Agents of SHIELD Just Wrapped Up Its Best Season Yet [Polygon]

Read the full article at Polygon

Marvel has been a dominant force in cross-media entertainment for the last decade, earning the franchise immense mainstream popularity (despite the occasional misstep). That broad popularity has yet to transition to the comics the franchise draws its source material from. And it might not anytime soon, what with Captain America being revealed as a sleeper Hydra agent in Secret Empire.

That event has been met with resounding boos in an era where every day brings a new political crisis and people are more scared, hateful, and divided than ever. And so it’s refreshing that Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season pulls the best elements from the MCU and the most over-the-top elements from comics to remind me why I love Marvel: superheroes punching Nazis.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT POLYGON

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Secret Warriors: The Complete Collection, Vol. 2

The titular team takes a back seat as we dive deeper into Nick Fury’s complicated past and convoluted present.

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!

Secret Warriors vol 2Writers: Jonathan Hickman

Artists: Alessandro Vitti, Mirko Colak

Issues: Secret Warriors (2008) #17-28, Siege: Secret Warriors

 

Secret Warriors had a really fun start as one of the best new comics to come out of Marvel’s Dark Reign period. Nick Fury’s clandestine team of second generation sleeper agent superheroes battling Hydra forces felt very GI Joe-ish in all the right ways.

The second half of the series is nicely compiled into another collected volume. Unfortunately it almost completely drops the titular team in favor of focusing on Nick Fury.

Jonathan Hickman dives head first into Fury’s convoluted past and present. It’s filled with silly twists, gotchas, and “oh he was a just a Life Model Decoy” – all gimmicks that I’ve grown to resent. I much prefer reading about the team’s inner-drama and action set-pieces rather than the Nick Fury Files, but apparently Hickman and Marvel saw otherwise. Continue reading “Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Secret Warriors: The Complete Collection, Vol. 2”

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Iron Man: Haunted

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

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

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

iron man hauntedWriters: Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iron man #27

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

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

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

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

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Iron Man: Director of SHIELD

The new era of the Initiative stems from the world-changing results of the superhero Civil War: namely that Tony Stark is the new Director of SHIELD and pushing forward with his grand plans of a government sanctioned superhero squad in all fifty states.

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

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

iron man director of shield #15 coverWriters: Charlie Knauf, Daniel Knauf

Artist: Robert De La Torre

Issues: Iron Man: Director of Shield #15-18

The primary solo Iron Man series at the time of the mid to late 2000s was a wee bit confusing, changing names from The Invincible Iron Man to Iron Man, then Iron Man: Director of SHIELD until War Machine takes over to end the run and begin a new one. Thus although the volume is titled Iron Man: Director of SHIELD, it uses the same numbering that first started with the excellent Iron Man: Extremis back in late 2004.

I don’t usually write my Final Thoughts after a single short story arc, but seeing as the next two Iron Man issues are World War Hulk tie-ins, I’d better tackle these now. The new era of the Initiative stems from the world-changing results of the superhero Civil War: namely that Tony Stark is the new Director of SHIELD and pushing forward with his grand plans of a government sanctioned superhero squad in all fifty states.

While various Avengers titles have cropped up or changed to suit the still split superhero community at the time, Iron Man’s solo series focuses solely on his dealings with SHIELD, and works as a great continuation of his previous storylines. I actually skipped the story arc after Extremis, then dropped back in for his Civil War tie-ins – which were pretty meh (like most of them). Director of Shield brings back genetic researcher Maya Henson as Stark’s former colleague and ex-lover, and co-creator of the Extremis formula (which now runs through Tony, allowing him to shed and gather his suit at will).

iron man director of shield #16Maya and Tony are concerned about the increased level of attack and sophistication level of various random terrorist cells, just the thing that SHIELD deals with on a fairly constant basis. Former SHIELD director Dugan has concerns about Stark’s ability to run SHIELD, accusing him of running it like a company and micromanaging at every level. Indeed Stark feels the need to jump in and save the day as Iron Man in just about every situation they find themselves in.

