By 2004, the Marvel Knights imprint had already been well-established. Initially a risk back in 1998, the semi-independent label was basically sub-contracted out from Marvel to Joe Quesada’s now defunct Event Comics company. A more complete history of the Marvel Knights imprint, as well as some of its early titles, can be found under reviews for the Black Panther and Daredevil series. This run is concurrent with the middle of John Michael Straczynski (JMS)’s run on Spider-Man in the primary Amazing Spider-Man title, which had embraced some of the more mystical elements of the Marvel Universe. Though JMS’s run has a lot of strengths, Millar (and subsequently Hudlin) provided a nice contrast to that high-minded mysticism with some more classic Spidey vs. villain stories in this Marvel Knights title. Though admittedly darker in tone and consequences than the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, this Marvel Knights run was a good reminder of the kind of adventures we were used to seeing Peter Parker have.
Mark Millar Run #1-12: Great story arc that is a kind of blend of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again and Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, in that there is a mysterious character who is pulling strings behind the scenes to destroy Spidey’s life. Oh, and he knows his secret identity as Peter Parker. The mysterious villain has captured Aunt May and is holding her captive to get to Peter, making him increasingly desperate and strung out. The following 12-issue arc is a good blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned superhero battles. Spidey has to fight off the Vulture, Electro, Doc Ock, a new Venom, and even more baddies all in his attempt to rescue May. The series has a very compelling plot progression and feels very much like classic Spider-Man. The inclusion of so many of his classic villains, as well as key supporting cast members like MJ and the Black Cat only make the characterization stronger. The majority of the art was penciled by Terry Dodson, with a couple of issues by Frank Cho, both of whom deliver some high-quality art. It’s not innovative or overly stylized, but it’s all clear, faces are expressive, colors are bright and details are precise. Dodson even did some costume upgrades for Electro and the Vulture to make them look a little more modern and a little more menacing. The plot is a very compelling read and, though it does take some logical shortcuts, especially in the last couple of issues, it is well worth the read. Rating: 8 of 10
Reginald Hudlin Run #13-18: An interesting arc with some strong positives and some mixed execution. Absorbing Man, Ethan as new Skrull hero/baddie/crazy. To me, the whole Ethan character is basically a riff on two other stories that had already been published by this time: first, Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry, which explores a forgotten, all-powerful, Superman-like hero who struggles to find his way in the modern world (not to mention some significant mental health problems); and second, the second arc from Allan Heinberg’s run on the Young Avengers, in which Hulkling discovers his Skrull heritage and struggles to find his identity. It seemed a little too much of a Superman parody to be considered a genuinely good Spider-Man arc. Though it was certainly amusing, SM’s character development was certainly secondary. I will say, though, that the further elaboration of the Absorbing Man’s powers was a good idea. It makes a lot of sense to have someone like him be pretty close to all-powerful, but his biggest weakness is that, as one of duller tools in the shed, he lacks the imagination to truly make the most of his awesome power. Putting someone like Spidey up against that is actually a pretty cool matchup, so props to Hudlin for going that direction. Overall, it’s certainly not a bad arc, but I wouldn’t call it necessary reading. Rating: 6 of 10
#19-22 — the last four issues of this Marvel Knights run was part of a crossover title called, “The Other: Evolve or Die” which will be reviewed soon!
Hawkeye is one of the most iconic members of the Avengers, and has appeared in more issues than probably anyone but the big three. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to avoid getting the short end of the stick. Whether it’s his brainwashing in the first Avengers film, an inferiority complex driving him to become Goliath, or his string of middling solo series making it hard to sell the idea of Hawkeye having a life outside of the Avengers. He is undoubtedly a fan favorite, but his role in the Marvel Universe is sometimes in flux.
Before reading any of this Heroic Age material, it helps to know what Hawkeye has been up to for the past decade, so here’s a brief recap. Warning, there are definitely some *spoilers* for the 2002-2010 timeframe, beware! Clint Barton had a rough beginning to the 21st Century, he was killed in the Scarlet Witch’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs bonanza in Avengers Disassembled, only to be reborn in the House of M alternate reality excursion and find his alias had been taken up by a Young Avenger (Kate Bishop, who’s great btw), forcing him to take up a different identity as Ronin (shmeh). Then, in case that’s not enough, Clint finds Mockingbird in the Secret Invasion storyline, who had been long dead in the Marvel canon, only to find out she was a Skrull impersonator, making the loss fresh all over again. He and Bobbi do eventually reunite at the end of Secret Invasion, but even that reunion isn’t all sunshine and happiness. Bobbi’s traumatized by years of imprisonment and torture by her Skrull captors and she can’t bring herself to trust Clint. They had a weird kind of resolution in the four-issue New Avengers: The Reunion mini-series, which led directly into this time-frame, but the flawed nature of their relationship really comes to a head during this time period.
