Friday, December 19, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part Five)

Chapters 9-11
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Spider-Man searches the New York underground for Dr. Octopus and eventually finds a radiation trail.  Venom meets him soon after, but both are taken captive by Dr. Octopus after they’re narrowly killed by Niner’s grenade launcher.  Later, Dr. Octopus explains his plan to Spider-Man.  After destabilizing national economies and devaluing established currencies, he’ll unleash neutron bombs to kill large portions of the population.  Ock will rule a new science-based utopia.  When Ock is distracted, Venom uses his symbiote to escape the cell he shares with Spider-Man.  Dr. Octopus overtakes Venom, but Spider-Man ultimately defeats Ock.  He soon realizes, however, that Dr. Octopus has already triggered a bomb in the city.  Using Dr. Octopus’ computers, Spider-Man locates the bomb and disarms it.  Venom disappears, after taking a printout of Dr. Octopus’ secret bomb locations throughout the country.

The Subplots:  The cartoon MJ worked on has its order cut after a weak debut.  Doris calls with the good news that the cell phone company is dropping the charges, thanks to her investigation.

Web of Continuity:  Niner earned his nickname because he’s Dr. Octopus’ “ninth arm.”

I Love the ‘90s:  The one bomb that Dr. Octopus does manage to trigger?  It’s in the World Trade Center.  Spider-Man finds it in a wine cellar underneath the Windows on the World restaurant.

Review:  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this much of a happy ending.  I was sure that MJ’s cartoon would be prematurely cancelled, but I just assumed that the Parkers would somehow get stuck with the $5,000 phone bill.  Regardless, the personal life subplots have remained enjoyable throughout the novel, and I’m relieved to see Duane avoid any temptation to place MJ in personal danger during the climax.  MJ isn’t totally divorced from the novel’s main story, but her role doesn’t feel particularly forced or distracting.  Venom’s role, on the other hand, has becoming increasingly questionable as the trilogy has progressed.  Looking back over the plot, it’s hard to see any significant role he’s played.  Duane does use Eddie Brock’s past as an investigative reporter to her advantage, but any information he uncovers could’ve just as easily been discovered by Peter Parker with a Daily Bugle reporter.  (Speaking of which, why does Mel Ahrens drop out of the story so early on?)  Venom’s scenes aren’t necessarily bad, since Duane does have a handle on the character, and his final confrontation with Dr. Octopus is brief but fun.  By the end of the novel, however, the reader isn’t left with the sense that he truly needed to be here.  For commercial purposes, sure, although I wonder how much of a draw Venom remained by the time the trilogy completed.

Ultimately, the novel is about society and its uncertain relationship with progress and technology.  A twenty-something reporter eschews it, while a bored retiree embraces it and becomes a wealthy security expert.  Dr. Octopus views mankind’s petty squabbles as an impediment to real progress, so he’s willing to destroy just what he needs in order to make his point and then start his own advanced civilization.  Applying Ock’s intellect to money laundering, world economics, and sociology is a clever move on Duane’s part, and her choices for “ripped from the headlines issues were clearly inspired.  It’s a sharply written novel that never needed the Venom gimmick, I say.  If you’re a fan of the characters or just suspense thrillers in general, it’s worth your attention.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part Four)

Chapters 7 & 8
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Doris Smyth calls Peter to discuss the mobster’s cell phone.  She tells him that it’s been wanted by several agencies for months and gives him a list of the numbers it’s dialed.  Meanwhile, Venom investigates an import/export firm named Bothwell and learns that it has a connection not only to CCRC, but also to Dr. Octopus.  That night, Venom enters the Parkers’ home.  Convinced that MJ isn’t mob connected, Venom passes information to Spider-Man and asks him to contact the authorities.  Later, Spider-Man meets with the AEC and is discreetly given two radiation sensors.  At home, he studies the numbers called on the mobster’s phone and suddenly realizes that Hobgoblin’s underground hideout could’ve been provided by Dr. Octopus.  He leaves a message for Venom and heads for the sewers.

