Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-Factor: The Complete Collection Vol. 2

This second volume ends up as a mixed bag, faltering in the middle but then ending with a fantastic story at the end, giving me high hopes for X-Factor’s future.

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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!


x-factor volume 2Writer:
 Peter David

Artists: Pablo Raimondi (#13-17, 21-24, 28, 31, The Quick and the Dead), Koi Pham (#18-20), Valentine De Landro (#29-30, 32, Layla Miller)

Issues: X-Factor #13-24, 28-32, X-Factor: The Quick and the Dead One-Shot, X-Factor: Layla Miller One-Shot

 

X-Factor’s first twelve issues, collected as The Complete Collection Vol. 1 was a resounding success. Peter David’s quirky team is immensely varied and entertaining and the overarching plot of the mysterious and evil corporation that exploited mutants provided a great hook and a satisfying conclusion.

The team’s adventures continued in a second large collected volume, though it awkwardly includes issues before and after the major X-Men crossover event Messiah Complex. In the “Many Lives of Madrox,” (#13-16) Jamie continues his quest to reabsorb the numerous dupes he’s sent out in the world. Many of have them have been living varied lives for years, including a SHIELD agent that gets Jamie captured by Hydra, with hilarious results.

My favorite duplicate had carved himself a nice quiet life as a pastor with a wife and two kids, and Jamie’s sudden intrusion into this life creates some lovely drama. Ultimately Jamie makes the right decision to let it be, but the implications that his dupes have created these meaningful lives is part of why I find his mutant power and his personality so interesting.

x-factor #16There’s also an ongoing side story involving the rest of the team and X-Cell, a mutant terrorist group full of ex-mutants, and that story hits center stage in the next arc, “X-Cell” (#17-20). Quicksilver joins up with the leader to start handing out his power-restoring terrigen crystals he stole from the Inhumans in Son of M. The plot eventually reaches its climax as X-Factor attacks them to rescue Rictor and Layla (the latter doesn’t really need rescuing, she knows stuff).

There’s a few fun battles but straight-forward action has never been X-Factor’s strong suit, and unfortunately the art takes a huge nose dive when a different artist takes over (thankfully only for that arc). It’s fun seeing Rahne/Wolfsbane go full berserker wolf-mode, though.

In “The Isolationist” (#21-24), X-Factor is approached by a mysterious figure known as Josef Huber, an isolated telepath that takes drug to quiet the voices in his heads. Oh, and apparently he has every mutant power. He wishes to put mutants on the endangered species list, forcing the government to protect them and possibly overturning the superhero registration act. In reality he just wants to gather them together to kill them all, so the telepaths will no longer drive him crazy.

Huber’s a surprisingly interesting villain, and Peter David opts to write the last two issues from his perspective (with copious amounts of noir-appropriate monologuing) in lieu of a backstory, and it works quite well. Unfortunately things wrap up far too swiftly  after a lengthy build-up, and in the end Huber escapes after a brief battle with the depowered but oddly immune Rictor.

“The Only Game in Town” (#28-32) takes place after the mega crossover event X-Men: Messiah Complex. Messiah Complex is absolutely critical reading to know what the new situation is for X-Factor, namely: Jamie now has a tattooed “M” over his right eye as a souvenir from his time traveling sojourn, quirky clairvoyant Layla Miller is trapped in a dystopian future where mutants are put in concentration camps, and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane) is leaving X-Factor to join X-Force.

The entire arc is put under the “Divided We Stand” era that is the X-Men and associates’ post-Messiah Complex fallout. Given that Messiah Complex is fairly integral to X-Factor’s story moving forward, it’s strange that this second collected volume would include issues all around it. Provided you’ve read it, however, this epilogue story arc is just fantastic, and really shows off Peter David’s incredible skills as a writer. The art remains fantastically shadowy and mostly consistent, despite the workload trading off between two artists.

x-factor #30 team

Since our small cast is now smaller than ever, we get even more time to delve into their lives and relationships. Siryn’s pregnant with Jamie’s child! Guido turns down the O*N*E’s job offer. Rictor is fully prepared to quit on X-Factor after Rahne quits on him. It’s delicious character-focused drama that gets interrupted when X-Factor is attacked by Arcade, who was in turn hired by the Purifier that Rictor duped to infiltrate the organization during Messiah Complex.

