Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Runaways Vol. 1

Thanks to 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!

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan Runaways_TPB

Artists: Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa

Issues: Runaways (2003) #1-18

I’ve always been a fan of the Young Adult genre. It’s full of clichés, archetypal characters and super tiresome sci-fi plot devices, but damn it if most of them aren’t super fun and full of some neat ideas and memorable characters.

Runaways was basically Marvel’s version of a YA comic series. It stars a fresh batch of teens with a decidedly YA hook – they find out their parents are all super villains and part of their own secret cabal known as The Pride. Being a comic book the kids band together, discover their own latent powers and abilities and have a series of adventures before culminating in a final showdown with their evil folks.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan has become one of the most beloved original writer in comics. By original I mean he specifically likes to write his own created characters, such as Y: The Last Man and Saga (the latter of which I recently purchased). Having a single writer tackle their own creation is immensely rewarding for a reader, creating a cohesive flow with the both the characters and overarching plot.

The initial plot hook is fun but relatively slow compared to most comic storylines. It takes several issues for the kids to formulate a plan and go on the run once they witness their parents killing a young girl in ritualistic sacrifice, and even more time to go to their various homes and reveal who they really are.

The Runaways are refreshingly diverse and pleasantly mostly female: there’s Chase the typically sarcastic teen and son of inventors (his powers are one of the lamest as he simply equips his parent’s mechanical fist things that spew fire), Karolina the haughty daughter of two movie stars that turn out to be extraterrestrial light creatures (she can fly, shoot energy and blind people, and her powers are inhibited by a special bracelet she removes), Alex the de facto leader who has no natural powers but makes up for it in charisma and leadership skills (I guess), Nico who absorbs her parents’ magic staff and can summon it when she cuts herself (bit of a weird message there), individualistic Gertrude who’s time-traveling parents give her a pet velociraptor that she’s psychically linked with (at this point I’m completely on board with the series), and little Molly who’s only just hit puberty and realizing she’s a mutant with super strength.

Runaways_h1

The entire first arc is spent introducing our new heroes and their situation, but it’s their dialogue that really makes everything shine. Vaughan has a keen grasp on how teenagers react to situations and with each other, and the way the runaways handle these sudden extraordinary events are supremely entertaining. It’s also interesting to see a comic book set specifically in Los Angeles; nearly all superhero stories take place around New York City and New England (if set in USA).

The entire 18 issue series begins and ends with The Pride but in between the runaways have a few side adventures, mostly in uncovering the mystery behind what the hell their parents are up to. Some side plots work better than others – D-listers Cloak and Dagger show up at one point for a meaningless but fun battle (which The Pride shows up and mind-wipes them afterward, literally making the whole thing pointless) and the runaways run afoul of a lame teenage vampire that nearly takes the whole group down from within.

Silly side stories aside, the main plot is still engrossing as we discover the world-changing plans behind The Pride, and like any classic villains they bicker and conspire amongst themselves. While it’s incredibly silly that all their parents wear coordinated costumes it’s neat that they remain a major force in the storyline.

The end has our young heroes infiltrate their parents’ hidden sanctum (of sorts) and come face-to-face with the giant demon-god-things that The Pride is working for. In a neat twist (though it’s kind of predictable) Alex betrays the group and reveals himself as the mole that’s been undermining the team the whole time! He quickly gets his just desserts as the Pride’s plans are still ruined, and the parents end up sacrificing themselves so the rest of the kids can escape. Then Captain America shows up and tells them everything will be alright.

Overall it was a fun read and a neat way to introduce a new generation of readers and superheroes. The ‘our parents are evil’ hook is fun and remains relevant throughout the series, though it’s a shame the side plots couldn’t quite keep up. The real seller is the excellent writing and relationships between the characters. All the kids feel like real people that love, cry, fear and hate. Most of them also had some really inventive powers and abilities (namely Gertrude, Karolina and Nico). By the end there are 4 women and 1 man on the team, which is pretty much unheard of in comics, and supremely cool.