Hawkeye and Mockingbird: Average arc overall. The writing has some decent humor and the relationship between Hawkeye and Mockingbird, which is the central focus of the title, is done fairly well. The author (Jim McCann) references their past pretty well, bringing back baddies that have haunted the two in earlier arcs. The art, primarily penciled by David Lopez, was solid, but not spectacular. The supporting cast was pretty underdeveloped and the rationale justifying their involvement in these arcs was thin. Just inventing a tiny quasi-governmental agency with five people in it just seems kind of lazy in order to enable hi-tech gear and bad guy chasing, but I guess that’s not really the point. I think the plot was average at best, but it’s slightly better than that because of the character interactions which sow the seeds for future stories involving the two. The complicated relationship is basically made into a mutually-detrimental spiral that made both of them into worse versions of themselves. The resolution to end their highly flawed romance is a reasonable conclusion that McCann builds to pretty well. It makes the six-issue arc an important read for fans of either title character, though it’s still probably not good enough to buy the book. Rating: 6 of 10
Widowmaker: A weird, four-issue follow-up to the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. This arc can’t make up it’s mind whether Hawkeye or Black Widow is the main character. The first-person narrative jumps between the two of them. It’s really abrupt and felt like a rushed, half-developed story. I’m not entirely sure what the writer, Duane Swierczynski, was thinking here, and the artist team of David Lopez and Manuel Garcia did an okay job, but the result is just average fare. I didn’t like the bags drawn under Black Widow’s eyes. It made her look like she was always half asleep, it’s an odd look for a superhero. I think that the whole purpose was to set up a situation for Hawkeye to get hit in the back of the head, which sets up for the following arc, which is far superior to this one. Black Widow is a great character, but her team up with Mockingbird and Hawkeye here seemed like a stretch. And her character had no personality. She just seemed really flat. The new team up of Hawkeye and Mockingbird so soon after their “conscious uncoupling” was just kind of awkward. It undid some of the character development of the previous arc, which was its whole selling point. I’d say Widowmaker is worth skipping, as there aren’t really any other plot lines that ripple through later beyond Hawkeye’s one bonk to the head. Rating: 4 of 10
Blind Spot: This four-issue arc is a little hit and miss (pun very much intended). With writing duties back with Jim McCann, and art by a team of David Lopez and Paco Diaz, the series regains some of McCann’s earlier tone in the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. Conceptually, Blind Spot is pretty interesting: what if Hawkeye went blind? How does the world’s best marksman deal with not being able to see his targets? It’s a pretty cool examination of Clint Barton’s character as he struggles to do without his greatest asset and deals with some long-repressed family issues at the same time. The problem is that while this arc is intriguing, it’s not really all that innovative. It basically riffs on Ed Brubaker’s inventive run on Captain America almost a decade earlier, except it swaps out Bucky for Barney. The whole brainwashed vengeance using a childhood best friend/brother to become the evil version of the hero themselves isn’t particularly original, but in McCann’s defense, it does allow for an interesting look into Clint Barton’s past and his strength of character. Barney acts as a Baron Zemo and Barney’s interactions were all pretty well done. The only problem I had was that with Tony Stark’s tech, Clint never really went blind. It would have been much better to see him fight unassisted than to have the hi-tech bailout. It seemed like a cheap way to deal with the culmination of the blindness problem. Otherwise, this arc did accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. Rating: 7 of 10
During this gap, there’s a wonderful, incredible series by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu that covers both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop in a 22-issue instant classic. Go read it now! Or check out the review here.
All-New Hawkeye (2015): After making his name with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition writing for another swashbuckling archer, Jeff Lemire came to Marvel to try a turn on Clint Barton. Partnering with Eisner Award winning artist, Ramon Perez, this series seemed like a good choice to follow up on Fraction’s run. A quick five-issue series here tried to tell two different stories simultaneously. One was a retelling of Clint’s origin story through some beautiful, purple-hued flashbacks, and the other was an odd arc involving Clint and Kate breaking into a Hydra base for a secret weapon. The flashback sequences were clever and helped to showcase more of Hawkeye’s origin story. Perez’s artist style in these memory sequences was absolutely beautiful, all washed purples and sketched in a really wonderful way. The cover art, especially in Issue #1 (to the left) was also stunning. The interior art outside of the flashbacks was also good, but Perez’s flashbacks scenes were definitely the highlight. The banter between the two Hawkeyes was also pretty good (though nothing like Fraction’s in the preceding Hawkeye run). Unfortunately, the primary arc (at least the present day one) was nothing special. I never really understood what Barton or Bishop’s relationship to SHIELD was and what the whole point of those weird kids was. The resolution seemed even more bizarre, as they were about to allow Hydra to just take them back, until the kids went all Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Hydra agents. This arc is a decent read, but I was not really impressed with the plot development in Lemire’s primary story line. There is hope for future runs, but this is worth flipping through for Perez’s art, though I’m not sure if I would buy it. Rating: 6 of 10
Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler, has been one of the most iconic members of the X-Men since their rebranding as the Uncanny X-Men back in 1975. He has long been a fan favorite (and personal favorite of mine) because of his optimism and wit. He also blends his demonic outward appearance with the serene inner persona whose morality and generosity in unmatched among the X-Men. He has long been a crucial member of various teams of benevolent mutants, and his dynamics with other leading cast members of X-teams, such as Storm, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Cyclops have all been well-established for a long time.
Despite his popularity and the depth of his character, Nightcrawler did not get a chance at his own solo title until 2004, when Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Darick Robertson partnered up to do a 12-issue run. From the outset, the ambitious effort seemed difficult. What was there to truly differentiate him from the rest of his team? The missions he was sent on were mysteries of ghouls, ghosts, demons, and possession, leading him to Limbo and encounters with other odd demonic forces. I know he looks like a blue devil, but I never really like the weird demon plot-lines in the X-Men. The creative team did try to tie these events back to Kurt’s past, where his odd relationship with his step-sister/lover, Amanda Sefton began. Amanda had become the new Magik in Limbo by the time of this comic in 2004, making hers and Kurt’s relationship even weirder. Kurt had never really shown an aptitude for detective work, so Storm’s choice to send him on a solo mission to a hospital in the first issue seemed odd. The following series struggled to develop Nightcrawler independently of the X-Men, as Storm, Kitty, and Wolverine all made prominent appearances in almost every issue. The unfortunate result was a series of mystical-ish arcs that seemed like other X-Men team titles, only Nightcrawler did focus slightly more on Kurt’s past. The revisiting of Kurt’s circus past was interesting, but just never wowed me. Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing seemed fine, but I never really got into the story. Same thing goes for Robertson’s art. The real highlight of the series for me was Greg Land’s cover art, and especially Issue #4 (above). Overall, I would say that this is a perfectly adequate comic for those who like these sort of stories, but it’s probably not for everyone. Rating: 5 of 10.
Following the success of Marvel Max’s Alias run, Jessica Jones creator, Brian Michael Bendis brought the character back in a non-Max title. This time, with more accessible topics and language choices (read: fewer F-bombs), Jessica Jones would navigate her way into the larger Marvel continuity monster. This was achieved by her getting pregnant at the end of Alias, and winding up with Luke Cage, who was, by now, a rising star in the New Avengers title, also penned by Bendis. Her new series, The Pulse, is so named for her new column at the Daily Bugle, where she will work with Ben Urich to tell superhero-themed stories to increase paper sales. This gives Jessica a good excuse to become involved in some of the central plot lines of the early 21st Century Marvel event calendar, which was also largely orchestrated and often written by her own Brian Michael Bendis. Being a pet project of the leading creative force at Marvel certainly helped Jessica Jones to quickly rise from a no-name side project into a real member of superhero community and an important supporting character to the New Avengers.