The team quickly comes together and goes into full on crisis mode after Arcade sets off a series of bombs while trapping all of Mutant Town in a fiery forcefield. It’s fun seeing them all react and save people, and Madrox’s ongoing (and excellent) inner monologue reinforces the fact that a crisis brings them together when they needed it most. The arc ends in an uplifting theme as they celebrate the pregnancy and leave Mutant Town before O*N*E’s Valerie Cooper can arrest or forcibly register them.

Two one-shots are also included, The Quick and the Dead and Layla Miller, both written by Peter David. The Quick and the Dead centers on Quicksilver’s incarceration and subsequent escape after the events of “X-Cell.” I’ve grown incredibly sick of Quicksilver’s self-pitying, selfish, and frankly evil behavior ever since the House of M. Seeing him having a mental breakdown in prison wasn’t exactly riveting, and the strange and sudden return of his speed powers was just confusing and weird.

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Layla Miller is much more interesting, but no less confusing as it takes place in the 80 year, dystopian future that Layla had become trapped in. She escapes from the concentration camp in a supremely funny and suitable manner (falling space debris!) then goes to visit future-cyborg Cyclops and his daughter Ruby. Yeah, I was lost too. Layla manages to incite an entire rebellion against the mutant-oppressive government. I’m not entirely sure if any of it matters but it’s fun seeing Layla be Layla, and I hope she can rejoin the team soon.

This second volume ends up as a mixed bag compared to the first, faltering in the middle but then ending with a supremely fantastic story at the end, giving me high hopes for X-Factor’s future. The cast is so damn likable and the writing comes across like one of your favorite comedy-drama TV shows. Still one of my favorite comic series to read.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Moon Knight (2006), Vol. 1-2

For a blatant Batman knock-off, Moon Knight is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable as it delves head-first into psychological issues and bloody violence.

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!

moon knight the bottomWriter: Charlie Huston

Artists: David Finch (#1-8), Mico Suayan (#9-12), Tomm Coker (#13)

Issues: Moon Knight (2006), #1-13

 

“Where to?”
“The city.”
“What do we look for?”
“Trouble.”

Despite thinking of myself as a Batman fan, I’ve barely read any actual Batman comics. I grew up with the early 90s, award-winning Batman: The Animated Series, not to mention the rise of Tim Burton’s Batman films and most recently the fantastic Batman Arkham games. The rich guy with all the toys and a traumatic past devotes his life to being a hero – who doesn’t like Batman? Even Marvel wanted to get in on that, and thus Moon Knight was born.

I’d never even heard of Moon Knight until he was listed as a playable character in Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Surprisingly created back in the 70s, the character enjoyed his first solo series in the 80s and throughout the 90s, never reaching the massive success of his DC counterpart. And make no mistake, Moon Knight is very much a Batman rip-off – he’s got the money, the underground lair, the moon-shaped weapons and vehicles. He operates at night and primarily takes out street criminals, and he enjoys making a statement and causing fear and pain even more than rescuing people.

In 2006 a new Moon Knight series was launched for the first time in years, chronicling the character’s return to action after a crippling attack with a villain. As a jumping on point it’s a bit heavy and confusing, layered in with lots of backstory and character details regarding Marc Spector, his past, and his allies and enemies.

moon knight #8b

The actual story is told in a supremely cool, gritty, and dark style. At the end of issue #1 it’s revealed that the action-packed opening scene was really just  Marc Spector reminiscing while he lay in a wheelchair popping pills and wallowing in self-pity. Psychological torture is a major theme of the series as Marc wrestles with who he is and whether or not his moon god is real or just a part of his fractured psyche.

Marc’s legs were blown out during a nasty encounter with Raoul Bushman, his nemesis and former fellow mercenary from his past. During the horribly blood encounter, which is told through flashbacks, Marc is near death but finds the strength to take Bushman down by ripping his face off with a crescent knife. This becomes a major catalyst for Marc as he begins seeing the horrifyingly faceless Bushman constantly. The grotesque ghoul identifies as Khonshu, the moon god that first resurrected Marc and bestowed his gifts.