This initial 18 issue series run nicely concludes the main storyline but due to popularity Runaways was resurrected in 2005 and penned by Joss Whedon (Astonishing X-Men – read my Final Thoughts). I haven’t decided if I want to continue following these young heroes as their actions and adventures have very little to do with the larger Marvel Universe (which is perhaps one of its greatest strengths), but I can definitely recommend this first adventure to anyone looking for a standalone YA adventure in the Marvelverse.

runaways_marvel_a_p

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Astonishing X-Men, Book 1

Thanks to 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!

Astonishing_X-Men_Vol_3_1Writer: Joss Whedon

Artist: John Cassaday

Issues: Astonishing X-Men #1-12

Ironically the last time I tried to get back into comics was right when Marvel was splitting the X-Men up into three separate, ongoing series and teams (2004). I was in the middle of college at the time and the desire proved fleeting. Skip ahead ten years and I find myself right back in the same place, only with a much stronger desire and the right frame of mind and lifestyle.

I knew I wanted to first jump in with X-Men as they’re my favorite of Marvel’s creations, thanks in large part to the superb animated series that ran for an incredible five seasons in the early 90s.

I’d read really good things about Astonishing X-Men. Written by nerd-famous (now mainstream famous) Joss Whedon, it focuses on the X team that still hangs around Xavier’s school while the others go have zany adventures.

The Astonishing team is made up of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Kitty Pryde (and Lockheed), Wolverine, and later, Colossus. Whedon very much likes to focus on the relationships between his characters, namely Kitty and Piotr’s budding young love and Cyke and Emma’s complicated but lusty romantic entanglement.

Book 1 is the TPB containing the first two major six-issue story arcs (originally released in TPB form as Vol 1 and 2). The first, “Gifted,” deals with a weird prophecy about the destruction of an alien planet by an X-Man, and the resulting battle with a not-so-friendly alien ambassador that wishes to preemptively stop it. The bigger plot point is that Colossus is brought back from the dead in a completely inexplicable way (seemingly captive in a research lab the whole time). I never cared much for Piotr Rasputin, and only vaguely heard of his death in comics years before.

However, Whedon is damn good with leading women roles and presents the story (and series in general) from Kitty’s point of view. Newly returning to the Xavier Institute, Kitty’s phasing powers are a fun way to solve many issues, and it’s refreshing that she uses it in a myriad of ways, from rescuing people from a burning people to discovering the holding cell deep underground where Colossus was held.

Overall the first story is super meh and the alien villain Ord is lame, but Whedon does a fun job of sprinkling in future story and character arcs (like Agent Brand of SWORD) as well as introducing recurring students. It’s easy to forget that one of the X-Men’s primary roles is to provide a safe haven for young mutants, and here we get to meet Armor, Blindfold, Wing and the triplets. Armor and Blindfold particularly get to play crucial roles in future storylines.

Astonishing-X-Men-Dangerous

The second story arc, “Danger,” is much more interesting – the famous X-Men training room, the Danger Room, reveals its sentience and it’s none to happy to have been cooped up for so long. Violence is all it knows and it soon unleashes hell on the students and the team, culminating in an epic battle where she (it eventually forms into a feminine robot) flies to the destroyed remains of Genosha in an attempt to kill Professor Xavier (who’s currently involved in the Excalibur story line, see my Final Thought soon). At one point Xavier goes all Terminator and rams into her with an 18 wheeler. It’s pretty awesome.

Kitty gets to save the day by phasing into the wild sentinel that Danger summons and overall it’s an exciting and much improved story. Emma teases some underlying sinister plan to set up the next story arc, we get to see everyone fight a pretty awesome new villain and Whedon grounds everything with a vulnerable yet resolute Kitty at the helm. I honestly never cared much for Shadowcat before but Astonishing has instantly made her one of my favorite X-Men.

