Comic Review: ‘Secret Empire’ #1

Hail Hydra-Cap?

Written by:  Nick Spencer / pencilled by:  Steve McNiven

What’s it about?

Hydra has taken control with Steve Rogers as its leader…can the remnants of the superhero community prevail and restore hope before all is lost?

In review

Building on the prelude chapters in Secret Empire #0 and the Free Comic Book Day issue (and spilling out of the pages of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers series), Secret Empire #1 thrusts readers into the midst of Marvel’s latest comics event.  You’d be forgiven for finding the word “event” wearying, especially with the disappointment of Civil War II still lingering in the thoughts of many, but with this opening salvo and the shocking revelations of issue #0 it seems that writer Nick Spencer is stirring up a rich brew that will truly shake up the Marvel Universe.

As even the most casual comics reader will by now be aware, Secret Empire is the culmination of Hydra’s plans to seize control of the United States – and the free world beyond – with Steve Rogers’ Captain America as their leader.  The reveal of Rogers’ Hydra allegiance (thanks to some reality altering meddling via a sentient cosmic cube named Kobik – see the Avengers: Standoff crossover) way back in the premiere issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers caused significant controversy, with heavy ripples of discontent still reverberating throughout fan circles.  To see Marvel’s greatest patriot become a symbol of evil is understandably distressing and although Spencer has not been restrained in this regard, he has managed to construct a compelling arc that any true fan of comics should approach with an open mind.

With Secret Empire #1, Spencer keeps the controversy flowing as we skip ahead some months after issue #0 with citizens of the U.S. under the rule of Hydra and kept in check by Steve Rogers and his forces.  With the bulk of the superhero community either stranded in space battling endless hordes of Chituari or trapped beneath a Darkhold ‘bubble’ over Manhattan, it’s left to an underground resistance lead by Black Widow and Hawkeye to plot Hydra’s downfall.  Whilst new readers will likely be lost (luckily Marvel have just published catch-up collection The Road to Secret Empire), having the story told mainly via the perspective of a young schoolboy named Rayshaun helps to ease us in without an overload of exposition as images of schoolchildren raising a ‘Hail Hydra’ immediately establish that there is an ominous shift in the Marvel U’s status quo.

What Spencer does with Steve Rogers is not to make him purely evil in a one dimensional sense, whilst he may not be the hero we’re familiar with there are layers to the characterisation as he paints a man who feels he is simply doing what is right in the circumstances of his altered history.  Despite the revelations of issue #0 as to the nature of these ‘alterations’ it’s unlikely that Marvel will facilitate a complete and permanent perversion of such a beloved and treasured character.

Secret Empire also has some definite parallels to the current political climate and tenuous international situations we see playing out in the news every day.  To Spencer’s credit it doesn’t feel totally overt or unnecessarily forced in the face of the reader but it’s there as much or as little as any individual might wish to read into it.

It might be dark and pessimistic stuff but there’s still a layer of hope and even fun as the younger, brighter Marvel heroes of the resistance, including Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Amadeus Cho’s ‘Totally Awesome’ Hulk and Riri Williams’ Ironheart take the share of the action and together with the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing provide some much needed beats of humour and optimism.

Visually, Secret Empire #1 is solid albeit the usual sharpness and detail of Steve McNiven’s pencils are a little muddied by the dark, washed-out colours by Matthew Wilson.  It’s by no means as stunning as McNiven’s work on the original Civil War or Old Man Logan but decent enough and a good fit for the overall tone of the book.  It’ll be interesting to see how much consistency can be maintained with the rotation of numerous different artists on the nine issue series.

Controversies aside, Secret Empire is making for enjoyable reading and will surely pave the way for the hope and heroism promised by Marvel’s forthcoming Legacy initiative.

The bottom line:  A strong ‘start’ to yet another Marvel Comics event but one that builds on an already solid foundation as Nick Spencer presses forward with Hydra’s domination of the Marvel Universe.

Secret Empire #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Secret Empire #1

A new has risen as Marvel Comics event ‘Secret Empire’ commences (cover art by Mark Brooks).

Comic Review: ‘Batman’ #21

DC Comics’ greatest detectives open the casebook on the mysteries of the DCU’s Rebirth…

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / pencils and inks by:  Jason Fabok

What’s it about?