Much of the first arc, “The Bottom,” (#1-6) is saddled with setting up Moon Knight’s new status as a retired, former vigilante and his new supporting cast of friends and enemies. Marc doesn’t even wear the costume and become Moon Knight again until issue #6 as he comes to grips with his violent and frankly sadistic personality. The theme of whether or not Marc is crazy is explored throughout, and the consensus seems to be that he’s pretty damn crazy – a surprisingly refreshing take on a Marvel hero.

moon knight #4Moon Knight’s friends and relationships are particularly well done. He still pines for ex-girlfriend Marlene, and his best friend is still his other merc buddy Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul is French and gay, and his supportive relationship with Marc and romantic relationship with another man (who later becomes Marc’s physical therapist) are handled with a refreshing amount of maturity, and given plenty of time to develop and grow.

My favorite character was one that I had to look up on wikipedia what his actual name was – Profile, who can read people instantly, learning their fears, wants, desires, etc. The hilariously quippy, chain-smoking Profile is first used by a shadowy organization who wants to get rid of Moon Knight once and for all, and they act as the primary villains for the first arc. Really though, Marc is his own worst enemy as the focus remains on his own inner demons thanks to the many taunts of faceless not-really-there Bushman.

I loved the dark-but-heroic art by the fantastic David Finch (New Avengers). It presents an effective combination of noir-ish blacks and grays with sharp punctuations of Moon Knight’s white costume. I love the emphasis on extreme close-ups and the use of sweat, tears, blood, and smoke to convey the dark themes. The effects of Profile’s abilities in reading people is also presented in a very clever, fun format as he sees neon words and signs floating around people, literally shaping who they are. Marc Spector is drawn like a chiseled, scarred 80s action-hero, which combined with his violent outbursts and mental breakdowns make him a frightening person for anyone to interact with.

The second volume, featuring the story arc “Midnight Sun,” (#7-12) technically act as tie-ins to the then-ongoing superhero Civil War and afterward the Initiative. Marc (who spends a great deal of the comic series not in costume) is visited by a rotating cast of guest-stars, including Captain America, Iron Man, and Punisher. Mostly it’s a fun way to see how the rest of the Marvel Universe views Moon Knight, and in turn allow Marc to push everyone away and generally be a violent asshole to everyone. It should come as no surprise that he and Punisher have a mostly friendly chat while Punisher is busy murdering people, heh.

moon knight #10

The story falters a bit when it tries to do a Pulp Fiction, out of order narrative involving another villain from Moon Knight’s past. His former sidekick has become the villain Midnight, a very talkative, admittidly funny Joker-type that is obssessed with his former mentor. The later issues all jumble together with Moon Knight finding his lair in the sewers, attacking him, being captured and fighting back all told in a confusing, out or order style. The comic was heavy enough as it is in exploring mental issues and a very unstable protagonist; having to flip back and forth between multiple pages to try and piece the story together was a bit too much.

David Finch unfortunately left after eight issues. The new artist did a reasonable job in replicating the dark, moody style but it wasn’t quite the same. The story wraps up in issue #12 but the volume contains a final one-off in issue #13 with a completely new artist with a very bizarre style. The art becomes impossibly dark and even abstracted in parts, making it quite difficult to discern what is happening in a lot of panels. The story involves Marc going in to register for the Initiative, and it’s a fun example of how Profile’s powers can be used to manipulate others.

For a blatant Batman knock-off, Moon Knight is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. The singular focus on Marc as a fairly horrible person who happens to be a vigilante is fascinating, and the focus on dark, bloody action separates it from most of the bright and glitzy Marvel fare. Despite some confusing story moments I’m definitely enjoying this series. I look forward to catching up on Moon Knight as apparently he sticks around permanently this time.

moon knight #3

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – South Park: The Stick of Truth

A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment (with South Park Digital Studios)

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 4, 2014

south-park-the-stick-of-truth

I was slightly late to my South Park fandom. The first season aired back in the ancient era of 1997, and I’d written it off as a silly Beavis and Butthead style adult cartoon. While it was quite silly and full of shock value, I didn’t begin seeing its incredibly clever social commentary and political skewering until several years later. Around the time South Park was in its fifth or sixth season I caught up on all the episodes, and I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.

To say I was looking forward to South Park: The Stick of Truth is a big understatement. Developed by beloved RPG developer Obsidian, they were tasked with directly collaborating with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in creating an epic RPG with the look and feel of the show. Licensed games usually fare poorly in their translation to gaming, but all the previews looked fantastic, and The Stick of Truth made it onto my Most Anticipated Games lists….for 2012, 2013, and 2014!