Though not as innovative as Bendis’ earlier Alias series, The Pulse does still give some valuable insight into Jessica Jones as a character and serves the primary focus of further elaborating her relationship with Luke Cage, Ben Urich, and a few other key Marvel characters. *Warning* since The Pulse is a direct sequel to Alias, a key event at the end of Alias The 14-issue run encompassed only a couple of different arcs, but the plot developments of each were really secondary to Jessica’s emotional evolution and the further development of hers and Luke Cage’s relationship, along with the birth of their child. The story arcs are far less cutting edge than they were in the Alias run, some of which is inherent in the shift from an R-rated (Max) title to a PG-13-ish normal Marvel title. Regarding the art, it was above average, but not cutting edge. It was exactly the quality you would expect when penciling duties were handed between superstars Mark Bagley, Michael Lark, and Michael Gaydos.
Plot-wise, the first arc was solid, but not amazing. It set up the reason for Jessica’s integration into the mainstream universe: a job at the Daily Bugle. The Green Goblin arc the followed wasn’t particularly engaging, but it did serve its purpose as an intro to the idea of Jessica as an investigative journalist. The next arc, a tie-in to The Secret War, actually did work pretty well, especially since Luke Cage was such an important character in these main events. Her quest to find Luke and uncover the covert operation behind The Secret War made The Pulse the most significant tie-in to that event. Though the story progression seemed somewhat limited by the progression of the main event, it did provide some well-articulated supporting plot-lines for Jessica Jones and Ben Urich. The single issue House of M tie-in was odd and out of place with the rest of the series. Then the final arc *mini-spoiler* followed the birth of Jessica and Luke’s baby and the next steps in their relationship, which would lead into the New Avengers title by the end of issue #14, the final issue of The Pulse.
Overall, Bendis’ work on the Pulse served its primary purpose, which was to bring Jessica into the mainstream universe. Transitioning such a brash and complicated character from the Max line was no easy task, and definitely did feel somewhat abrupt at times — especially with her harsh language being absent in The Pulse. Though it is a testament to Bendis that he managed to transition Jessica without diluting her beyond recognition. The character is still there, even if her story arcs lost some of their edge. The Pulse is still a good solid read for fans of the character and makes a nice bridge between two of Bendis’ finer works: Alias and New Avengers. It’s still an above average comic, even if it falls short of the inventiveness and iconic storytelling of its predecessor. Rating: 7 of 10
The original Spider-Woman has a somewhat odd history at Marvel Comics. Her origins are much maligned as a result of copyright laws, as her first appearance and early stories spun more out of a need to lock down the copyright control over the name than an actual creative desire to tell the story. This meant that a lot of the early material was thrown together unevenly and took longer to develop. This left Spider-Woman, alias Jessica Drew, without a truly definitive origin tale. Her periodic guest appearances in high profile titles like Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers as well as her relatively short-lived solo series in 1978 never really served to develop the character all that fully. Jessica Drew’s lackluster popularity is even more evident by the fact that she subsequently lost even the mantle of Spider-Woman to, not one, but two unique characters during the ’80s and ’90s (Julia Carpenter and Mattie Franklin). Drew wasn’t even popular enough to keep her own hero name.
The result is a dearth of good source material on Spider-Woman, and no definitive origin story to speak of. Therefore, when Marvel powerhouse, Brian Michael Bendis, decided to bring Jessica Drew into the fledgling New Avengers title, there was a renewed interest in her backstory. This five-issue miniseries attempts to fill the void on this character, whose role in Avengers titles and major crossover events has proven the potential for a great story. The tidbits of her origin that had been alluded to showed a complicated past of brainwashing, mixed allegiances, and at least some time as a double-agent between Hydra and SHIELD. The shifting allegiances and subtle espionage elements seemed to bode well for a more expansive origin tale, and the groundwork certainly existed for a great story.
When it came down to it, the story didn’t seem to take as much advantage of its potential as it could have. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, himself, the story seemed to focus more on the family connections to Hydra and Jessica’s inability to decipher the truth when caught between Hydra and SHIELD. The tone and event the art, penciled and inked by the Luna brothers, seems to highlight Jessica’s innocence and a stolen childhood, rather than drawing on her survivalist nature. The result is that Spider-Woman is predominantly a victim, and though she does rise above it as a hero later, she is less empowered or self-sufficient than I think would have done her credit. Rather than emphasizing her childhood in Wundagore, I would have rather seen the creators spend more time in the double-agent period, highlighting Jessica’s cunning and her resolve to stay alive and try to do good, even in a morally ambiguous situation.
Though I don’t think it achieved its full potential, the miniseries is certainly not bad. It does serve the purpose of providing the first consolidated origin story for Spider-Woman. The Luna brothers’ washed color palate and dream-like softer edges, though not my favorite style, was a good fit for the nostalgic childhood memories and the haze of brainwashing. All in all, it’s a solid read for those interested in learning more about Spider-Woman, though it’s hardly essential, as her best material is part of Bendis’ broader New Avengers run.
Wow. I don’t even know where to start. This run is incredible. Both Hawkeyes are great characters. Clint Barton is one of my favorites, but Kate Bishop is a tremendous character too. Both have a lot of snark, skill, and luck that makes their adventures so much fun. David Aja is my favorite artist. He is a minimalist magician. Fraction’s blend of smart and snappy writing is an absolutely perfect fit for Hawkeye. I can only hope this team keeps churning stuff out. I’ll read it all.