Eventually their research and investigation leads to one of Iron Man’s oldest foes – the Mandarin. The Mandarin strikes at Tony and SHIELD by cleverly planting an organic bomb in the body of their lead, and when the dead terrorist is brought up to the helicarrier for autopsy, it explodes in a suitably creepy Alien-style moment, attacking and infecting everyone on board. Meanwhile Iron Man is down at the prison facility fighting off waves of cyber-modified zombie creatures and has to race up the helicarrier to save the day again.

All of issue 18 is one big battle, and it’s pretty damn fun. The tentacled organic thing is an exciting and creepy foe that results in the death of a semi-major character in Tony’s life, his aging hippie friend Sal. There’s a neat moment where Tony briefly flashes to the other recent deaths in his life, namely his bodyguard and friend Happy and of course Steve Rogers. Stark is only able to defeat the creature by learning that Maya’s Extremis virus (which he forbade her from researching further) would be able to cure it. He sheds his suit, gives his best Come at Me Bro line, and lets it infect him.

About a third of the helicarrier is destroyed and Stark and SHIELD have been built a huge blow, but Stark’s plan works and the dangerous creature melts off of him. He correctly surmises that the attack was a simple diversion as they never did find Mandarin, nor I believe even learn of his involvement in the plot. Dr. Maya Henson is shown at the end going to a previously offered research facility so she can further her work – away from Stark – and it’s run by Mandarin! Dun Dun DUNNNN!

iron man director of shield #18

Despite Stark coming off like a complete asshole from Civil War, I really enjoyed his first outing as SHIELD Director. The father and son writers effectively layer in the politics and implication of how SHIELD’s run in this new era under Stark while also providing a fun and decidedly comic book-y villain and climax. The heavily shaded artwork is quite a bit darker than artist Torre’s other work on Ms. Marvel; I really dug the very Earth-y tones of brown and red, interestingly making Iron Man blend in rather than stand out and giving the sci-fi plot and elements a very dark feel. Director of SHIELD isn’t quite yet required reading for what’s going on during the Initiative time frame (aka the year between Civil War and Secret Invasion), but so far it’s a fun romp starring a very driven and conflicted Tony Stark.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New Avengers (2005), Vol. 1-3

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 Michael Bendis new avengers issue 1

Artists: David Finch, Steve Mcniven, Frank Cho

Issues: New Avengers (2005) #1-15

The Avengers have disassembled – long live the New Avengers!

I was honestly never a big Avengers guy until the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along and suddenly made me care about the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. In 2004 Marvel kicked off what would be the first of many large-scale events and shake-ups with “Avengers: Disassembled,” a story arc that would finish off the then prolific Avengers series after some notable deaths.

Of course no way Marvel actually goes without an ongoing Avengers series, and thus the New Avengers were started, with now main Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis at the helm. Our new team comes together by sheer happenstance in the first story arc, “Breakout,” when a high-tech supervillian prison known as The Raft is shut down by Electro and dozens of villains begin escaping. Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and Luke Cage are there to meet up with an unknown superhero that may be imprisoned there, The Sentry (which foreshadows the next story arc), while SHIELD Agent Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) escorts them. When the prison begins its exciting breakout, Captain America arrives with more SHIELD agents, Spider-man tags along to help out, and finally Iron Man shows up to see what all the hubbub is about.

