issue #26!) but I liked that Stark has to then answer for dropping a nuclear weapon on American soil. The government is not pleased and just as he’s rendered guilty, his SHIELD supporting cast of Maria Hill and Tim Dugan bail him out, letting him escape to hunt down the Mandarin and prove that he’s still out there with a biological weapon.

iron man #26The end wraps up rather quickly in the final two issues as Stark is able to pinpoint Mandarin’s location relatively quickly to the exact company he happens to be at in China, then flies right through the building and begins the final melee showdown that lasts several brutalizing pages. It’s a violent final battle that ends when Iron Man rips Mandarin’s trademark rings that were embedded in his spine right out, and taps into the Extremis-filled missiles to make them harmlessly detonate up in the stratosphere where the cold kills the virus.

Tony Stark saves the day and is vindicated of all charges. For a long story arc containing a minimum of supporting cast, “Haunted,” captured my attention throughout each issue. My only complaint is that Maya Henson is reduced to a manipulated damsel in distress, and in the end is rescued by Stark with a kiss (so she believes it’s really him), which is a cheesy cliché that the comic had otherwise managed to avoid.

If Iron Man were an ongoing TV show this story would’ve made a great half-season or mini-series, and the writing sensibilities definitely reflect a television format. I especially enjoy that it integrated Stark’s past characters and stories into a strong culmination that includes his oldest and greatest foe, even if he defeats him a bit too easily.

New Video – Pillars of Eternity Dragon Fight – Cail The Silent

My 2nd attempt at battling Cail The Silent, my first major dragon fight in Pillars of Eternity.

I don’t get the chance to really live stream or record very many gameplay videos or Let’s Plays these days. I did manage to sneak in a quick little video showing off my first major dragon fight in Pillars Of Eternity, a massive, old-school tactical RPG Kickstarted by Obsidian Entertainment in 2012 and released in March.

I’m really loving the hell out of Pillars of Eternity. For fans of the Golden Age of tactical computer role-playing games (late 90s, early 00s) and games like Baldur’s Gate, it’s absolutely a dream come true. Divinity: Original Sin, another phenomenal tactical RPG (and also crowdfunded) was my Game of the Year last year, and Pillars of Eternity is a strong contender for this year.

In this video I battle the fire dragon Cail The Silent. This is actually my second attempt at battling the beast, the first time I came extremely close but ultimately lost. My team consisted of my PC (melee chanter), Edér, Pallegina, Durance, Aloth, and Sagani, all level 8.



Image Comics Final Thoughts – Saga, Vol. 3

For 18 issues now Saga has refused to disappoint and Volume Three finally brings our various storylines and characters together in a tense, dramatic moment.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Of course, occasionally I may even explore comics outside of Marvel if they come highly recommended or simply peak my interest. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

saga volume 3 coverWriter: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Issues: Saga #13-18

Saga continues to blow me away with every volume; soon I shall catch up to its current issue and experience the agony of having to wait for the next volume. For now I’m still catching up on back issues, and Volume Three finally brings our various storylines and characters together in a tense, dramatic moment that’s deliciously spread out between issues #17 and #18.

The end of Volume Two featured an epilogue that we now know took place a bit in the future – Prince Robot IV meeting with D. Oswald Heist, the cyclopean, eccentric author that wrote the star-crossed romance book that so infatuated Marko and Alana. The two start with verbal jabs, then relax into a casual interrogation, then go to full blown standoff. Volume Two ended with the ‘camera panning up’ to reveal that Marko, Alana, Klara, Izabel, and Hazel had already been there for weeks, and currently hiding from their robot pursuer.

Volume Three jumps back in time a bit to have out heroes first landing on the planet Quietus, and the remote lighthouse that Heist lives in. First they’re attacked by bone-creatures in a very Dungeons & Dragons moment, and Klara (Marko’s recently widowed mom) loses an ear in the fight. Artist Fiona Staples has never shied away from explicit sex or violence, but always in service to the story and never particularly gory or gratuitous. In both the strong language and portrayal of mature themes I’m constantly reminded that I’m not reading a mainstream Marvel comic, in a good way.

Our heroes make it to Oswald Heist’s and the slightly crazy but lovable old author instantly becomes a delightful character, if he wasn’t already from his introduction at the end of Volume Two. The universe is filled with all manner of inventive alien creatures, and thus far Vaughn and Staples have done an excellent job creating a truly memorable supporting cast. This creates a constant state of anxiety as, like Game of Thrones, you never know when they’re going to actually kill someone off! In fact, most of my favorite characters have been slain (The Stalk, Barr), and sadly Heist also does not survive the end of this Volume.

