Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: A hit or miss series of about 24 issues that was book-ended by two lackluster crossover events: The Other and One More Day. Within the constraints of those events, FNSM was written at the same time JMS’ series went into its steepest decline. Peter David, normally a very talented writer who has masterminded some incredible story arcs, including Spider-Man: Death of Jean DeWolff and the newly revitalized X-Factor series that kicked off with the under-rated gem: Madrox: Multiple Choice. Unfortunately, David’s writing on this series is not up to snuff, though the art by Mike Wieringo is solid enough. The influence of the JMS title’s decline is pretty apparent early on in FNSM, as the series struggled to find its place and delivered some weak arcs that seemed to masquerade as “untold stories” of Spider-Man but ended up just being off key. After The Other, they first had the weird, single-issue arc about a delusional web-blogger had potential but fell flat. Then there were stories about a Mexican wrestler and some weird futuristic timeline with a grumpy Hobgoblin, neither of which felt very Spidey-like. It all felt a little underwhelming.
The truly unfortunate thing about this series is that it did actually have some potential. Even though the writing on the actual title character was sub-par, there were some elements of the characterization of key supporting cast members and villains that made for some entertaining reading. The handling of Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, and a couple of interesting issues surrounding the Vulture and Mysterio were worthwhile on their own. The middle issues between #11-19 were actually ok. Not amazing, but solid enough to make them moderately enjoyable. The problem was that even the series’ strengths were often overshadowed by the gloom of JMS’ core title, as the unresolved story bits from The Other ended up finding their way into this series. FNSM had to deal with the fallout of those weird wrist spikes Spider-Man developed out of nowhere and spent most of the series developing a pretty weak case that the nurse, Miss Arrow, was actually that walking ball of spiders from the end of The Other, which wasn’t even a good lead when it happened the first time.
In the end, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man series was definitely skippable and only worthwhile for those middle issues if someone is really yearning to see some traditional Spidey characters that JMS has avoided in his own series. Rating: 4 of 10
Tangled Web of Spider-Man: (2001) The Tangled Web series is concurrent with some of JMS’ earlier and stronger work on the Amazing Spider-Man title. Though, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, this series was intended to give newer, artsier creators the creative leeway for an anthology series only loosely in continuity. The idea was that the Tangled Web series would draw creators from DC’s Vertigo titles or other indie companies to dabble in a Spidey title without all of the messiness of continuity. The nature of a rotating cast of creators brought some big swings to the tone and quality of the series over time, so each mini arc has to be taken separately, as there is not really a central theme to the series beyond those.
First up, Garth Ennis, the mastermind behind a brutal revival of the famed anti-hero Punisher, took a turn on Spidey. His arc, “The Thousand” is weirdly grisly and involves a bully from Peter’s past becoming a disgusting host of spiders. It’s not a great arc and I didn’t like the concept or the art, as it’s highly cartoony and not nice to look at (art by John McCrea). The second “arc” was only a one-shot by Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso, that didn’t show Spidey at all, instead focusing on the Kingpin’s code of conduct. The story was a solid entry into the series and showed an inside view of the extent of the Kingpin’s depravity, as well as the perceived honor among thieves from a doomed lieutenant’s perspective.
The third arc, #5-6, is listed on comicherald.com and many other serious comic sites as one of the better recent Spider-Man stories. Titled, “Flowers for Rhino,” the two-issue arc, written by Peter Milligan and penciled by Duncan Fegredo, is a retelling of the story “Flowers for Algernon,” but from the doltish super-villain, Rhino’s perspective. It is a well-written and enjoyable take on the story that is worth the read and should give a new appreciation for the inner thoughts of super villains.