The Subplots:  MJ meets Doris Smyth and drops off her personal phone that’s been cloned.  She then travels to her second recording session, playing the role of supervillain Glaive.  

Miscellaneous Note: It seems the real-life United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) no longer exists. (Actually, it was abolished in the 1970s!)

Web of Continuity:  The Hobgoblin’s underground hideout previously appeared in the first novel in the trilogy, The Venom Factor.  Peter assumes that Hobgoblin’s past as a mercenary means he could’ve been working for Doc Ock all along. Also, Venom's investigation into CCRC leads him to believe Doc Ock might actually be its owner.

I Love the ‘90s:  
  • Peter wonders if it’s possible for the location of a cell phone to be tracked.  Doris Smyth tells him its theoretically possible, assuming the phone has a certain microchip and you know its nearest cell tower.
  • Doris gives an incredulous Peter a detailed explanation on how the NSA can spy on the public using cell phones.  She speculates that the spying will decrease in future years, when cell phone systems move from analog to digital, and the public grows more aware of the government’s activities.  Sure…

Review:  Chapter Seven mainly consists of Peter receiving a lecture on the mechanics of cell phones and how the government can easily spy on them.  Chapter Eight is mostly dedicated to Spider-Man learning about neutron bombs from an AEC agent.  A comic couldn’t get away with two lengthy info dumps in a row, but in a novel, this is more forgivable.  As usual, Duane’s research does a lot to enhance the story and draw the reader into the reality of the world, and the subject matter (government spying and terrorist plots to sneak small nukes into major cities) is of course prescient.  While this section of the novel is light on action and heavy on pure technical information, Duane manages to add some character to the scenes.  Doris, the eighty-year-old computer expert, is a fan of MJ’s old soap opera and is excited to meet her.  Venom is allowed to do more than threaten to eat someone’s brain, when he's given an opportunity to show off his skills as an investigative reporter.  And MJ draws upon an unexpected source to face her fear of Venom -- Glaive, the poorly-written supervillain she’s now playing in a cartoon.  That last bit is perhaps too silly, but it does allow MJ to have a response to Venom that doesn’t repeat what we’ve seen before, while also not pushing her too far into the “warrior woman” cliché.  She’s still terrified of Venom, but has a better handle on how to deal with the fear.  The novel’s almost finished, and while the title villain has been noticeably absent for much of the story, I am curious to see how this plays out.  And, honestly, a potential Venom/Dr. Octopus fight sounds like it could be entertaining.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part Three)

Chapters 5 & 6
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Sgt. Drew arranges for Spider-Man’s “friend” Peter Parker to meet with Doris Smyth, a hi-tech security consultant.  Peter gives Doris one of the cells he confiscated from the mob earlier to investigate.  Elsewhere, Venom’s research into CCRC leads him to the shell company, Rothschilds Bank & Securities.  Venom invades the offices and tortures one employee until he reveals the bank’s connection to the Russian mob.  A mystery man named Niner escapes during Venom's attack.  Venom takes five cell phones from the office and discovers one of their numbers belongs to MJ.  Shortly after Spider-Man swings away from Doris’ apartment, he’s ambushed by Venom.  Their fight ends when both are attacked by Russian mobsters.  Venom spots Niner and leaves.  Later, Niner meets with Dr. Octopus to discuss their money laundering scheme.

The Subplots:  MJ arrives at Sundog Productions and meets producer Jymn Magon.  She auditions for voiceover work and is offered an interim role on a new superhero cartoon.  MJ later returns home to discover Peter recovering from his fight with Venom.

I Love the ‘90s:  The phones Spider-Man took from the mob apparently don’t have caller ID, since he doesn’t know how to trace Galya Irnotsji’s number.