Unfortunately one of my all time favorite X-Men is not given such a great treatment. You can tell Whedon is just not a big fan of Wolverine as he’s mostly used as random comic relief, both in combat and with the students. It works well enough most of the time but very little is given to his character. The same could be said of Beast. I still can’t stand his new cat-like appearance (thanks to a secondary mutation) and he’s also given little to do. The spotlight is very much centered on Kitty, Cyclops and Emma.

Overall I was happy with these 12 issues, though I vastly preferred the second story arc to the first. As a jumping-on point I respect that they didn’t feel the need to break down the last few years of craziness the X-Men weathered under Grant Morrison’s run, and the smaller cast gave us much bigger insight into our heroes while being able to introduce new ones. I enjoyed it enough to pick up Volume 2, which concludes Whedon’s run with another 12 issues – look for my Final Thoughts soon!

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Gotham – “Penguin’s Umbrella” Recap and Review

As violence between Maroni and Falcone continues to escalate, Penguin reveals a new component of his manipulative strategy, forcing Gordon to deal with the consequences of his decision to spare Penguin’s life.

gotham penguin's walk

Last week’s excellent episode left us with an exciting cliffhanger – Oswald Cobblepot reveals himself at the police station just as Gordon and Bullock are getting arrested for his murder. As the payoff episode to the longest running plot thread of the series, “Penguin’s Umbrella” falls a bit short in the end, but still gives us some supremely fun moments – including our first encounter with Batman villain Victor Zsasz. Gordon is forced to take some rather extreme measures in an attempt to save his skin, allegiances are tested, betrayals revealed and Carmine Falcone gets to come out as one of the smartest, most socially and business savvy people in Gotham, as he should be.

We begin with Penguin looking decidedly more penguin-y: he’s got his own mini-entourage to go along with his limp and over-sized shoes. Fish Mooney is less than enthused at the sudden news that he’s alive, and orders her right-hand man Butch Gilzean to bring her Jim Gordon.

Our hero, meanwhile, is entering full blown panic mode. I’m disappointed that we don’t pick up directly after the final moments in the previous episode as it was set up to give us a satisfyingly dramatic scene, but it also would’ve necessitated a lot of info dumping which we already knew. Gordon is clearing out his locker and giving Barbara the old ‘pack your bags and get out of town’ phone call when Bullock arrives with a sucker punch and holds Gordon at gun point. Jim lying about killing Oswald also puts Bullock in rather hot water with the mob, and he’s understandably furious with Gordon.

Read the full Review at Leviathyn >>

Gotham – “Viper” Recap and Review

Gordon and Bullock search for the source of a new street drug that causes euphoria then death. Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot works his way deeper into Maroni’s inner circle and Fish Mooney continues to plot against Falcone.

gotham cop meeting

Gotham finally succeeds in drawing Bruce Wayne into its own plot threads instead of leaving him to make noble reactionary faces at newscasts (well, he still does that here too). The title of the episode, “Viper,” is also the name of a dangerous new street drug that’s suddenly flooded the market and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – is killing anyone that takes it. It’s like the plot of Max Payne only instead of seeing Viking angels the user temporarily gains Hulk-like strength before their bones collapse.

We begin with what is already an overused scene in Gotham – Alfred walking in on Bruce Wayne doing something crazy. Alfred attempts to placate what he naturally sees as obsession with crime and politics, but Bruce remains steadfast in his thirst for knowledge and information, which Alfred begins to grudgingly respect.

It appears this is not the same young master Bruce that was an angsty young man in Batman Begins; Gotham’s Bruce is already past the self-pitying stage and well onto the path of superhero in training. I haven’t decided if I’m annoyed by his quick composure or relieved that we don’t have to see a mopey young Batman every episode. Either way, he’s smart enough to be asking the right questions about Arkham from last episode, and eventually wins Alfred over to help him.

Read the full recap and Review at Leviathyn >>

Gotham – “Arkham” Recap and Review

As a contentious city council vote on the future of the Arkham district approaches, politicians from both sides are in danger. Gordon and Bullock must race to protect the council and an old friend visits Gordon.

gotham mayor arkham

Gotham has been teasing us with Arkham Asylum for the last three episodes, and this week finally puts the infamous insane asylum in focus. Sort of.