After the Rhino arc, the series continued to change authors and pencillers, but the general tone as a Spider-Man-adjacent line that is barely within continuity remained consistent. The Tangled Web series is a fun but non-essential read for Spider-Man fans who want to see into the daily lives of super-villains, or neutral third-parties who are affected by Spidey’s adventures and shed different lights on many iconic characters involved in primary Spider-Man continuity. I recommend this series to die-hard Spider-Man fans who want to get their hands on everything Web-head-related, and for those who get sick of the inter-connectivity and barrier of entry to many in-continuity titles. Tangled Web is a refreshing change that highlights creator independence and a certain flexible creativity of storytelling. While rarely groundbreaking or iconic, these stories are consistently enjoyable and easily digestible reading. Rating: 7 of 10
Starting with Issue #30 of Volume 2, John Michael Straczynski started his definitive and critically acclaimed run on Ol’ Web-head. This run is simultaneously famous and infamous, beloved and reviled. It is definitely one of the more divisive runs on a Marvel character, which is enough of a reason for me to seek it out. Up front, I would say that the vast majority of this review will refer to specific plot points within the run, making it pretty *spoiler* heavy. If you want to avoid spoilers, I’ll say up front that you have two halves: a strong first half that may still leave you shaking your head if you’re a classic Spidey fan, and a weird, not-so-good second half that will definitely leave you shaking your head. This is an absolute must-read for completionists and die-hard Spider-Man fans, though you probably won’t like the end, unless your name is Joe Quesada…
A Strong First Half
The first 6 issues, an arc titled “Homecoming,” also won an Eisner Award in 2002 for the Best Serialized Story. The story features some brand new characters for Spidey lore and take the whole concept of Spider-Man’s origin to a new and mystical direction. The addition of Morlun, the Spider totem, Ezekiel (a Stick-like character) all happened pretty quickly. I’m not sure how I feel about the totem replacing radioactive spider bite — it’s all a bit too mystical for my liking, but I can’t argue with the execution. The character development, and the trials and tribulations Spidey endures during this adventure are quite good. JMS has a good voice for SM: snarky and smart, but still with some emotional depth. John Romita Jr (JRJR) penciled the first half of JMS’ run and it has that same blocky look as most of his other stuff. I will say that the squarish heads take some getting used to, but there’s no doubt JRJR is a top Marvel artist in the game today. He does a great job of showing emotions and his action sequences are always well drawn, but I think his unique style takes a little getting used to.
The first arc is probably the best in the whole run, but the next 26 issues (rounding out the first half of JMS’ run) was also pretty great. The real strength of JMS’ run is that he can capture Peter’s internal dialogue so well, drawing upon the history of the character, as well as deepening his relationships with Aunt May and MJ (with whom he gradually repairs the semi-estranged separated marriage situation he inherited from previous writers). JMS seemed to pay homage to the emotional notes of Spidey’s past, even as he took the plot and underlying mythos in an entirely new direction. The plot of the run saw Peter reestablish himself in a school setting, this time as a teacher. It is a great fit and also helps to explain some of his more complicated scheduling issues living a double life. Being a mentor for other bullied science nerds and giving him an outlet for his scientific genius was a good fit. It blends the compassionate sense of duty and his need for some intellectual engagement very well and JMS writes the school scenes perfectly. As the run goes on, JMS spends less and less time in the classroom, which I think is a definite mistake. Some of the best moments in this whole run involve Peter looking after his students and using tips he overhears at school to right wrongs in the community. Making Spider-Man a local hero is an important part of the mythos and really helps to differentiate him from the Avengers and FF, who spend much more time on the larger, existential threats.
The pinnacle of JMS’ reverence of Spider-Man as a local hero came in issue #36, the 9/11 special issue. It is an honest reaction to the horror and pain of one of the worst events in the American history and an incredible tribute from the eyes of the best-known NY-based superhero. From the solid black cover to the horrifying splash pages and obvious pain felt by Spider-Man and the other heroes, JMS deftly managed a balance between pain, perseverance, and hope. The importance of seeking justice, staying strong, and not vilifying an entire culture were important tenets of JMS’ heartfelt, well-written, and genuinely good take on the tragedy of 9/11. It is definitely a must read and is the high watermark of the entire run.
