NOW! For Something Completely Expected 3

My third (and probably final) look at Marvel Nows. This whole exercise is proving rather tedious and expensive. A couple capsules down, you’ll find the phrase “competent but thin,” which is a description that seems to crop up most often when I talk of Marvel’s relaunch. There’s really not a lot to come back to, but that’s to be expected, since I don’t believe Marvel puts any more thought or planning into most of these comics than is necessary to make them packaged nicely. And why should they? It’s the same level of care that goes into their assembly line/movie studio, and those have made billions of dollars.

Avengers #1 (Jonathan Hickman, Jerome Opeña, et al)

People are actually decoding this.

This comic has more white pages with titles than any in the history of the medium. An impressive feat, even for a guy like Jonathan Hickman who loves to waste pages. Jerome Opeña does what he can to make this readable, but for every interesting moment he draws–Tony Stark wrapping his arm around Steve Rogers’ shoulder all chummy-like, the villain’s goofy grin, or a robot pounding Captain America into the dirt–he has to put up with two pages of Hickman’s obtuse pretensions. There’s the wannabe mythic opening (“We raced to the light”), the random panel showing Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Namor, and Black Panther (presumably referencing Hickman’s other Avengers book, which hasn’t been released yet, but you won’t find this information in the comic itself, let alone why it’s there in the first place), and oodles of dialogue and narration trying to convince readers the Avengers are a Really Big Deal, For Serious. Iron Man gives a speech about how Cap changed the world. It’s all very sentimental. Opeña and Dean White even make it look pretty, but they always do.

Of course, with all this loquaciousness, details like “why the Avengers are going to Mars” get relegated to one panel hinting at some cataclysmic event. Like everything else in storytelling, tragedy and heroism are abstract concepts to Hickman. Just something that’s supposed to be in a superhero book, but not in any way where you actually have to deal with messy things like consequences, culture, or emotions. You know how Beowulf deals with Scandinavian cultures and the arrival of Christianity? That’s one of those things that percolate at the margins to give it texture. Hickman doesn’t do any of that. Instead, the characters spit exposition and one-liners, Bendis-style, killing time between white pages with funny symbols on them.

Thunderbolts #1 (Daniel Way, Steve Dillon, et al)

Dillon has some great storytelling chops. There’s a nice page of two sheik guards getting stabbed through a door, which is more explicit than I expected even from modern Big Two comics. He’s not great with character designs (faces looking the same and all) or backgrounds (which are kind of flat), but he knows how to stage these moments that define characters (or at least, versions of characters).

It’s more than a dung-peddler like Daniel Way ever deserves, the way he wastes page after page on exposition. It’s not as bad as, oh say, that Ghost Rider run where he spent something like five pages every issue on stereotypical redneck characters that did nothing but jaw at each other about nothing before never showing up again, but there’s no way this will ever be anything but stupid. The bulk of this issue is General Ross holding the Punisher captive to get him to join this version of the Thunderbolts, while an army of mafia types converge outside. Based off of previous Way comics, this means the next six issues will be spent in this one warehouse with maybe some intercutting of what the other characters who nominally co-star in this book are doing. The final page promises exactly that. How this guy continues to get work is beyond me. Bendis occasionally writes a funny quip, Aaron and Fraction make intentionally goofy superhero comics that play on nostalgia (while occasionally able to cobble something good), and Brubaker is genuinely great (if formulaic). Hell, Hickman at least can rock the pseudo-intellectual look for those guys that want to proclaim comics are an art, but don’t want to read anything that doesn’t involve zombies, robots, tights, aliens, or some combination of those. What exactly does Daniel Way have to offer? Enough padding to cushion a crashing jet?

Avengers Arena #1 (Dennis Hopeless, Kev Walker, et al)

That dark, gritty Secret Wars remake everyone pitched when they were 14 finally sees publication. A dumb comic where people kill each other. However, Kev Walker manages to wring some tiny bit of raw emotion from it, especially during the closing pages, where the first of (presumably) many deaths occurs. Unlike a lot of these sorts of shock moments, it’s properly set up, hinging on an Avengers Academy relationship re-established earlier in this issue. It’s almost like an actual story rather than some dumbass high-concept.

That basic storytelling is fine, but it’s the expressiveness Walker gives these characters which gets mileage out of Dennis Hopeless’ competent but thin script. There’s the glazed-over, “whatever” face a kid with an axe makes when Arcade does his Battle Royale schtick (the teens point out how stupid this comic’s premise is, at least before realizing that no, he’s serious), X-23’s stoic affect while she’s playing ping-pong, or, as alluded above, the way those young heroes in love look at each other when they know one of them is going to die. It’s all slick and straightforward–due to being sensationalist garbage–but seeing some actual effort put into what’s essentially a book devoted to bumping off not-as-popular characters surprises me the way Punk Rock Jesus and the better issues of Uncanny X-Force did. All three titles turn around and address just how base their respective conceits are (Punk Rock Jesus being exploitation for commercial purposes, X-Force and Avengers Arena being murder as entertainment), and all three succeed to various degrees because artists like Walker, Jerome Opeña, and Sean Murphy bring humanity along with all that stylized trash. The rest of Avengers Arena could be crap for all I care, but it’s already gotten one more good issue than it had any right to.

Cable and X-Force #1 (Dennis Hopeless, Salvador Larroca, et al)

Meanwhile, Hopeless seems perfectly lost over here. This comic is one of two new X-Force titles (the other being a relaunch of Uncanny X-Force). It bounces around, never quite establishing what the point of this is beyond Marvel having Cable doing something. Doesn’t help that Larroca brings little to the table. What personal style he had left has been filed off by Frank D’Armata’s dull coloring. Entirely superfluous, even by low standards.

So, there we go. That’s Marvel Now for you.

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