Review:  I was wondering how Diane Duane was going to bring MJ into the main plot this time.  In the first novel, MJ gives up an acting job in order to be near Peter during the Hobgoblin’s nuclear scheme, and in the previous novel, MJ’s ongoing storyline was apparently going to tie in with the villainous plot at Cape Canaveral, although this turned out to be a red herring.  This time, MJ’s the victim of (what I’m assuming used to be) a common crime.  It’s a crime that also has ties to the Russian mob, the omnipresent CCRC, and Dr. Octopus.  On top of that, Venom calls one of the mobster’s phones and gets MJ’s voicemail, so he’s jumped to the irrational conclusion that Spidey and his wife are mobbed up now.  

I’m undecided on where on the Scale of Coincidence Acceptability this falls.  It’s not as egregious as the Shocker robbing a bank just as Aunt May enters, I will say.  MJ isn’t the only victim of phone cloning, she’s one of thousands of people who have had their numbers hijacked, so that does help to prevent this from becoming a truly massive coincidence.  Still, having MJ’s number be one of the five Venom discovers is a little too convenient.  At any rate, Duane continues to write MJ incredibly well.  MJ’s acting career is destined to stay on the B-list at best, so exploring the possibility of voice acting makes sense.  It’s a way for her to keep acting as a career while also not gaining any real level of fame, which is where the writers always wanted to keep her.  Having MJ work on a cheesy, ultra-PC superhero cartoon also adds some humor to the novel, and if you’ve ever watched the I Know that Voice documentary, then it should be obvious Duane’s done some research into how voice acting works.

The main plot finally brings us the novel’s first Spider-Man/Venom confrontation.  Duane handles the action well (there’s also a nice suspenseful scene featuring Spider-Man’s escape from a gunman that has him pinned behind a row of cars), and I’ll give her credit for remembering that Venom far outclasses Spider-Man.  There is a sense of Spider-Man being in actual danger, and he isn’t able to escape the fight without a bruised, possibly broken, rib.  And if you’re sick of Spider-Man/Venom fights, at least Spider-Man voices that frustration.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part Two)

Chapters 3 & 4
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Venom goes undercover on Wall Street to investigate CCRC.  He’s attacked by a group of muggers and easily defends himself.  Peter Parker travels with Mel Ahrens to meet with Mel’s contact within the Russian mob.  They speak to Dmitri Elyonets, who claims to represent the old ways and resents his competitor’s illegal dealing in nuclear material.  After leaving, Peter changes into Spider-Man and tails Mel’s cab.  Soon enough, the cab is attacked by a van.  Spider-Man saves the cab from falling off the bridge and webs up the mobsters inside the van.  One of the mobster’s phones rings, and on the other line is Dmitri’s rival, Galya Irnotsji.  Elsewhere, Dr. Octopus receives an update from his agent, Niner.

The Subplots:  MJ cuts her finger during an accident on her shoot and is sent home.  Later, MJ's model friend Lalande recommends her for a lipstick commercial.  MJ is grateful for the money, but tells off the verbally abusive director as soon as the shoot is over.  Someone on the set notices and gives her a production company's business card.  

I Love the ‘90s:  Both MJ and Lalande are fired for having minor blemishes during shoots.  I’m assuming Photoshop was unable to remove tiny imperfections back in 1996.

Review:  The story is still taking shape, with MJ getting into position to do more than just model hand cream, and Peter learning more about the Russian mob’s infiltration into America.  The novel’s moving at a steady pace and Duane is finding a nice balance between the superhero action, the crime drama, and the real life material.  For the entirety of Chapter Three, Peter is stuck on the phone, dealing with the cell phone company’s automated customer service line -- a move that might seem unusual in any other hero’s novel, but is a natural fit for Peter Parker.  (This is the kind of “everyman” material I think most people want to read in a Spider-Man story; not forced girl trouble or cataclysmic personal trials, just annoyances and frustrations that anyone could relate to.)  Venom also finds his way into the story, surprisingly late.  His scene during this section is mostly here to introduce him to the reader, although I think Duane does a decent job on the obligatory action sequence.  Venom is merciless to most of his attackers, but does spare the one young man who was reluctant to join in on the violence.  The Venom who thinks that he’s protecting innocence, however skewed his perspective might be, has always been the most appealing interpretation of the character.  I’m not necessarily eager to have Venom join the plot, but if written properly, he doesn’t have to be a drag on the story, either.  Venom can be entertaining, just in small doses.