The game had been stuck in development hell for years after its proud announcement, partly due to the dissolution of then-publisher THQ and its acquisition by Ubisoft. Heavily licensed game plus long, tumultuous development typically results in disaster. I’m pleased to say that not only does South Park: The Stick of Truth defy expectations, but it’s easily one of the best licensed video games ever made.

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From the moment you jump into the character creator the art style and animations completely absorb you into the world of South Park. The show’s unique 2D cutout animation is in full glorious display, and for the first time you can actually walk around and explore the modest open world of the town. Exploring the town of South Park brought me endless joy (and made me pine for a Simpsons-Springfield equivalent game). Everything is right where you think it is, from the South Park Mall to each boys’ cookie-cutter houses in a row.

The initial hook of the story is related to Season 17’s “Black Friday” trilogy, which ended with direct teases to The Stick of Truth. Though South Park goes in some very funny and dark places with its social commentary and pop culture references, my personal favorite episodes are when the kids are play-acting extravagant events and adventures. They juxtapose their incredibly imaginative and increasingly creative adventures with the equally mundane and crazy backdrop of their lives and town.

The Stick of Truth runs with this theme perfectly as most of the kids in town are playing a Dungeons & Dragons style real-world fantasy game using costumes and household objects as weapons. Entire factions are drawn up, war parties are formed, and you as the new kid in town are thrown into the middle of it. In fact, much of the main story missions are heavily inspired from BioWare’s RPGs as you gather allies from other factions such as the goth kids, the kindergartners, and even the girls. Eventually you’re forced to choose a side between Cartman’s humans and Kyle’s elves, though an even darker event causes the boys to join forces in the end.

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Meanwhile you’re free to explore the entire town at you leisure, with only a few locations blocked off Metroidvania-style until you acquire new abilities. The town is a treasure-trove of recognizable locations and hidden goodies, with just the right amount of side quests to add some additional adventuring without overwhelming you with superfluous tasks. I did enjoy collecting friends on Facebook; not only is it fun to find and talk to people but acquiring friends unlocks passive perks.

Loot is everywhere. By halfway through the game I was equipping new weapons and armor sets just about every 15 or 20 minutes, and each one has slots for equipping patches and “strap-ons” to modify them further to suit your needs. It’s an embarrassment of riches and partly lead to the overpowered feeling I quickly gained for most combat encounters.

Combat is designed similarly to Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games. When you run into an enemy, be they ginger kids, hobos, mongorians, or nazi zombies, the game shifts to a turn-based JRPG-style battlefield where you take turns using melee, ranged, magic and special abilities. Your magical abilities, of course, are powerful fart attacks that you acquire throughout the game, and are also used to access new areas in the world.

Combat is supported by active button-prompts, letting you dodge attacks and do more damage with the right timing. Abilities utilize active button prompts in various ways, like spinning the joystick to wind up Butters’ hammer throw, or mashing all the buttons to get Cartman to scream various obscenities when he unleashes his electrical V-Chip powers a la South Park: The Movie.

The emphasis on speed and efficiency over tactical depth matches well with the overall gameplay. That’s not to say there weren’t some deep systems involved. Multiple debuffs and status effects were very important in affecting opponents, such as Grossed Out and Pissed Off, and elemental damage could be added to weapons to further take advantage of a foe’s weakness. Armor and shields also played into the combat; often I had to adjust my strategies and weapon mods depending on the area and enemies I was facing.

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Once I learned the various combat systems I breezed through most encounters without much trouble. At the end of combat both health and power points are fully restored, allowing you to unleash your powers as much as you see fit. Consumables are also incredibly prolific, and since using one doesn’t take up your turn you can quickly pop a health or buffing potion and still attack.

You’re allowed one supportive party member from a familiar roster of the main cast to join you, and not only can you switch them out on the fly, you can switch them out right in the middle of combat. While you can’t change out their equipment, each hero comes with their own abilities, and I found them all to be fairly useful in different situations. Battles go quickly but the animations are so much fun, and the enemy variety decent enough that they remained enjoyable throughout my 15 hour adventure.

The main story takes place over three days, with each day ending in a large event resembling a dungeon crawl. The first day ends with the classic South Park aliens abducting you, complete with lots of anal probing – resulting in a new anal probe satellite dish to teleport to new places. The story goes in all kinds of really fun, really messed up places – very much appropriate to the series. From infiltrating an abortion clinic and fending off an outbreak of nazi zombie fetuses, to fighting underpants gnomes right under your very noisy, very graphic sex-having parents, the game never shies away from the hilarious shock value that the show is infamous for.