First, the series starts out with the soon to be classic line: “This looks bad.” Hawkeye’s first page shows him falling off a building and botching the landing. He spends a few weeks in a hospital because he doesn’t have super strength, fast healing, or any of the other particularly super superpowers. The premise from the outset, as the title page states, is to cover what Hawkeye does when he’s not being an Avenger. This gave the creators an out from participating in the never-ending string of tie-in events (see eventification of Marvel), and allowing Fraction and co. to develop some good, old fashioned solo material. Even in the first issue, there’s a lot going on, but there is no background really needed. Clint doesn’t have much money, so he grumbles about cab fare, lives in a crappy tenement apartment building, and doesn’t really dress all that well. His adventures involve some pretty small-time thugs and crooks who are trying to raise rent unfairly. The tone, including his rescue of an injured dog (later to be named “Lucky” or “Pizza Dog”), really makes Clint out to be the everyday Avenger. He really lives among the general population and isn’t a celebrity like many of his contemporaries.
Following the incredible start in issue #1, some of the other early issues that Aja did not draw were kind of odd. I didn’t really like “The Tape” as an arc, but after that, the run really found itself. I think that maybe the who concept for Clint and Kate’s partnership was still forming, so some of the earlier adventures weren’t quite as strong as the later ones. Once it found its stride around issue #7, the arc really took off. Aja’s art is just beautiful, and Fraction’s The alternating issues between Barton in NYC with Aja’s wonderful art, and Bishop in LA with Wu’s art showing another clever style really made this whole run seem like a beautifully crafted story experience.
The rest of the arc is honestly incredible. It is somehow the perfect blend of comedic shenanigans and genuine adventure for two lovable but down-on-their-luck superheroes. Both Clint and Kate are continually tested and seem out of their depth but their persistence and grit, not to mention teamwork get them through. Another reason to love this series is the number of truly innovative styles and concepts that are explored through creative storytelling. Oh, and did I mention that this arc won two different Eisner Awards in 2014? Best single issue and best covers. Both of them are definitely deserved. Just look at those covers! Though all of the issues are great, there are a few that stick out particularly as feats of creative genius:
Issue #11: This is one of the best single issues I’ve ever read. I know that I am not alone in this opinion since this issue, titled, “Pizza is my Business,” won a 2014 Eisner Award for best single issue/one-shot. The story is told entirely from Lucky (the Pizza Dog)’s perspective. Each character is shown with an accompanying series of smells and their dialogue shows only the few words that the dog understands. It is truly amazing how well Fraction and Aja capture the life and thoughts of a dog.
Issue #17: This issue is actually just a silly dream sequence where Hawkeye falls asleep watching a children’s Holiday special. The artistic style and story end up being a fun blend of the children’s cartoon along with and the story blends the style of children’s cartoon with some of the recent events in Hawkeye’s life, making for a fun and inventive story.
Issue #19: Most of this story is told in sign language. I don’t want to give much away, but this seems like a truly groundbreaking comic achievement. For those that don’t know American Sign Language, I recommend a translation for the issue. It’s very powerful and shows some impressive character development.
All the way through to the final issue (#22) this series kept its tone. This is one of the best comic runs out there. Easily enjoyable for die-hard Marvel fans or even newer readers. It’s largely free of the continuity eventapalooza that often limits story arcs, giving this wonderful creative team the leverage it needed to make something truly amazing. Please, just go read this comic. You won’t regret it.
Delightfully crazy, Moon Knight provides readers with a very different kind of hero. He’s not quite an antihero, at least not along the lines of the Punisher or Wolverine, but Moon Knight’s approach is certainly unorthodox. A good example is that he is the only hero I know of that has a snow-white costume, which he claims is because he “likes when they can see me coming.” He seems to thrive on violence in a way that most heroes don’t, he perseveres through some grisly personal injuries like a man possessed. Though he has been called an “ersatz Batman” because his cape, cowl, and gadgetry is reminiscent of the Caped Crusader, but I think that sells him short. Though the costume, high-tech gadgets and midnight vigilantism do strike familiar chords, the motivation for the man behind the mask is extremely different. Where Bruce Wayne is looking to avenge his parents’ death through utterly destroying the criminal underworld, what we find behind the Moon Knight mask is a hodgepodge of personalities struggling between adventure-seeking, blood-lust, and a genuine desire to seek justice. The questionable motivation, inconsistent personality, and periodic lack of restraint all supports the development of a very different kind of hero. This psychological element is far more essential to Moon Knight’s character than his crime-fighting style or whatever powers he may or may not possess. He is unique because Moon Knight is full-on, basket of cats level crazy.
Warren Ellis/ Declan Shalvey #1-6: Ellis’ work on Moon Knight is really great! He provided a creative spin on the question of whether or not MK’s actually crazy, setting up an early scene with a psychiatrist stating MK did not have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) but rather had brain damage following his possession by the spirit of Khonshu and that this godly presence was too much for any one personality to handle. This made this multiple personalities into a coping mechanism for the embodiment and interpretation of the unearthly possession but his struggle to grasp reality is the result of damage to his brain rather than an innate disorder. It is definitely a cool twist on the classic tale of psychosis. However, shortly thereafter, the whole conversation was thrown into doubt, with the weirdly disfigured faces and imagery suggesting that it may have only been another hallucination from the addled Moon Knight, himself…
Ellis also had the brilliance to introduce “Mr. Knight” a new, more sociable and public-facing persona of MK’s that works with the police as a quasi-detective. Mr. Knight gave MK a means of operating in the real world and presenting someone with some positive PR. I also really liked the artistic style that Shalvey used to depict Moon Knight, making him fully black and white, while keeping the full color palate for his surroundings. All of MK’s accessories (his car, moon blade things, his copter, etc.) are perfectly white, making the blood and dirt that accumulates during his fights much more visible. I also really liked Shalvey’s use of artistic style in framing stories, which is most prominent in issue #2, where the first half of the book shows 8 disparate characters all gradually being assassinated, one page at a time, and leaving more and more of each page blank. I appreciated the cleverness of how the art and storytelling blended together. This short arc was masterfully done, making each issue a relatively minor tale, but gradually building a strong sense of the title character, as well as his multiple personalities and the whole Khonshu question. Great take on the character, an instant classic. Rating 8 of 10.