Saga #16

You can tell Brian K. Vaughn really loves the Heist character, as he’s an obvious cipher for many of his thoughts and opinions on being a writer, and a writer’s relationships with artists, other writers, and the audience. Much of Marko and Alana’s scenes in Volume Three are mostly just them hanging around Oswald’s place talking books, relationships, or the nature of war, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t riveting.

Of course that story is only part of the Volume. Our other team, The Will and his partner Lying Cat, has grown over the course of 12 issues to include a rescued slave girl from the sex planet Sextillion and Marko’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn. The Will was hired to track down Marko and Alana, and Gwendolyn arrived with a personal vendetta and a desire to keep The Will focused and on target, despite his recent loss of his ex-girlfriend, The Stalk, back in Volume One.

After the climactic star ship battle at the end of Volume Two, The Will and crew have been stranded on a lovely grassy planet. The Will begins to have doubts about the mission, wanting to hang up his life as a bounty hunter, but Gwnedolyn will have none of it. We get a few nice scenes of her learning to use his exotic lance-saber weapon and dealing with repair guys, but it all comes crashing down for them when they learn (too late) that the food on the planet contains a powerful hallucinogenic. The slave girl is coerced by the planet’s visions of her mom to stab The Will in the neck. Gwendolyn realizes what’s happening (thanks to Lying Cat) and saves them all, though now ironically she renews their pursuit of Marko, this time to learn a healing spell to save The Will.

Saga #14

Like the end of Volume Two our stories intersect in an exciting way. The timeline finally matches up with that scene of Prince Robot IV and Heist. A wounded Heist was just about to get through to Prince Robot IV when Klara, spurred by her feelings for Heist and her general passionate demeanor charges from their hiding spot and attacks, leaving both her and Robot IV wounded.

At this point Gwendolyn, dressed in The Will’s magical bullet-proof cloak, barges in the front door. Lying Cat pounces on Klara, and Gwendolyn and Heist see each other with weapons drawn. Gwendolyn reacts first by slashing him through the eye with The Will’s lance, killing him instantly. Nooo! Gwnedolyn’s reaction is equally incredulous as issue #17 comes to a crazy close.

In the final issue, a very distraught and upset Gwendolyn advances on Marko and Alana on the top of the lighthouse. Marko doesn’t exactly say the right things and Gwendolyn attacks, causing him to push his wife and newborn off the edge. Turns out Alana’s wings do in fact work – and she blasts Gwendolyn and everyone escapes. For a volume that was mostly talking and not a whole lot of action, these two final issues were exhilarating and fantastic, a very satisfying payoff to all the events thus far.

Saga #18

Even so, our characters are split up again and most end up surviving (save for poor Oswald). Both Prince Robot IV and The Will are very wounded and I’m not sure if Lying Cat permanently lost one of her eyes when Klara gouged it. We’re introduced to another viewpoint in a pair of journalists on Landfall asking questions and seeking the truth about Marko and Alana’s escape and possible union. Their queries get them attacked by another freelancer, The Brand, that poisons them and prevents them from continuing their investigation. At the end it’s revealed that The Brand is The Will’s sister, so our roster may be expanding even more.

So far Saga has focused almost entirely on the relationships and situations of our main and supporting cast without pulling back the scope to the greater war around us. The political implications of Marko and Alana having a baby haven’t really been explored yet, other than our two pursuers being hired to catch them. I’d love to see that make headway, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice the excellent plot and pacing that Saga has provided so far. For 18 issues now Saga has refused to disappoint and it’s quickly becoming one of my all time favorite comics.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Avengers: The Initiative, Vol. 1-2

Avengers: The Initiative was a lot more fun that I expected but still not nearly as enjoyable as New X-Men when it comes to super-powered teenage drama and action.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

avengers the initiative coverWriters: Dan Slott, Christos Gage (#11-13)

Artists: Stefano Caselli, Steve Uy (#12-13)

Issues: Avengers: The Initiative #1-13, Annual #1

Out of the literal ashes of Stamford, Connecticut, the site of the devastating superhuman bomb that claimed hundreds of innocent lives, rose a new hopeful training facility for registered super-powered people. The Civil War was over. Tony Stark won, and his Fifty States Initiative plan was going into full effect – a super-powered team in every state to combat the many threats of the Marvel Universe. These teams needed a place to train and recruit, and thus Avengers: The Initiative was born.

Avengers: The Initiative was originally crafted as a six issue limited series depicting the drama and complications of the training facility. Before the first issue was even published, Marvel decided to make it an official ongoing series, making it the third Avengers title at the time (New Avengers, Mighty Avengers).

Like New X-Men, Avengers: The Initiative centers around young, inexperienced teens with extraordinary powers and the drama that ensues when you throw them together. While I enjoyed the characters and writing of New X-Men more, Initiative does have an immediacy to its plot and pacing that I found compelling.