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In addition to the many, many references around every corner, dialogue session, and cutscenes the game even adds its own funny jokes, like an incredibly funny on-going gag about Taco Bell as the cover-up to the UFO crash and presenting Canada as a hilariously pixelated 8-bit overworld style map.

It all ends in a fantastic final assault on Clyde’s fortress of doom (a giant tower in his backyard). Throughout several big story missions in the game you’re pitted within the backdrop of an ongoing battle, and I loved how various environmental traps and abilities could be used to affect foes before ever engaging them in combat, sometimes taking whole groups out completely. Seeing the the various kids so passionately involved in their role-playing is pure fun, and the absurdity and seriousness of it all is a fantastic combination that is quintessential South Park. Fans of the show and RPGs rejoice, for we have been blessed with an amazing adaptation.

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Pros

  • Art Style and animations are perfect recreations of the South Park style
  • Just as shocking and hilarious as the TV show
  • Surprisingly deep combat system that never wears out its welcome
  • Tons of loot and customization options
  • Exploring the town is sheer joy for fans
  • Perfectly paced, with just the right combination of linear story missions and open world exploration and side quests

Cons

  • Other than a few boss battles, combat is pretty easy
  • Summons and Fart Magic are almost entirely unnecessary
  • At 15hrs it’s a bit short for a standard RPG, and a few plot threads or events feel a bit rushed or edited (only one crab person in the whole game)

Final Say: A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

Shadowrun 5E “Road Rage” Session 2 Report

Our second session of “Road Rage” concludes the initial hostage encounter from last week and moves onto the highway as our players defend their cargo from a troll biker gang.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central.

Read “Road Rage” Session 1 Report

We picked up right at the conclusion of our very long first session last week as the encounter with the gang at Jay-T’s had just ended. Two of them lay dead (well one was technically stabilized), with the third surrendering, and the fourth still handcuffed to the truck outside. My players were curious as to why this gang was here, what they were doing, and who they were working for. Unfortunately for them the two people most willing to talk to them lay dead or unconscious, so even with successful social tests they weren’t given much information.

My players spent quite a bit of time talking with their captives (and new NPC allies), asking questions, and deciding what to do with them. This whole first scene ended up lasting much longer than I anticipated but provided a lot of neat opportunities for combat, planning, and social skills. They asked one of their NPC allies what they should do next, and through her I suggested they call their Fixer and give him an update on the situation. They agreed to Jeremiah Redd’s suggestion to leave them tied up to be picked up later and get on with the mission.

Sadly right when we were about to go live with this week’s session, our decker player got called in to help deliver a baby. The curse of being a doctor! For the first time we had to roll with an MIA player. We had his character get a sudden call and have to leave, and I’ll leave it up to him on what that situation was. We’ll also need to write him into the next session, which could prove interesting considering the team ran into a biker gang during their highway escort mission!

i-5 route mapI left it entirely up to the players in how they wanted to situate themselves for the road trip. They had to travel North on I-5 for a little over 10 miles to downtown Seattle – yay for Google Maps! The armored truck would be driven by NPC Crank, whom they had just saved in the hostage situation and was a returning NPC from the first adventure that they had essentially captured and turned over to Redd. Crank had joined up with the Redd Scars and it was a fun opportunity to reward the players for their mercy and leniency by having him join them here – and in fact is probably a big reason that the players actively tried to recruit their new captured foes into Redd’s gang as well!

The armored truck could technically fit all of them, but they decided to utilize the modified pick-up truck they’d taken from the end of the last adventure as a secondary vehicle to help defend the truck should the need arise. Mauta the ex-special forces street samurai offered to drive while Falkirk the elf adept/Face rode with her. Our troll shaman opted to hide in the back of the armored truck amongst the crates, thinking he needed to avoid the port authority guards, while using clairvoyance on top of the truck to keep an eye out.

I gave the players a couple minutes to simply socialize with each other and offer a bit of downtime for the first leg of the journey. It ended up as a chance for Mauta to reveal that she had some connection to the buyer, though she remained mysterious and wouldn’t go into specific details. I definitely like the idea of incorporating my players’ backstories and pre-established contacts into the adventure whenever I can. It was a fun chance for role-playing and I try to give my players moments of levity in between the craziness.