Brian Wood/ Greg Smallwood #7-12: Wood and Smallwood presented a genuinely admirable follow-up to Ellis and Shalvey’s opening act. Smallwood’s art is amazing — I really think he’s a rising star at Marvel. This six-issue set makes an adept transition from Ellis’ exposee on MK into a self-contained arc. But the transition is somewhat gradual, as it seems to continue along Ellis’ pattern until a couple issues in when you realize Wood is building to a larger story. This slow arc-building effect is very reminiscent of Stan Lee’s early work on Amazing Spider-Man back in the late 1960s when multi-issue arcs first started. But the issues and tone, as well as the wonderful art are all perfectly modern. I particularly liked issue #8, where the story was told through security cam footage, with dialogue boxes on the outside of the frame. Stylistically and thematically, it was a wonderful continuation of what Ellis and Shalvey started. The whole first 12 issues of this run are probably the best Moon Knight stories I’ve read. Neck and neck with the first two arcs of Charles Houston’s 2006 run on the character. It may not be the best entry point to the character, but it certainly is great reading for Moon Knight and comic fans alike. Rating 8 of 10.
Cullen Bunn/ Ron Ackins #13-17: Ehh definitely not as good as either earlier arc. I didn’t like Bunn’s decision to suddenly make MK much more violent and deal with ghosts and the like. He also called him a priest of Khonshu? It seemed like a pretty big departure from the stuff right before it. Also, Ackins’ art was fine, but it just didn’t hold up to either Smallwood or Shalvey’s work ahead of him. This is a sub-par entry into the Moon Knight canon, and honestly I would prefer to pretend it didn’t happen. The arc doesn’t have any resolution either. Just bam! end. I’d imagine that is reflective of a relatively abrupt cancellation. Likely due to similar sentiments from other readers. Rating: 4 of 10
Side-note: Moon Knight would make an excellent choice for the inevitable next round of Netflix/Marvel shows. I would love to see them try him out. Fingers crossed!
In 2000, Garth Ennis took his first turn on the Punisher for a 12-issue miniseries. This arc, Welcome back, Frank, serves to bring the Punisher back into popularity after the previous decade of ’90s excess saw him turn into an Archangel of Vengeance, a pretty far departure from his harsh vigilante roots. This series returned Frank to the streets, where his brutal violence and gritty demeanor fit like a glove. The unforgiving relentlessness of his vigilante cause is made apparent from the very beginning. Though I am not really a big fan of the character, I can appreciate his significance in the Marvel Universe and Ennis’ special treatment of Frank Castle.
By far the best moment in the whole series occurred in Issue #3, with the rooftop scene between Frank and Daredevil. The dialogue and contrasting views on vigilantism served to really highlight the difference between the Punisher and other heroes. The source material here was wonderful and an easy choice for the TV adaptation in Season 2: Ep 2 of Marvel’s Daredevil.
There were two things I did definitely notice in a positive way in this series. First, Frank almost never spoke out loud. That seemed like a good choice for such an experienced and ruthless fighter. The talkative ones are Spider-Man, Hawkeye, and other fun-loving nonlethal characters, so keeping the Punisher silent during fights only adds to the perception of his stoic seriousness. Second, Frank talked pretty extensively about tactics and the specifics of the weaponry he used. This seemed like a key trait for a highly-trained, militant vigilante like Castle, since he surely knows his way around an arsenal and is likely to pick the perfect weapon for the job. I feel like some of the influences for Bernthal’s characterization of Castle in Marvel’s Daredevil show on Netflix came from this depiction by Ellis. Ellis certainly seems to have a good grasp on the character, I just never really got into the plot.
But beyond that, I wasn’t really in love with this run. The art was okay, pretty much standard comic book fare. I would say that didn’t add too much or detract from the story either way. The first two issues, and the entirety of the second arc was just an unrelenting rash of violence. The characterization of Frank Castle was solid, but the plot development seemed pretty flat. Yes, he made his way through a prominent New York City gang, but it just didn’t feel personal or all that important. Also, I never really liked the copycat characters. This brutal violence is not really my style and I tend to prefer the Punisher as a cameo supporting cast member to a solo act.
Overall, Ennis did a solid job bringing Frank Castle back into the fore, and I’m sure his diehard fans will number this among the best runs on the character. But to me, it’s a slightly above average character story with a completely average plot. Issue #3 is worth the read, though. Rating: 5 of 10.
Though now popular from the Marvel/Netflix show: Marvel’s Jessica Jones, this Max title by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in 2001 came out of nowhere. Jessica Jones had never appeared in any comics before, but even by the first page of the first issue of Alias, she had made her mark. The brutally honest, crass, tough girl that smoked, drank, and swore her way through every adventure made a quick and lasting impression on the Marvel community. Her success in this solo line eventually brought her into main continuity with follow-up arcs in The Pulse and eventually New Avengers, as well as the incredible Netflix show, years later.
This 28-issue run collected an interesting array of arcs, covering various cases that Jessica had been hired to solve. One cool and creative thing about these stories was how Bendis wove them in and out of the larger continuity of Marvel, but without requiring Alias readers to be hugely avid readers of concurrent titles. Jessica is very much at the fringes of the larger Marvel superhero community, but she is still a part of it in her own way. Her cases involve everything from accidentally discovering Captain America’s secret identity, helping a strung out guy claiming to be Rick Jones, finding a runaway in a small town who claimed to be a mutant, rescuing the newest and youngest Spider-Woman, and eventually confronting her deepest and darkest fear, the psychotic super-villain, Purple Man. These arcs ranged from psychological thrillers to crime dramas to even off-beat comedies, but they all felt really genuinely Jessica Jones.
There were two single issues in this run that perfectly encapsulated the beauty of what Bendis and Gaydos accomplished here. In #10, JJ Jameson hired Jessica to track down Spider-Man’s identity. After JJ insulted her and acted like his typical self, we see him reviewing expense receipts she submitted, where she scammed him by doing charity work instead of working the case. The art was great and the whole thing was really funny. In #15, Jessica had two really honest and frank discussions with other superheroes about relationships and how difficult life can be as a powered person. The second one in particular, while on a date with Scott Lang (Ant-Man II) was a great dialogue showing a different side to superhero dating.