While it leads to some silly comic moments of “Hey! I’m here to help out and fight bad guys with y’all,” the prison scene is still an exciting backdrop and a fun opportunity for some harrowing fights. Carnage was one of the escapees, and begins kicking the crap out of Luke Cage, Spider-Woman and Daredevil before The Sentry mysteriously grabs him and flings him into space. Spider-man gets thrown into the prison and literally surrounded by various minor and random villains, savagely beaten and left with a broken arm before Cap and company can fight their way in.

new avengers issue 2

By the end of the ordeal they tally that over 40 supervillains have escaped the prison. Based on the way this group of heroes were able to quickly lock down the situation, Cap proposes that they form a new Avengers team to help track down the loose ends. Their first lead takes them to the Savage Land and Karl Lykos, a.k.a. Sauron. The team stumbles upon Wolverine who’s there because of reasons and the whole group is swiftly captured, and then fights a bunch of Savage Land Mutates. Other SHIELD agents show up and there appears to be a vast conspiracy with something they’re mining in the Savage Land before it all blows up.

“Breakout” serves as an exciting jumping on point for this new team of Avengers that includes a few fresh faces as well as a hodgepodge of famous heroes. The team itself isn’t super balanced ability-wise. Cap, Cage and Wolverine are all melee fighters, while Iron Man provides the only real firepower (Daredevil turns the team down during the official recruitment issue, presumably to stick with his own successful solo series at the time). Spider-Man provides all the comic relief you’d expect while Spider-Woman fills the role of the token woman…at least until her ongoing shadowy side plot is further explored in the third story arc, “Secrets and Lies.”

New avengers issue 9After “Breakout” the team digs into the mystery surrounding the superhero The Sentry in the next story arc, aptly titled “Sentry.” Turns out the Sentry is an extremely powerful hero that had his mind wiped by Mastermine, as well as the minds of anyone that ever meets him. The New Avengers want to recruit him into the fold, but first they have to unlock his mind. They call in Emma Frost of the X-Men, and we’re treated to a cavalcade of cameos as the X-Men, Inhumans and Fantastic Four help battle The Sentry’s terrifyingly manifested demons as Emma works to heal his mind.

“Sentry” also introduces to the Illuminati, a group of the world’s most powerful figures (all men, sadly) that make major decisions in secrecy. The Illuminati is composed of Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Black Bolt and Namor, and we get some fun scenes as Iron Man attempts to explain his new Avengers team.

new avengers issue 7 illuminati

Volume 3, “Secrets and Lies” follows the trail of one of our villainous escapees from the Raft, The Silver Samurai. The evil ninja clan The Hand brought him back to Japan and wants to prop him up as their figurehead, but Harada was simply imprisoned without trial or explanation by SHIELD and wants no part of it. The plot is mostly our heroes fighting a bunch of ninjas as they introduce a new mysterious ninja-hero known as Ronin, but quickly takes a backseat to exploring where Jessica’s loyalties lie as she seemingly makes contact with HYDRA.

Turns out she’s working for an off-the-grid Nick Fury directly and implanted as a mole to help HYDRA, even though HYDRA were able to restore her waning powers. By the end of the arc we’re still not completely sure if she’s playing both sides or ultimately working for one and betraying the other, but the double agent duty certainly takes its toll on her psychologically, and there’s a touching scene between her and Captain America where he’s both firm and sympathetic. I fully expected Spider-Woman to be nothing more than the eye-candy token female hero and was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s by far the most interesting character on the roster.

Despite using three different artists in the first fifteen issues, the art remains consistent and pleasantly comic book-y, that is with just enough exaggerated cartoon style that I dig it. The art and writing together aren’t anything to write home about but the New Avengers provides a wonderful baseline experience for simple fun comic book action and character development. I’m perfectly fine with other series’ experimenting with art and storytelling or delving deep into individual character psyche’s, but New Avengers is definitely more of a fun Summer blockbuster, and a big reason why comics are just plain fun in the first place.

With writer Bendis at the helm the series was lovingly mired in current Marvel events and continuity, making it one of the main ongoing series to read throughout the years it was active (an impressive six years and 64 issues). I definitely plan on sticking with the entire run, and using it when I want to turn my thinking cap down a few notches and just enjoy the ride.

New Avengers issue 15

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.