Craziness, of course, will happen. This ain’t no peaceful cyberpunk world. A few minutes into the journey a half dozen members of the troll biker gang The Spikes roared up onto the on-ramp in an attempt to hi-jack the truck. I may have been a bit overeager to jump into a chase combat scenario on only our second ever Shadowrun adventure. As it is I do what I usually do and simplified much of the rules to suit our needs and keep everything fun and flowing.

road rage scene 2 highway

Drivers had to perform a driving test during their first initial pass (or autopilot takes over) but could use that test to perform a chase action such as ramming or cutting-off. The biker gang closed in on the vehicles and the players definitely felt their deckers’ absence, both another available gun and someone that could potentially stop a vehicle electronically.

Falkirk was able to take the closest biker down after two shots with his taser. He was getting crazy high, 5 hit rolls all night! Ironically filling up the stun monitor track via a taser will still probably lead to an opponent’s death when they’re rocketing down a highway on a motorcycle! Mauta and Crank both drove the vehicles and attempted to cut-off nearby bikers. Mauta came close, causing an opponent to swerve and get out of the way but he was able to avoid a crash. Ursev spent a dramatic, John Woo-type moment throwing open the doors of the truck and blasting a ball lightning at two bikers…for all of 2 hits, which both of them were able to dodge. Hey at least it “looked” cool!

We had to call it a night after the first combat turn was up. Combat in any RPG lasts awhile as you keep track of lots of things going on, but I’m glad we at least made it to the end of the turn so we can start with fresh new Initiative rolls for next week. We’re definitely going a lot slower in this adventure than I expected, even with the extra long session we did last week. Most likely Saran the decker will come roaring up at the beginning of this next round, and well see just where this encounter takes our heroes.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-Men: Messiah Complex

X-Men: Messiah Complex successfully crossed over with four ongoing X-titles to give my favorite mutants their most exciting, action-packed adventure in years.

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!

x-men messiah complex coverWriters: Ed Brubaker (One-Shot, Uncanny X-Men), Peter David (X-Factor), Craig Kyle & Chris Yost (New X-Men), Mike Carey (X-Men)

Artists: Marc Silvestri (One-Shot), Billy Tan (Uncanny X-Men), Scott Eaton (X-Factor), Humberto Ramos (New X-Men), Chris Bachalo (X-Men)

Issues: Messiah Complex One-Shot, Uncanny X-Men #492-494, X-Factor #25-27, New X-Men #44-46, X-Men #205-207

 

A baby changes everything. Sometimes a baby can even change an entire race of people. Mutants had become an endangered species since Scarlet Witch whispered those three little words at the end of House of M. With the sudden disappearance of nearly every mutant’s powers on Earth, the X-Men’s entire worldview had been shattered and they spent the next two years trying to find their place all over again.

At the end of 2007, hope finally came in the form of the first mutant to be born since M-Day, a miracle child that everyone from the X-Men to the Marauders to the Purifiers wanted to get their hands on. X-Men: Messiah Complex successfully crossed over with four ongoing X-titles to give my favorite mutants their most exciting, action-packed adventure in years.

Marvel tantalizing seeded in the prologue events to the next big X-Men event in four of their five ongoing X-Men series: Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New X-Men, and X-Men (Astonishing X-Men was really its own thing. Also, five X-titles at the time, holy crap). Mini-stories were included at the end of each series called X-Men Endangered Species. Endangered Species followed Beast’s desperate search for a cure through science, magic, and technology and a rotating cast of guest stars including Dr. Strange, Bishop, and even his own alternate Age of Apocalypse persona – Dark Beast. It’s a fun journey and I particularly enjoyed experiencing Beast’s mostly solo quest and inner running dialogue full of questioning and self-doubt.

uncanny x-men #492Messiah Complex’s structure was, as far I’m aware, unprecedented at the time. Instead of creating its own limited event series with a few tie-ins (as House of M and Civil War had done), The writers came together and turned their own series into one massive crossover event. After kicking things off with a one-shot issue, the next chapter was done in Uncanny X-Men, followed by X-Factor, etc, going through the four trades three times for 13 total issues (including the one-shot).