The most iconic arc, though, was the final one. It featured the Purple Man and his horribly messed up treatment of Jessica. It also presented the first real explanation of Jessica’s origin in issue #22. This arc is definitely the primary influence for the plot of the Netflix show, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, in its first season. They definitely pulled from the whole series for tone and emotional arcs, but the Purple Man plot is entirely self-contained in the final 6 issues of Bendis and Gaydos’ run.
Overall, this series is the most honest superhero comic series I have ever read. Bendis and Gaydos brilliantly show the underside of being a superhero in the Marvel universe, the self-doubt and emotional struggles that accompany life as a powered individual. Jessica isn’t a great person, so she doesn’t rise to the challenge and become a hero flawlessly like so many Marvel characters do. But she’s also not a bad person, so she never does anything evil or that takes advantage of non-powered people. She’s somewhere in the middle, like the rest of us. She wants to be good, but it’s hard to be brave and selfless all the time. Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to doing the right thing, the hard thing, is ourselves. That is what Jessica Jones knows and it makes for such a unique and groundbreaking story that it is no surprise Marvel chose this for the Marvel/Netflix team-up. She also confronts some very real, disturbing, and gritty problems like abuse, drugs, alcoholism, and the most graphic sexual encounters I’ve ever seen from Marvel. What is most impressive about Alias is that these topics aren’t just added for shock value. They are built into a real story that genuinely cares about character development and depicting believable reactions to these unbelievable circumstances.
Somewhat along the vein of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Alias is a natural comparison to that seminal work from the mid-1980s. They both seek to break down some of the overly romanticized tropes in superhero comics, and show its readers what kind of flawed individuals can be found behind them. The big difference here is that Alias provides some hope and human decency to ground the story in a truly likable character, even despite her very apparent flaws. Watchmen, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of the genre so complete that its characters flail helplessly against the unrelenting onslaught of reality. Their power is powerless against this pessimistic world view, and most characters are so flawed that they are unlikable. Somehow, despite her many mistakes, her combative personality, and multiple acts of selfishness over the course of the series, Jessica Jones rises beyond her flaws and becomes an instant favorite.
Alias is an incredible read for a mature comic fan, though it is not for the faint of heart. I highly recommend it to adult fans of the superhero genre. It is definitely one of the better comic runs I have ever read. An instant classic.
One of the early Marvel mega-crossover events, the Age of Apocalypse quickly became a fan favorite when it launched back in 1995. Following fast on the heels of the Legion Quest story line, some of Marvel’s top creative honchos at the time (Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Joe Madureira, and many more) teamed up to create an alternate timeline “What If?” plot that functionally took over all of the X-titles for four months in 1995. Wildly popular and highly creative at the time, the Age of Apocalypse set the bar for alternative universal creations in the Marvel universe, its influence on later events like House of M and Age of Ultron can clearly be seen. It is quite possibly the high-water mark of the 1990s comic bubble, whose fallout nearly crippled Marvel around the turn of the 21st Century. Just look at how many concurrent X-titles there were back in 1995 when Age of Apocalypse started, it’s pretty impressive.
Admittedly, my drive to read this event was inspired largely by the upcoming movie later this month that is set to feature Apocalypse heavily. However, Fox’s X-Men: Apocalypse seems to end its relationship with this series after its name. Unlikely the comic, the movie does not portend an alternate reality interpretation of the X-Men under global dominion of the evil Darwinist, Apocalypse. It seems to draw more from earlier appearances of Apocalypse in early X-Factor and X-Men titles, which introduce his aggressive “Survival of the Fittest” doctrine and his penchant for four horsemen to usher in a biblical Armageddon. These elements still hold in the Age of Apocalypse event, of course, but they are more the tenets of an oppressive regime already in place than the driving forces of an aspiring world conqueror, as the movie suggests.
Overview and primary review:
As I mentioned above, Apocalypse is an interesting character, since he is, first and foremost, an ideologue. This means that his principles, however skewed and evil, are still part of a larger ideological doctrine. He believes in the tenets he espouses and values more than simply power. The ideological nature of Apocalypse’s aspirations makes his ascension to power seem more possible, drawing on historical examples (e.g. Nazism) and common dystopian literary tropes (think 1984) to build his evil empire. It also helps to explain why some key “heroes” from the standard timeline had been corrupted into agents of Apocalypse in this story. Apocalypse’s reach was unrivaled, and he was able to use certain characters’ vulnerabilities to draw them onto the wrong side.
Over the course of the event, most prominent mutants from the primary Marvel continuity timeline were accounted for, though this event did also take the opportunity to create some new characters as well as drastically reinventing many of the existing ones. The creators tended to have a rather pessimistic view of the world in mind here, electing to harden most of their characters, even the heroes, to a morally ambiguous and overly violent state, seemingly to reflect the harsh realities these alternate universe counterparts would have grown up under. Notably, the X-Men show a surprising willingness to kill throughout the event (even the younger” X-Men-in-training” characters from the Generation Next title). Hope is rare, and violence is common, but the tone does still retain a bit of humor and wit when it can (largely thanks to a few notable characters like Iceman and Morph).
The resulting 40ish issue event was the most expansive “What If” storyline Marvel had ever released at the time, and has really only been surpassed by the Ultimate Universe since. It is a pretty impressive creative feat, and a pretty bold risk to take at the time, especially considering how vastly popular the X-titles were in the ’90s. I also applaud the creators’ willingness to take risks within their own stories, making some fan favorites evil or morally ambiguous, killing off key characters, or relegating others to largely insignificant roles. Though, you can also see that some of the most popular characters at the time (i.e. Gambit, Rogue) received disproportionately important roles to what they would have today. But, overall, I thought the event did a pretty impressive job of rounding out the world and exploring individuals’ justifications for acquiescing, resisting, or avoiding the harsh realities of Apocalypse’s rule. They also did a good job of showing varied progressions of characters as they struggled to find their final allegiances throughout the arcs of the story.