The plot points through #502 are pretty good, though they do focus primarily around JMS’ new revelation of the mystical Spider Totem and some enemies that have similar back stories (i.e. Spider-Wasp and more Ezekiel backstory). There are a couple of spoilers (kind of) during the run involving Peter’s home life: he and MJ get back together, and May figures out he is Spider-Man. The former is well done, built up across multiple arcs, including a fun and kind of silly plot in Los Angeles, where MJ is in a film called “Lobster Man” with some cheeky allusions to Spider-Man’s real life. The latter is fairly abrupt, but the issue that deals with it is very well done and involves some great dialogue between the two. The revelation leads to an even deeper connection with May that also involves her coming to terms with such a complicated reveal gradually through issue #502.
The end of the first half started to decline slightly, plot-wise with the weird “Digger” arc and some metaphysical focus in Dormammu’s time-traveling spiritual takeover of New York around issue #500. Despite some iffy plot decisions, this portion of the story is still well-worth reading for Spidey fans since JMS continues to grasp the essential voice of his characters. Such good characterization is pretty rare in comics, and as such, it is easily worth enduring some less than stellar plot lines to get them. All in all, the first half of JMS’ run (with JRJR’s wonderful art, of course) is highly enjoyable with an interesting mix of the very new concepts and the classic Spider-Man feel that earned him praise at the time and endures today as a solidly above-average run on Spider-Man. First Half Rating: 8 of 10
A Second-Half Decline
My definitive line here between the first (read: good) half and the second (bad) half is somewhat subjective. The last two arcs of the above section weren’t great, but they weren’t bad either. The same is true of these first two arcs of this half. I ended up settling on issue #503 as the start of the decline because it reinforces the trade paperback breakout of this run. This decline opens with the first issue of the Amazing Spider-Man by JMS: Ultimate Collection, Volume 3. The metaphysical and nontraditional Spider-Man stories didn’t slow down as I had hoped they would, but instead sped up starting with #503. A two-issue arc starring Loki was bizarre and did not feel like Spider-man at all. A Loki/Spidey team-up is up there for weirdest comic duo I’ve ever seen. Then, a middling arc titled, “The Book of Ezekiel” sought to wrap up the loose end of JMS’ first arc, where Ezekiel had learned Peter’s secret identity. The arc is decent, but not spectacular, and has weird implications about the Spider Totem’s nature being potentially evil, which I don’t think makes sense for a Spider-Man origin. However, the story is most notable as JRJR’s final arc on the series.
Next, JMS starts to go downhill fast. In the “Sins Past” arc, JMS is joined by Mike Deodato on pencils, whose spindly Spider-Man and high-definition muscles makes for an abrupt transition from JRJR’s wonderfully blocky, shaded lines. Deodato does a decent job, I just don’t like his style as much as JRJR or other more classic looks. Plot-wise, JMS committed a huge party foul here, messing with one of the untouchable characters from Peter’s past: Gwen Stacy. This isn’t the same as Conway’s “Clone Saga” where the Jackal tormented Peter with a fake clone of Gwen – no, here, JMS has decided to change Gwen’s entire legacy through some story tweaking or retconning* that makes Gwen look bad. I don’t want to give it away, since the plot is SO RIDICULOUS you just may want to read it, but suffice to say I wasn’t Goblin’ it up…
After that, it goes even more downhill. Once Spidey joined Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers following the Scarlet Witch shenanigans in Avengers Disassembled (New Avengers is pretty great by the way), JMS used a weird flashback arc with even more retconning! The story involves some previously unknown science nerd from Peter’s past to synthesize some drama, blow up his apartment, and force Peter, MJ, and May to move in with the Avengers in Stark Tower. The following arcs all but gave up on every Spider-Man plot-line JMS had started, basically making the Spider-Man title into New Avengers-lite with a couple of arcs that were only barely focused on Spidey. After his integration into the New Avengers, Spider-Man went through the incredibly unnecessary and over-hyped Spidey crossover titled, “The Other: Evolve or Die.” The oddly corny title fit this bizarre mystical explosion that crossed over with the end of the pretty solid Marvel Knights: Spider-Man title and coincided with the launch of two additional lackluster Spidey titles, The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man. In “The Other,” Morlun, the mysterious mystical predator of JMS’s opening arc, is somehow back to munch on some Spider Totem soul, which would undoubtedly be fatal to our web-spinning hero. However, the odd sickness Peter had been developing, combined with an epic beat-down from Morlun cause a spidery death-ish scenario with a “once in a lifetime” molting opportunity, allowing Peter to cash in on one extra life. It’s super goofy and not very compelling or well-developed, but the worst part is the weird wrist spikes and the otherworldly “Man vs. Spider” conversation Peter has with a grumpy Shelob-esque monstrosity. It was definitely a letdown after the opening of the Morlun story was so well done.