“The Button” Part One : Batman enlists the Flash to aid in his investigation into the mysterious smiley button found in the wall of the Batcave…

In review

Almost a year on from DC’s relaunch initiative under the now iconic (and for the most part creatively successful) Rebirth banner, one of its most tantalising mysteries is about to be explored in “The Button”, a four part crossover playing out across Batman and The Flash.

For this opening chapter, writer Tom King takes a simple and steady approach to a slowly unfolding narrative that spends a chunk of its page count depicting a violent brawl between Batman and a returning villain long thought dead.  If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t, as Tom King masterfully eases the reader in to a story that answers little about those lingering threads from Geoff Johns’ triumphant DC Universe Rebirth #1 but manages to remain non-the-less intriguing whilst setting the stage for what’s to come.  If there’s any concern at this point it’s that four issues may not be long enough for this particular arc, given the potential ramifications it may have for the overall DCU.

As regular DC Comics readers will know, DC Universe Rebirth #1 established a startling and enigmatic connection to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal masterwork Watchmen, the discovery of a certain blood-stained yellow smiley button embedded in the Batcave wall leaving the Dark Knight Detective with the promise of the most challenging investigation he’s likely ever to face.

Tom King (whose run on Batman is only getting stronger) makes good work out of a minimal narrative, throwing in a few shocks and surprises that help hold the reader’s interest through to a feverishly good cliffhanger.  King realises that the strengths of Batman #21 lie in its visuals – so thank the stars Jason Fabok is on hand to provide the art here.  Fabok has been sorely underutilised since Geoff Johns’ pre-Rebirth run on Justice League wrapped and it’s a real treat to see his meticulous, powerful and lavish layouts on show (Howard Porter will certainly need to up his game for The Flash issues), particularly during those pages in which Batman fights for survival against his opponent, whilst the Flash speeds his way through a fight of his own (King proving he has a good handle on the Scarlet Speedster in these moments as he dashes and quips his way through the action) before racing to the Batcave and into the heart of this mystery.

To say too much specific about Batman #21 would spoil the fun but it’s rewarding to see this story have ties to not only the DC Universe Rebirth special but also to DC’s earlier continuity twisting and New 52 birthing event, Flashpoint and of course, Watchmen, which King and Fabok pay homage to with some nifty panel construction that’s pleasingly reminiscent of that classic piece of work.  Although it may seem there’s little narrative progression in Batman #21, it’s via these connections that it actually offers far more than casual readers will appreciate but still provides enough visual thrills to keep any comics fan happy.

The bottom line:  Tom King delivers an intriguing and surprising opening to “The Button”, made all the more enjoyable by the exciting visuals of the stellar Jason Fabok.

Batman #21 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Batman #21

Jason Fabok’s incredbile art adds to the excitement of DC’s ‘Batman’ #21.

Comic Review: ‘Civil War II’ #8

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / pencilled by:  David Marquez

What’s it about?

As the visions of Ulysses become more intense, Tony Stark and Carol Danvers face off with the future of the entire superhero community at stake…

In review

After numerous delays, Marvel’s blockbuster event draws to a close with the extra-sized final issue of Civil War II.  Showing great promise in its first couple of issues, Civil War II quickly slid comfortably into a by-the-numbers comic event rhythm.  That being said, the event did produce some standout moments (the vision of Miles Morales’ Spider-Man killing Steve Rogers’ Captain America on the steps of Capitol Hill being particularly vivid and unnerving) and David Marquez’s art has elevated each instalment above mediocrity, but on the whole it failed to be anywhere near as ground-breaking as Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s original Civil War.

In favour of this final issue, Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez deliver some exciting edge-of-the-seat action with Bendis maintaining the tension and drama and Marquez presenting his amazingly detailed, blockbuster visuals as the conflict between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel reaches its climax.  As with previous issues the moral debate is touched upon but never fully explored (a shame considering the strength of some of Bendis’ other work) and ultimately taking a backseat to those aforementioned blockbuster elements.

Given that the delays Civil War II has faced meant its finale following the release of several relaunched ‘Marvel Now!’ titles, the conclusion – specifically the fate of Tony Stark – is unsurprising given what we’ve seen in Infamous Iron Man and Invincible Iron Man but it non-the-less still carries some dramatic weight as the path is paved for the future of the Marvel Universe.  Perhaps that’s where the problem lies, with the need to establish the status quo of Marvel’s latest line-wide shake-up it’s left less room from Brian Bendis to really delve into the commentary of Civil War II.