I did largely enjoy the Age of Apocalypse event for the creativity and scale I mentioned above. However, there were two primary critiques I have of the event as a whole before I delve into each series’ specifics. First, the artistic style of the nineties is just awful. Resorting back to the color palates of the sixties, characters’ costumes were bright and vibrant, but their bodies were so inhumanly disproportionate, that they ushered in the now-infamous critique of comic book physiques: the impossibly gargantuan musculature on men, whose muscles had muscles, contrasted by the Barbie-like, twig-waisted women. I am really not a fan of this art and often found it distracting during what was a pretty good story overall. If this story arc had been written and drawn in 2004 instead of 1995 by Alex Maleev, David Aja, or Michael Lark, this would be drastically better. But alas, the art will have to be tolerated in order to get to the meat of the story.
My second complaint is that the story was not particularly linear, making it hard to follow precisely. The staggered release of inter-related stories over the course of four months likely complicated matters, as certain elements may have depended more upon the release schedule of various issues rather than how a plot development best fit into the story. The launch and closure of the event in Alpha and Omega, respectively served well to bookend the event, but I would have preferred a more linear “core” storyline, with the rest of the issues serving as tie-ins, like more modern Marvel events do: i.e. Civil War, Secret Invasion, etc. The unfortunate result of this somewhat disorganized structure was that the key plot developments were easily lost in the chaff of tie-in issues whose primary purpose was world-building. Nevertheless, it is possible to keep the story somewhat organized, and I recommend the very same reading order I used on my first read through, from the reliable and well-maintained ComicBookHerald. I have yet to try reading the story one miniseries at a time, but that seems like it could work, especially for those looking to reread the event.
Overall Event Rating: 7 of 1o
Alpha and Omega: These two issues provide the bookends of the Age of Apocalypse event. Both are strong and accomplish a lot by means of set up and conclusion, as the intervening bulk of the story is told across the remaining 9 titles. That does leave a lot of set up and clean up for these two, and they managed to accomplish the feat fairly well. From the outset in Alpha, the creators threw readers into the middle of the X-Men’s struggle against Apocalypse, deciding against laying out all of the background first. I think this was a great idea and it sent the message that the “how” of Apocalypse’s rise wasn’t as important as the struggle to end it was. The rise of Apocalypse and his evil regime was later fleshed out a bit more in subsequent Tales from the Age of Apocalypse and X-Chronicles titles, but these are not directly essential reading, and act more as supplements than core issues to the event. An odd thing about this event is how important the bookends are, but the intervening stories are a bit mixed. They do an important job of fleshing out the world under Apocalypse, but the action sequences are only tangentially related to the primary story arc. Most of them feed only a few details into the resolution of the final Omega issue.
At risk of spoiling the ending, I don’t want to talk too much about the Omega issue, but by the time it came around, the various pieces had started to fall into place across the other issues, and the finale did a pretty good job of wrapping it up. Though the ending is fairly abrupt, I can only imagine the fallout continued into the subsequent titles in early 1996, when normal continuity was restored. By Omega, the key pieces of Magneto’s plot and Apocalypse’s counter-efforts have all come to a head and the final battles and drama match the tone of the event, providing an appropriate end to this impressive excursion.
Rating: 8 of 1o
Amazing X-Men: The two titles with “X-Men” in their name were, unsurprisingly, the two primary storylines that drove the event. The two titles each had roughly half of the X-Men team introduced in Alpha. The Amazing title followed Quicksilver’s team (Storm, Banshee, Dazzler, Exodus, and Iceman) as they sought to protect a group of humans who were to be airlifted from Apocalypse’s territory to the (relative) safety of Europe. Though I don’t like the nineties artistic style of muscles with muscles, I have to say that the visual re-imaginings of a lot of these characters were pretty cool: the costumes for Storm, Banshee, and Dazzler in particular. The whole world was portrayed in a much harsher light, and the moral ambiguity of being a hero and an underdog in a vicious and cut-throat world was well-articulated. This tie-in, written by Fabian Nicieza and penciled by Andy Kubert is one of the stronger arcs, and does a good job of characterizing each member of the team, even if the romantic tension between Quicksilver and Storm is a little forced. Rating: 7 of 10
Astonishing X-Men: Much like Amazing, this title features half of the active X-Men roster on a mission to prevent massive human casualties in the war-torn land of Apocalypse. Rogue is the main character, who leads her team (Sabretooth, Wildchild, Blink, Morph, and Sunfire) to the American Midwest to prevent a culling of non-mutants by one of Apocalypse’s horsemen. The characterization of Rogue in the AoA event is much different from her mainstream counterpart, and her role is largely defined as being Magneto’s wife, a role that seems an odd fit, especially in the ’90s when hers and Gambit’s relationship had been such a focal point. Written by Scott Lobdell and penciled by a young Joe Madureira, Astonishing showed a much more empathetic side to Sabretooth, who had largely filled the role Wolverine does in regular continuity: a coarse, but lovable mentor-figure. Though I was only shmeh on the story’s mission, this arc does give a good sense of the level of depravity Apocalypse’s rule has come to and the willingness his underlings have to slaughter humans. Add in the interesting reimagining of Sunfire, and the comedic value of Morph, it makes for a solid entry into the AoA event. Rating: 7 of 10
Factor X: This arc was somewhat hit and miss. I didn’t really like how evil and blood-thirsty writer John Francis Moore and penciler Steve Epting (before his awesome work on Captain America) made Havok. Havok is one of my favorite X-Men, and it was a bit of a bummer to see him as such a tool. I understand that the AoA event tried to show how different circumstances could have swung certain characters in different ways, and some of these (Cyclops, Angel, Cannonball, and even Beast) worked pretty well, but I didn’t like the stark contrast for Havok. Otherwise, this arc gives crucial insight into how Apocalypse’s regime functions from the top-down, highlighting the work of his Horsemen and the high-ranking Prelates that do his bidding. The exploration of Angel’s hovel in Manhattan also made for an interesting vestige of “non-aligned” characters. The grunge Cyclops and hokey Jean Grey stories were odd, and I don’t think this is one of the better-written entries. However, plot-wise, Factor X is very creative and gives crucial insights into Apocalypse’s reign and seeing the prison pits and Sinister’s plot from Cyclops’ (one-eyed) perspective was crucial to the progression of the overall AoA event. Rating: 6 of 10