This created some major advantages and disadvantages to normal event structures. The good news is it meant instead of having a bunch of extra superfluous tie-ins, the event itself was the only tie-in, and it had a huge amount of space to breathe and develop. A 13 issue event is absolutely massive, and Messiah Complex takes full advantage of this with multiple concurrent plot threads and an enormous cast including just about all of the X-Men and many of their foes, both old and new. Plus by utilizing four different series, this epic story could be told relatively quickly as each series came out.

The bad news is it created a huge inconsistency in the art style as each of the four series were drawn and inked by different artists. This wouldn’t have been so bad if they had four artists with similar styles, but alas at least one of them uses the manga-anime-chibi style that I absolutely despise in my comics. Billy Tan and Scott Eaton both do fine jobs, but Humberto Ramos’ art is so distractingly bad (to me anyway) that I had to skim through his issues of X-Men that preceded Messiah Complex (hence no Final Thoughts for “Supernovas” or “Blinded by the Light”). Chris Bachalo’s style was an odd combination of the two, leading to an unfortunate situation where I’d either cringe or breathe a sigh of relief depending on which issue came next (the cover art done by David Finch remains fantastic throughout, however).

uncanny x-men #492 cyke prof xArt aside, the actual story-telling was an impressive feat, acting as a major climax to the steady build-up of desperation that the X-Men had been going through in the last few years. It all starts with a small town in Alaska coming under a sudden violent attack by both the Purifiers (anti-mutant cult that first cropped up as awesome villains in New X-Men) and the Marauders (Mr. Sinister’s squad of evil mutants with their own mysterious agenda). Cerebra alerts the X-Men to the first new mutant signature since M-Day, and the X-Men quickly discover that instead of the usual teenage manifestation, it was the incredibly rare birth of a mutant baby.

The baby is gone and the X-Men are left with only questions. Cyclops goes into full-on wartime consigliere mode, and there’s a particularly sobering scene where he and Charles Xavier share some tense words about leadership. Cyke is now top dog and still super pissed at Xavier after the events of Deadly Genesis and their sojourn with the Shi’Ar Empire.

He brings in X-Factor and folds in the team from the “adjective-less” X-Men series, which had been pretty much disbanded after Cable’s apparent death, Rogue’s traumatic sacrifice and capture, and Mystique, Lady Mastermind, and Omega Sentinel betraying them and joining Sinister’s team, leaving only Cannonball and Iceman to join back up with the main team. As a side note, it’s annoying how integral the adjective-less X-Men series is to Messiah Complex’s continuity, seeing as how that’s the series that was plagued with the worst art.

In fact, one of Messiah Complex’s biggest problems story-wise is just how heavily integrated into X-Men continuity it is. While this makes it a satisfying payoff to fans and readers that had been keeping up with X-Men for months if not years, it makes it a much harder book to recommend to newcomers as just an awesome X-Men story.

uncanny x-men #493 x-forceEventually the narrative takes on multiple fronts as Cyclops and the X-Men formulate a plan to find the mysterious new mutant baby that may be the key to saving the mutant race. After a few issues the X-Men learn that neither the Purifiers nor Marauders have the child, and in fact Cable is alive and on the run with the mutant baby.

Cyclops re-establishes the X-Force team, which hadn’t been seen in years. The team consists of all the best badasses and trackers from all the different teams: Wolverine, Warpath and Hepzibah (from Uncanny), Wolfsbane (from X-Factor), and X-23 (from New X-Men). They also throw in Caliban, a former Morlock and recent addition to the roster from the previous Uncanny X-Men story arc, “The Extremists” (again with the tight adherence to continuity). Caliban’s role is mainly there to die halfway through from a Purifier battle, giving a somewhat disingenuous feeling of grief and danger from a character we didn’t give two craps about.

Rictor of X-Factor infiltrates the Purifiers to find out they don’t have the child, while another group of X-Men lead by Storm attack the Marauders to discover the same thing. Once they learn about Cable’s mysterious involvement, X-Force is sent to track down him down and acquire the baby by any means necessary. While the story is broken up into the four separate books, there’s no hard separation of the characters or events; each chapter flows into the next and involves all the various groups, making all of Messiah Complex required reading for anyone keeping up with those stories.

uncanny x-men #493

Probably the most interesting, and sadly the most squandered side story is of Jamie Madrox and Layla Miller of X-Factor journeying into a dystopian future. Using Forge’s new time travel machine, they find the mutant concentration camp that Lucas Bishop first grew up in, and even have his trademark “M” tattooed over their eyes. It’s a fascinating look at a concentration camp for mutants that’s often teased in stories like “Days of Future Past,” but it’s given very little time to develop on top of everything else that’s going on, and ultimately leads to a conclusion that the reader knew ahead of the team anyway – that Bishop has betrayed the X-Men and is hunting Cable and the baby on his own.