In the end, taken as a whole Civil War II was an enjoyable albeit undemanding blockbuster event that is unlikely to be heralded as a classic in years to come but may still be worthy of a revisit when the dust has settled.  It’s not the greatest story Marvel has delivered in recent years but it’s also far from the weakest.

The bottom line:  Whilst Civil War II ultimately failed to live up to the potential of its premise, this final issue succeeds in delivering some great moments of action and drama with a fitting conclusion that establishes the future of the Marvel U.

Civil War II #8 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Marvel's grand event comes to a close in the final issue of Civil War II (cover art by David Marquez).

Marvel’s grand event comes to a close in the final issue of Civil War II (cover art by David Marquez).

Comic Review: ‘Infamous Iron Man’ #1

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / pencilled by:  Alex Maleev

What’s it about?

In the fallout of the recent superhero civil war, Victor Von Doom takes up the mantle of Tony Stark to become the new Iron Man…

In review

Following the conclusion of the globe-hopping International Iron Man and in the (impending) wake of Civil War II Brian Michael Bendis reteams with artist Alex Maleev to bring readers Infamous Iron Man, where the reformed Victor Von Doom decides that nature abhors a vacuum and that the world still needs an Iron Man.

Part of the Marvel Now! refresh, Infamous Iron Man continues to follow Von Doom’s path from villain to ‘hero’ set forth by the conclusion of Secret Wars (which left him with a face devoid of that grotesque scarring) and explored initially in Bendis’ first volume of Invincible Iron Man.  Von Doom has always been one of Marvel’s greatest villains and we’ve already seen that there’s plenty of potential for the former Doctor Doom to become an equally compelling hero.

Infamous Iron Man gets things off to a slow, yet interesting start – much as was the case with International Iron Man – and if you’re prepared to forgive the larger focus on exposition there’s much to enjoy here.  It seems that Bendis is merely setting the scene with Von Doom’s motivations kept relatively vague.  Bendis has helped to delicately redefine Von Doom over the last year and it’s an interesting evolution for the character, there’s still a streak of darkness and a restrained hint of ego but there’s an iron will that makes him an appealing successor to Stark.  Touching on the tragedy of Doom’s past (and facilitating the emotional crux of this opening chapter), Bendis manages to delve into the mind of the character whilst maintaining some of the enigma.  It’s certainly going to be interesting to see the layers peel away as the new Iron Man rises.

The art by Alex Maleev is nothing short of superb and neatly fits the tone of the book with dark, scratchy and moody visuals complemented perfectly by Matt Hollingsworth’s muted colour palette.  Fans of Maleev’s work on International Iron Man and Daredevil will not be disappointed.

Minor pacing issues aside, the only real drawback is not down to Infamous Iron Man itself but with the delays to the remaining issues of Civil War II.  There are significant hints as to the fate of Tony Stark but it remains to be seen if the lack of conclusion to that story will creatively hinder this title’s opening arc.  Still, there’s enough mystery and intrigue that will keep Iron Man – and Von Doom – fans reading.

The bottom line:  Despite it’s slow pace, Brian Michael Bendis infuses Infamous Iron Man with plenty of intrigue that together with great art provides enough reason to keep reading.

Infamous Iron Man #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Alex Maleev provides sublime visuals for Marvel Comics' 'Infamous Iron Man'.

Alex Maleev provides sublime visuals for Marvel Comics’ ‘Infamous Iron Man’.

Comic Review: ‘Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy’ #1

Written by:  Dan Slott / pencils by:  Jim Cheung

What’s this issue about?

With the return of the Jackal, Peter Parker soon finds that the odds are once again against him as he faces demons from the past…

In review

Spilling out of the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, Dan Slott launches the next Spider-Man event which could prove both surprising and controversial as Peter Parker is set to face ghosts from the past.  Further elaboration would result in spoilers, but needless to say there are certain elements to The Clone Conspiracy presented here that threaten to undo defining events from Spider-Man history, which will either be welcomed or derided in the months to come.

Building on the “Before Dead No More” arc in Slott’s recent ASM issues, Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy #1 opens at the funeral of Jay Jameson as Peter wrestles with the decisions he’s made and the ongoing mysteries tied to the New U corporation.  Slott sets the scene with some emotionally charged exchanges between Peter and Anna Maria, yet it proves to be a slackly paced opening as the dialogue becomes weighed down by exposition designed to make this series accessible to new readers whilst also serving as a recap for existing ones.  To an extent, it works however there’s a definite sense that those who haven’t been following this current volume of ASM and without some familiarity with previous events such as the Superior Spider-Man run and Spider-Verse (as well as overall Spider-Man history) will ultimately wind up a little lost and less invested in this particular saga than established fans.