Gambit and X-Ternals: I don’t know what series this one filled in for during the AoA event, but it seemed like an odd team grouping from the start. Gambit’s team, including Strong Guy, Jubilee, Sunspot, and Lila Cheney, was an odd mix and an even more bizarre choice for Magneto to send off into space. This group was charged with the most important element of Magneto’s plan to fix continuity: the M’kraan Crystal. Relying upon an underdeveloped Lila Cheney, who “didn’t know” she was a mutant to teleport across the galaxy and steal a shard of the M’kraan from the Shi’ar, who view it as a religious symbol. A tough enough task as is, but why does Magneto entrust it to Gambit and his band of vagabonds? I think it’s just because Gambit was a big fan favorite in 1995, so Fabian Nicieza wrote in an important story for him. The first half of this arc, penciled by Tony Daniel, was clunky and definitely not one of my favorites. However, the second half of the arc, which took place in the Morlock tunnels and developments in Strong Guy’s character actually finished up pretty well, which helps to bump its rating above a 5. Rating: 6 of 10
Generation Next: Written by Scott Lobdell and penciled by Chris Bachalco, the Generation Next arc did some clever things over the course of its four-issue run. First, making Colossus and Kitty Pryde into brutally violent and unsympathetic characters is both upsetting and a good creative risk. These two have always been the innocent and hopeful members of the team, with Colossus’ intimidating size and strength juxtaposed against his inner softness. However, this young team of X-Men-in-training provides Colossus and Kitty with a dynamic cast of mutants to boss around. The team, comprised of Chamber, Husk, Mondo, Skin, and Vincente, was sent into a prison compound to rescure Illyana Rasputin, aka Magik. I have never really liked Magik, and I didn’t really understand her importance, even at the end of Omega. Though her character was oddly young, her existence served an important purpose in the portrayal of Colossus’ character development. The art was kind of odd, but it worked well for this borderline-espionage story arc. The first issue depicting the team’s training also wasn’t that great, but it really picked up after that. Though I doubt the strategic importance of this mission, the perils, resolution, and fallout of this arc were really well-developed and a genuine surprise. Rating: 8 of 10
Weapon X: A middling arc that focused much more on the nature of Jean and Logan’s “What if” relationship than on the state of the world during AoA. Written by Larry Hama and penciled by Adam Kubert, this arc tells the story of Logan (only called “Weapon X” and not “Wolverine” in the AoA timeline) pining after Jean and doing some weird side quest with the Human Resistance. The most important thing that happens is Jean’s eventual transition from this title to the Factor X story, where she is much more useful. It’s almost skip-able, and seemed like it was just an excuse to include Wolverine in this event somehow, even if he wasn’t a great fit. Rating: 5 of 10
X-Calibre: One of the weaker tie-in titles, unfortunately, since it prominently featured one of my personal favorites: Nightcrawler. But this arc seemed to have the least amount happen over the course of four issues, as it pretty much just saw Nightcrawler go the the Savage Land (renamed Avalon in AoA) in search of Destiny (the character, not a general proclamation). Though it featured a strong start, with Juggernaut as a pacifist monk and Warpath running an underground refugee smuggler operation, the story just didn’t feel like it progressed. The portrayal of Mystique made her out to be weirdly callous and distant, and the assemblage of the X-Calibre team felt very forced. And the cheap death of Juggernaut from an aneurysm brought on be indecision was pretty pathetic. I love in-continuity Nightcrawler, he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, and I even like this harsh and sneaky AoA version when Rick Remender incorporated him into the wonderful Uncanny X-Men title, but this arc, written by the normally solid Warren Ellis and penciled by Ken Lashley, just seemed to fall short. The whole plot could have taken place in two issues, but felt unnecessarily stretched into four. Rating: 5 of 10
X-Man: Great! One of the best tie-ins. The story of Nate Summers/Grey/Askani-something-or-other (aka Cable) is one of the best alternate origins of the entire AoA event. The idea of Sinister breaking off from Apocalypse and developing Nate as a “secret weapon” to defeat him was pretty clever, and offered a viable alternative to the X-Men: Inferno storyline that provided Cable’s origin in regular continuity. I also very much enjoyed the idea of Forge as a team leader and mentor for Nate, plus using the guise of a traveling theater troupe to stage guerrilla attacks on infrastructural targets to resist Apocalypse was absolutely ingenious. The random cast of characters including Mastermind, Sauron, and Toad also brought an interesting and refreshing ensemble to the book. I very much enjoyed this four-issue arc and thought it did a lot of characterizing in a short period of time. Written by Jeph Loeb and penciled by Jeff Skroce, this mini-series is a great read. Rating: 8 of 10
X-Universe: Seemed like an unnecessary addition to this mutant-centric event. I guess it was fun to see Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Tony Stark working with the human resistance, but this 2-issue arc didn’t seem like it was all that important to the whole story. I would probably skip it next time around. Rating: 4 of 10
Side Issues (Blink, Tales from…, etc.): None of these non-core issues are particularly essential, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. The Tales from the Age of Apocalypse and X-Chronicles titles in particular seemed to provide some fun background to the rise of the big baddie, himself, as well as providing motivation behind some key characters’ divergent developments from their primary, in-continuity selves. Notably, Magneto, Sabretooth, Wolverine, and the Summers brothers are explored in depth, with some important revelations for Quicksilver, Rogue, and Gambit, as well. I am not sure if the inclusion of these four oversized issues is enough for me to recommend the entire Dawn of… trade paperback, since most of the other content is even less essential. I didn’t really link the Blink solo series, but I guess it may be a lead in to the Exiles series, which I have not yet read. But either way, I hardly think a solo adventure for Blink in the AoA version of the Negative Zone would be considered core reading. I’d recommend skipping it entirely, since it just tells a weird story about her, Blastaar, and Annihilus. Shmeh. Collective Rating: 5 of 10