Monday, December 15, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part One)

Prologue, Chapters 1 & 2
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Dr. Octopus and his henchmen invade Consolidated Quartzite, a mine in upstate New York.  They drill into the mine and detonate a small nuclear bomb.  Later, Spider-Man stops a group of jewel thieves in New York.  He discovers numerous cell phones in their vehicle.  When the police arrive, Spider-Man learns from Sgt. Stephen Drew that the weapons used by the thieves are Russian military.  At the Daily Bugle the next day, Peter Parker asks Kate Cushing to pair him with Mel Ahrens, who is investigating the Russian mob.  Peter suspects that the Russian mob has ties with the shady CCRC corporation, which is allegedly out of business.

The Subplots:  MJ begins a new job as a hand model.  She’s shocked to discover her new cell phone has been cloned, leaving her with a bill that’s almost $5,000.  

Web of Continuity:  
  • This is the final release in Diane Duane’s trilogy of Spider-Man/Venom novels.  The story picks up one week after the previous novel, The Lizard Sanction.  
  • Reporter Mel Ahrens is a new creation, not seen in the comics. Sgt. Stephen Drew is a recurring character in the prose novels.

I Love the ‘90s:  Cell phones play an important role in the novel, so not surprisingly, much of this material has noticeably aged.  A security guard in the Prologue remarks that a cell costs 150 bucks.  Peter himself barely understands how to use a cell.  MJ describes the process of cloning a phone, and complains that New York law only gives the consumer ten days to report the fraud.  Unrelated to cells, Spider-Man drops one “Not!” during the fight scene.

Review:  Hey, I finally got around to this one.  For anyone who doesn’t know, Marvel licensed their characters out for a series of well-reviewed prose novels in the ‘90s.  Most were paperbacks, but Diane Duane’s Spider-Man/Venom trilogy received the hardcover format, with one novel being released each year between 1994 and 1996.  The final novel in the trilogy eluded me for years, but in these modern times, I no longer have to rely on my local shopping mall.  The first novel I loved as a teenager and was pleased to discover that it holds up well today.  The second novel had its moments, but lacked the basic entertainment value of its predecessor.  The final novel in the trilogy has a stronger opening than the previous one, thankfully.  Hopefully, "Octopus Agenda" can return to the standards set by the initial release.

It’s not hard to notice that the third novel’s opening chapters follow the same basic pattern as its predecessor.  An established Spider-Man villain attacks a team of security guards in the middle of the night.  A quick scene checks in on Peter and MJ, giving the reader some insight into their relationship.  Peter sees action as Spider-Man, then travels to the Daily Bugle to receive the assignment that will lead to even more Spidey action.  These are broad similarities, though, so it’s more of an observation than a complaint.  To Duane’s credit, even as she hits the same notes as the previous novel’s opening, the execution feels much sharper this time.  The security guards in the opening have a bit more personality, and the sequence involving Dr. Octopus and his flunkies (mistaken for aliens because they're wearing their old Ditko outfits) has a nice blend of action, characterization, and suspense.  I’ll also praise the opening for not falling for the “villain callously kills guard for no reason” cliché.  Duane certainly teases the reader with the threat that Ock might kill, which is fine, but allows the prologue to play out in a much more engaging way.  The Peter and MJ scene is a decent introduction for both characters, and I like the idea of tying in MJ’s relatively minor problem with the phone company into the novel’s larger story.  The action scene is placed just where the novel needs an action scene; it gives Spider-Man something to do, while also serving a legitimate story purpose.