Luckily, once the set-up is out of the way and Peter continues his investigations of New U as Spider-Man, Slott’s narrative begins to gather pace and before long thrusts the reader into some wonderfully staged action, culminating in a confrontation with Dead No More’s central villain, the Jackal and a cliffhanger that will leave readers anxiously awaiting more.  It’s in these moments that artist Jim Cheung shines with detailed, cinematic layouts that accentuate the excitement. Some wonky character facials during the early funeral scenes aside, Cheung’s art is a perfect fit for the title – especially if it proves to be pacier in subsequent instalments.

The book closes with a back-up story from Slott with art by Ron Frenz that harkens back to a key, classic Spider-Man story that plays as a fitting tribute to that particular era of comics whilst adding layers to one of The Clone Conspiracy’s biggest twists.

The bottom line:  Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy #1 is a decent, if slightly uneven start to Dan Slott’s latest Spider-Man saga that certainly shows signs of promise.

Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Cover art for Marvel's 'Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy' #1 by Gabriele Dell'Otto.

Cover art for Marvel’s ‘Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy’ #1 by Gabriele Dell’Otto.

Quick Review: ‘The Tick’ – Amazon Pilot

Starring:  Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Valorie Curry, Jackie Earle Haley

Series created by:  Ben Edlund

Written by:  Ben Edlund / Episode directed by:  Wally Pfister

What’s it about?

Accountant Arthur Everest learns that long-thought dead supervillain the Terror is back…if only there was a hero who would dare to oppose such an evildoer…

In review

Wicked Men!  Ben Edlund’s zany superhero parody returns in another new iteration for Amazon’s pilot season and while it’s a little different from what fans of The Tick will be familiar with from the 1990s cartoon and the short-lived live action series from 2001 it’s a smart reinterpretation for modern audiences.  From the outset, it’s clear that for this newest take on The Tick Edlund has taken a darker, more mature (and even, to an extent, grounded) approach that mixes the adult themes and character deconstructions of the Netflix Daredevil series with the cartoon violence and madcap antics of Kick-Ass.

Unusually for a show called The Tick, Amazon’s pilot, at least initially, focuses mainly on his (eventual) sidekick, accountant Arthur Everest who thanks to a childhood trauma, revealed neatly via a series of flashbacks, suffers from mental health issues.  When Arthur discovers that purportedly deceased supervillain ‘the Terror’ (Watchmen’s Jackie Earle Haley) may actually be alive he becomes obsessive about uncovering the truth which soon leads to him crossing paths with the titular blue hero…who may or may not be a figment of Arthur’s imagination.  As Arthur, Griffin Newman provides a likeably dark, neurotic, yet rather funny protagonist that has real problems the audience can identify – or at least get on board – with that’s in tune with the pseudo-realism Edlund is going for with hints of the ‘hero’ he is to become.

Family Guy‘s Patrick Warburton (who serves as producer on this pilot) was pretty much a note perfect lead in the 2001 series, so what of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Serafinowicz?  Well, he does a commendable job of succeeding Warburton and whilst he doesn’t quite have that hulking physicality he certainly has the voice (he was Darth Maul after all) and together with the wackiness of Edlund’s script we get a Tick that’s as zany and insanely verbose as ever, although the more intricately designed suit does at first take a little getting used to.

Visually this is a lavish and beautifully shot production (that boasts a cameo from Whoopi Goldberg no less!) on a scale that far surpasses that of the more confined, sitcom like feel of the 2001 series with The Dark Knight trilogy’s cinematographer Wally Pfister bringing an epic, film like quality to the 30-minute pilot.  Overall Amazon’s The Tick is a fresh but faithful reinterpretation for modern times that deserves the chance of going to series.

The bottom line:  Ben Edlund brings The Tick to Amazon Studios and their pilot is a darkly comic riff on the well-worn superhero genre that shows promise for a potential series.

The Tick is available to stream now, exclusively via Amazon.

What did you think of the Amazon’s pilot for ‘The Tick’?  Share your thoughts below!

Peter Serafinowicz is ready to face those wicked men in Amazon's pilot of 'The Tick'.

Peter Serafinowicz is ready to face those wicked men in Amazon’s pilot of ‘The Tick’.

Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.