Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Captain America: Winter Soldier

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: Ed Brubaker winter soldier cover

Artists: Steve Epting, Michael Lark

Issues: Captain America (2004-2011) #1-9, #11-14*

*Issue #10 is a one-off House of M tie-in, and I’ll discuss it when I write about House of M.

Aside from being the obvious major storyline that inspired the latest Captain America film, the massive 13 issue “Winter Soldier” arc also serves as an excellent jumping-on point for Captain America (as it should be considering it’s #1). Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m very interested in reading more about Captain America, and these issues provide a ton of World War II backstory, Cap working with SHIELD, Nick Fury and Agent 13 and several fun guest stars like Tony Stark and Falcon.

The biggest shocker comes at who the Winter Soldier actually is, which obviously I already knew thanks to the film (and the fact that this story is 10 years old). Being armed with that knowledge is a bit unfortunate and causes the big buildup in the first issues (“Out of Time”) to lose some of its edge.

The comic does do an excellent job exploring Steve Rogers’ past in the war and particularly his relationship with Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, which is easily the best hero-sidekick relationship I’ve seen (it helps that Bucky is only a few years younger and they’re both equal soldiers – Cap just has the super soldier serum). Entire flashbacks and pages (and really an entire issue) is spent painstakingly delving into Cap’s past with Bucky and the war, but it all works really well, and is especially helpful and entertaining for someone like me that hadn’t really read a Captain America comic before.

Unlike the film, the comic arc doesn’t involve the dissolution of SHIELD and the uprising of HYDRA. Instead the Red Skull is murdered by an unknown assassin and the main villain is a Russian corporate schmuck that gets his hands on the cosmic cube, that useful little all-powerful McGuffin device that even MCU fans will recognize by now. His main weapon is the Winter Soldier, whom we learned was originally Bucky Barnes – previously thought dead, and captured and psychologically programmed by the Soviets.

There’s a neat bit where they discuss the Winter Soldier’s programming, and how too much time in the field causes him to go off the grid and start subconsciously exploring his past, to where they can no longer use him in the US, and only activate him every few years for short bursts at a time. The idea that a lot of major assassinations and killings were done by this sleeper agent is pretty nifty, and the fact that it’s Cap’s oldest and dearest friend takes a huge toll on our hero, one that writer Ed Brubaker does an excellent job with.

winter soldier moment

The art and action are really fantastic as well, and I really enjoyed the darker tones of the entire book, almost coming off Noir-ish in most scenes. The realistic art style meshes well with the action sequences, as Cap is a natural fighter that jumps, dodges and punches (with the occasional homing shield-boomerang throw). Fans of over the top action or Cosmic level entities blasting each other may feel something missing here, but I really enjoyed the much more down to earth butt-kicking of our heroes and villains.

The supporting cast is also done decently well, though this is first and foremost Captain America’s (and Bucky’s) story. Agent 13, aka Sharon Carter (descendant of the original Agent Carter) is Cap’s primary partner in the field, and though they’ve got some romantic history their relationship is built out of mutual respect and that of soldiers working together, which I enjoyed (even if she’s annoyingly damsel’d at one point). Nick Fury also plays a big role as our primary info-dumping character, and someone we sympathize with as he tries to keep the harshest truths away from Cap for as long as he can.

Cap’s fellow superheroes are utilized sparingly; Tony Stark has a brief scene but ultimately he’s unable to help Cap in the finale. Falcon does show up to help (literally in a ‘hey I’m here to help,’ way) towards the end but he’s not given a whole lot to do. The story’s sharp focus on Cap and Bucky remained the primary hook for the entire run, and though I felt a bit too much time was given to flashbacks (it feels like at least half the panels were in the past) overall it worked really well.

winter soldierThe climax itself was a slight letdown though. There’s not much of a final fight (similar to the film, Cap drops his guard and just talks to the Winter Soldier after a brief scuffle) and ultimately uses the cosmic cube to ‘fix’ Bucky’s mind and restore his memories. After that Bucky teleports himself away by shattering the cube, and then we get a tease that the Red Skull is somehow living on inside our evil Russian friend.

Overall it’s a fun if subdued adventure, and I love the tight focus on the mystery behind the Winter Soldier and Cap’s guilt-ridden past with losing his friend. It’s a fantastic intro to Captain America and the writing and art are both top notch. I definitely plan on continuing the series, which eventually leads right up to Civil War.

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 clichĂ©s, 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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