I’ve been a big fan of the “future warrior sent to the past” shtick ever since seeing the first two Terminator films at a fairly young age. I especially dug the focus on Cable and Bishop, both from differing alternate timelines and both with personal stakes into seeing this new mutant child either alive or dead. Cable views her as the savior of all mutantkind, and knows that her only chance is to get as far away from those that would use or exploit her, including the X-Men. Bishop believes this is the catalyst from his time that sparked the genocide against mutantkind, and to prevent that he needs to do the unthinkable and kill her.

uncanny x-men #494Bishop catches up with Cable at Forge’s workshop, but he hesitates in pulling the trigger. A second later Gambit and the Marauders teleport in to steal the baby before the X-Men can arrive. They regroup and go after the Marauders, the X-Men joining up with X-Force, and it leads to a final battle royale versus too many mutants to keep up with.

Meanwhile the younger but still equally awesome New X-Men class join the fray, first in an ill-conceived fight with the Purifiers (which results in Hellion’s death). Then Pixie teleports them out of the fire and into the frying pan as they try to escape the wrath of Predator X, a dorky dinosaur-like creature that hunts and feeds on mutants.

Introduced at the end of the “Mercury Falling” arc in New X-Men Vol. 4 (hope you’ve been keeping up!), the creature is an odd wildcard thrown into the story as it hunts and kills some random no-name mutants before it makes its way to the final battle. There’s a nifty scene where Wolverine does the classic badass move of being swallowed by the creature only to claw his way out, but otherwise it’s another giant thing in an already crowded event.

In the end it’s revealed that Mr. Sinister has been Mystique for awhile, and her whole plan with the baby is to use it to restore and heal Rogue, who’s been saddled with a billion alien souls since she defeated the Hecatomb in X-Men: Supernovas. It’s also the reason love-sick Gambit has stuck with the Marauders.

The baby does wake Rogue up (and thankfully doesn’t kill or even injure the baby when Mystique presses her to Rogue’s face), and she’s horrified at the lengths Mystique went to do it. Rogue takes her down then walks away dramatically. Rogue’s been going through an interesting character arc lately as her character has become much more serious, mature, and moody. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes after these events (Gambit, too).

new x-men #46

Cable recovers the baby with the help of Professor X, who’s been unceremoniously kicked out of the X-Men at this point. The X-Men (along with X-Factor and New X-Men) are able to defeat the Marauders and Cyclops demands that Cable turn the baby over. He has a change of heart, however, as we see a flashbacks of Cyke saying goodbye to his own son, letting him be taken into the future. It echoes perfectly with what’s happening here, and even more poignant as Cable is Scott’s son.

Ultimately Cyclops lets them go, kickstarting Cable’s own solo series as he spirits the baby away to the future, and I can’t wait to read about their adventures. The X-Force also kicks off its own series with its team of ultimate badasses, and Cyclops uses them as a pretty awesome black ops mutant squad. The biggest change to the status quo, however, is the death of Professor X, as one last-ditch shot from a desperate Bishop catches him right in the head! Major characters never stay dead in comics but increasingly they do stay gone for quite some time (like, several years), as Captain America, Thor, and others can attest to. It seemed like a fitting end to his role for now, as Cyke takes his prominent (and much darker, iron-fisted) place as leader and general of the X-Men.

x-men #205 cable

Messiah Complex is by far the biggest thing to happen to the X-Men since the House of M event in 2005, and easily one of their biggest stories ever told. The action almost never lets up once it gets going, and the various characters and factions lead to a large variety in exciting battles and fight scenes, often overlapping each other in a single issue – my personal favorites being a fantastic one-on-one between X-23 and Lady Deathstrike and a huge battle with sentinels that destroys Xavier’s School.

The story is well-paced and layers in tons of satisfying arcs, provided you’ve been keeping up with the various X-Men series for some time. It’s just a huge shame that the wildly differing artists and styles creates a large disconnect between each chapter and issue. It’s a monumental feat that so much creative talent was able to come together and conceive of such an awesome story as Messiah Complex is one of the greatest crossover achievements in X-Men history.

x-men #207

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!