The old abandoned Arkham Asylum is at the center of a turf war between the two biggest mobsters in town – Falcone and Maroni, and the two will do whatever it takes to grab a bigger piece of the pie. It feels like the series has been somewhat building to this mob war, but it really just amounts to a single assassin taking out a few councilmen and going after the mayor. While the main killings and subsequent investigations are underwhelming, the political maneuvering behind them are somewhat interesting, and once again it’s the side stories that really lift this episode up.

“Arkham” picks up right where last week’s left off, with Oswald Cobblepot paying a friendly visit to a very shocked Jim Gordon at his own home. Oswald puts on his now familiar disarmingly friendly guise and Barbara’s equal friendliness is a funny contrast to Gordon’s complete inept to deal with the situation, until he leads Oswald outside and practically assaults him in the streets. “I should’ve killed you. I should put a bullet in your head right now!” Gordon’s rage is something we haven’t seen much of and I definitely like this side of him while he’s young and brash.

“There is a war coming, Jim,” Oswald exclaims before dropping more hints about Arkham. Oswald wants to play every angle he can, and what better way to upset the natural balance of mobsters vying for power than the one honest cop in Gotham?

Read the full Review at Leviathyn >>

Gotham – “The Balloonman” Recap and Review

Detectives Gordon and Bullock track down a vigilante who is killing corrupt Gotham citizens by attaching them to weather balloons. Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot returns to Gotham and gets a new job close to an influential figure in the underworld.

gotham balloonman

I mentioned in last week’s review that I was growing fond of the focus on Penguin’s rise to power and the intriguing manner in which he’s portrayed – a sycophantic, underestimated sniveler who nonetheless squeezes out of dangerous situations and resorts to gruesome violence at the drop of a hat. It’s fun to watch this character from a “what the hell is he going to do next” point of view, and “The Balloonman” opens with his darkly humorous return to the city he loves.

Alas the actual titular villain is as lame as you imagine and much of the main structure of the episode is so heavy-handed in introducing a proto-vigilante that I worry about Gotham’s extreme dumbing down for the broader audience it’s trying to reach. I think going for that larger, non-comic book audience is great, but there shouldn’t have to be a compromise for heavy-handed dialogue and eye-rolling repeating themes.

After Penguin steps off the bus and becomes refreshed upon witnessing numerous petty crimes happening around him, we cut to what is apparently going to be our Murder of the Week. This one is a bit unusual, even for a comic world, as a crooked business man (we know he’s crooked because he’s literally on the phone telling his lawyer to pay off judges and jury members) gets accosted by a street vendor before he’s handcuffed to a weather balloon and sent soaring. It’s inventive, theatrical and silly, and it also means our poor detectives have no body to work with when they arrive on the scene.

Read the Full Review at Leviathyn >>

Gotham – “Pilot” Recap and Review

gotham bruce alleywayGotham is a show about two unlikable cops and the drama that surrounds organized crime and police corruption in a big city. The big city happens to be Batman’s famous stomping ground Gotham, though the show includes the twist of taking place right when Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a young teenager. Gotham acts as a prequel to Batman’s story, as well as the numerous colorful characters that inhabit the city – including our main protagonist of the series Jim Gordon, played by a dead serious Ben McKenzie.

Exploring the world of a superhero without said superhero should throw up all kinds of red flags, and instead of lingering on an emotional and troubled Bruce in his young life, the series focuses on our would-be police commissioner. Gordon is new to Gotham and a good entry point for the audience to follow around as he’s introduced to the various players with his new partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).

Bullock is another character pulled form the comics; though he’s never been portrayed on the big screen his role as a corrupt, gruff Batman-hating cop has certainly been used in various characters. Bullock’s reliance on the delicate balance between crime and order is in direct opposition to Gordon’s straight arrow ethics, and this difference of opinion looks to be a big focus of the series’ overall tone.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Read the full Review at Leviathyn >>