The story begins with a new busload of recruits coming to the training facility (with some of the dorkiest superhuman names I’ve ever seen): Hardball, Cloud 9, Trauma, MVP, and Komodo. They are later joined by a few others like the Eric O’Grady version of Ant-Man (Irredeemable Ant-Man), Thor Girl, and Ultra Girl, as well as the cast of the New Warriors, though none of them are given much time to develop. Our first team is our central focus, though much of the focus is also on the training facility’s instructors: Gauntlet, Hank Pym (Yellowjacket), War Machine, Henry Gyrich, Baron Von Blitzschlag, and later Taskmaster.

avengers initiative #4For me this was a ton of mostly new characters that I had to adapt to, and Dan Slott does a decent job making me care about them. Hardball and Komodo develop an adorable teenage romance, Trauma is trained by temporary instructor Dani Moonstar (depowered and coming from New X-Men) to become a healer and therapist rather than a frontline fighter, and Cloud 9 is given the wide-eyed uncertainty that makes her the most relatable in this whole mess.

In the very first issue MVP is killed by Armory, a woman with an alien gun that washes out of the program. Trauma is able to shapechange into your deepest fears (making him a Boggart from Harry Potter). When he turns into a giant spider she freaks out and starts firing everywhere, and MVP saves Cloud 9 but takes a shot in the head. His death and subsequent cloning go from mysterious side plot to action-packed main plot in the second volume.

The first volume, “Basic Training,” is mostly concerned with introducing our characters, the facility, and how the Initiative works to capture registered heroes like Spider-Man (they fail) and fight bad guys like Hydra (they win). Issue #4 suddenly ties in with World War Hulk – one of the few ongoing series to do so, and it’s actually a lot of fun. Most of the original Initiative team is sent to help clear the streets, but they get a bit high and mighty and decide to take on the Hulk and his alien buddies, which doesn’t end well.

In Issue #5 we’re introduced to the Shadow Initiative, Henry Gyrich’s personal hit squad that doesn’t exist in any records – consisting of Constrictor, Bengal, Trauma, Mutant Zero, and the Scarlet Spiders. None of them are really given any time to develop (and barely introduced) but it still manages to be a really fun issue, ending with Trauma trying to harness Hulk’s fears into various forms (Abomination, Juggernaut, Bruce Banner). It doesn’t go well, and Trauma is hospitalized for several issues. Don’t mess with Hulk.

avengers initiative #9The second volume picks up with the dead MVP thread that had been effectively layered in earlier. Cloud 9 and former instructor and New Warrior Justice had seen that he was alive and well back at home, and it’s revealed that the triplet Scarlet Spiders are also all clones. MVP is described as the Ubermensch, the perfect human who doesn’t have any actual superpowers, so he’s cloned recklessly by Blitzschlag. Eventually this leads to Pym and Blitzschlag outfitting a newly cloned MVP with Armory’s old tactigon alien weapon that they’d surgically removed. Problem is the weapon is semi-sentient, and drives the new clone insane. The newly created villain calls himself KIA (clever) and goes on a murderous rampage, putting the entire facility under attack.

KIA kills one of the Scarlet Spiders, Trauma, and Slapstick, and seriously wounds War Machine and Constrictor. The exciting plot brings together the bloated cast of the former New Warriors, our new recruits and instructors, and even Iron Man and the Mighty Avengers into a final showdown against KIA. Cloud 9 is able to stun him with a kiss (not sure if that was part of her gas powers or if the clone remembers he had a thing for her) and they slap a head device on him that scrambles his brains. By the end most of the New Warriors leave to form a Counter Initiative to make sure this kind of thing happens again.

“Killed in Action,” ends up being a really fun story with a satisfying ending, but there’s just too many characters to keep track of and care about. I liked our original recruits just fine but the New Warriors just seemed like they were in the way. The Annual issue is made up of several short stories that delve into the backstories of some of the recruits and instructors. It was interesting but mostly unnecessary – like, one of the stories is about Armory who got kicked out back in the first issue.

avengers initiative #12

Avengers: The Initiative was a lot more fun that I expected but still not nearly as enjoyable as New X-Men when it comes to super-powered teenage drama and action. Stefano Casselli’s art has a bright, youthful tone that matches well with the series, though I wasn’t a fan of the temporary art change for the last two issues in Volume 2. Everyone looked completely different, and it was horribly distracting. Issue #13 also seemed like a pointless one-off that included a whole other busload of recruits in a minor adventure.

The Initiative continues for a solid 35 issues and does tie-in to all the major Marvel Events that happen throughout the next few years, including Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and ending with Siege in 2010. I’ll probably stick with it but seeing as how our initial team of recruits graduated in issue #12 (and are dived up into various states and teams) I don’t know how much I’ll care about future recruits.