Then there’s the Civil War set up, where JMS attempts (and kind of fails) to establish Spider-Man’s motivations for abandoning one of his most ardently held beliefs, the importance of anonymity and a guarded secret identity. *Spoiler Warning for Civil War and some Spidey reveals here* (Note: here’s my review of theCivil War event). When reading the Civil War event as a stand-alone comic, the unmasking of Spider-Man works as a powerful symbol and provides some serious shock value, but in the context of the Spider-Man solo title, it’s an absolute butchering of his character. It makes no sense that Peter would give up everything just because his new buddy, Iron Man, wants him to. The father/son relationship JMS sought to cultivate between Tony and Peter was kind of cheap and sold Peter short, making him that emotionally fragile that any kind of positive reinforcement from a male role model should cause him to change so much.
The sad truth is that the longer this run went, the worse it got. The strongest arcs were in the first 20-ish issues, but each progressive arc after issue #500 seemed worse than the one before. Though I didn’t really love the concept of the Spider Totem JMS established at the beginning, it was hard to argue with the compelling characterization of Morlun and Ezekiel and the exciting feeling of Spidey getting a new direction after 40 years of comics. I was willing to accept the premise, despite my own misgivings, because some strong writing, beautiful John Romita, Jr. art, and the brilliant move of sending Peter back to a school as a teacher, all made for something genuinely intriguing. If only JMS had been willing to keep the mysticism on a leash and not send him down a spiral of retconning and magical mumbo jumbo, I think the series could have had a strong finish. Later issues showed Peter less at the school and more in temples and Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. I understood the desire to show a new side to Spider-Man, but it appeared that there was some contempt for the old ways, as JMS never had him fight any of his old enemies. Doc Ock was the only classic baddie to appear in the course of JMS’ run, and one of only two, along with Norman Osborn, to be mentioned at all. In a run of over 70 issues, this must have been intentional, in which case it most certainly was a mistake.
The unfortunate result is that the second half of this run is much, much worse than the start, so while I would have given a pretty solid grade to issues #30-58 & 500, I feel compelled to punish JMS for his abysmal choices in the latter parts. I know, I know, most ardent JMS supporters will shift the blame to Joe Quesada, the editor in chief at the time, who was quoted as wanting to return Spidey to his past glory. The misguided assumption was that in order for Spider-Man to be true to his roots, he and MJ had to be “unmarried” and having girl problems was apparently deemed an “essential” aspect of Peter Parker’s life. Well, regardless of who is to blame, the results speak for themselves: and they speak poorly. The end of this run is bad, though essential for continuity buffs because of the far-reaching consequences of this foolish “One More Day” storyline. Second Half Rating: 3 of 10
Overall JMS Arc Rating: 6 of 10
* For those unfamiliar with the term, “retcon” refers to retroactive continuity, or the editing of previously established canon. A practice that is unfortunately common in comic books, but rarely effective (Brubaker’s Bucky as Winter Soldier notwithstanding). Retcons are widely reviled in the comic fan community, as it shows a lack of respect for the same canon we hold dear.
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.