Finally, there’s the introduction of Daily Bugle reporter Mel Ahrens.  Ninety percent of all Bugle reporters are doomed to obscurity, but in just a few pages, Duane does an admirable job of giving Mel a distinct identity.  He’s the Daily Bugle’s last holdout on going digital, clinging stubbornly to his fifty-year-old typewriter.  Mel’s also twenty-something years old, and just unusually old-fashioned for his age.  Mel is naturally here to dump a few pages worth of exposition regarding the Russian mob, but the delivery is smooth enough and the information is honestly interesting.  Duane’s knack for research is one of my favorite aspects of her novels, and addressing the specifics of the Russian mob’s entry into America should give the novel more than enough material.  I suspect that “research” for most mob stories in comics simply involves re-watching Goodfellas, so getting real content out of the subject is a welcome relief.

Friday, December 12, 2014


Can Love Find a Way?
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Mike Grell (art), Moose Baumann (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  Lilandra leads the Imperial Guard to Earth in search of Professor Xavier.  Xavier is visiting Cyclops and his family in Alaska, along with Archangel, Iceman, Charlotte Jones, and Opal Tanaka.  When the Imperial Guard arrive and attack, Xavier hides in the Starjammer.  Using the Starjammer’s teleportation technology, the X-Men and Sabretooth are teleported to Alaska.  They join the fight, but Xavier eventually ends the hostilities by surrendering.  He accepts Lilandra’s terms that he must live with the Shi’ar for the rest of his life, due to his intimate knowledge of their classified defense secrets.

Continuity Notes:  
  • Nathan considers Charlotte Jones his aunt, following their adventure together on the moon.  She claims that after she saved Nathan’s life on the moon, they returned to Cyclops’ home in Alaska.  A footnote merely says that this is “a story yet to be told.”
  • Corsair and the Starjammers, along with their ship, live in Alaska with Cyclops in XMF continuity.
  • Archangel confirms that he’s been using an image inducer in his previous appearances.
  • Cyclops is now back to wearing the ‘90s Jim Lee costume.
  • Rogue and Nightcrawler are visiting Excalibur at their lighthouse.  Their dialogue suggests Psylocke is now a member.

Production Note:  This is a fifty-six page comic in standard format.  The cover price remains $3.99, even though the final eighteen pages are a reprint of John Byrne’s first issue, Uncanny X-Men #108.

Review:  For a series Marvel is only a few months away from killing, there seems to be an unusual amount of over-sized specials.  I have no clue what happened behind-the-scenes, but Marvel’s support of this book did seem to abruptly stop, leading the second volume to just end with (of course) numerous story threads left unresolved.  The goal of the Giant-Size special is to write Xavier out of the title, for what is at least the third time in a Chris Claremont story.  Claremont actually writes Xavier quite well, even when he enters the same dodgy territory subsequent X-writers have followed, so I’m not sure why he occasionally seems obsessed with kicking the guy out of the book.  I understand the theme of constant growth and change, but Claremont’s not exactly following that model by consistently finding reasons to reintroduce Cyclops into the title.  Cyclops supposedly “retired” from the X-Men just as Claremont was giving Xavier his most convincing sendoff yet in UXM #200.

While the execution is a bit shaky, there are some clever ideas in the issue.  Xavier made an honest mistake while combing through the Shi’ar’s database, one that ultimately lead to an attack by the Warskrulls.  Since Xavier was also impersonated by a Warskrull for several months, the Shi’ar are now suspicious if in fact the wrong Xavier returned to Earth following their first battle with the Warskrulls.  That’s not a bad starting place for the story, even if it does hinge on Xavier screwing up yet again and (inadvertently) betraying the people closest to him.  There’s another nice play on continuity later in the story, as Xavier is adamant that Jean stay out of the Shi’ar’s way during the fight, since they have no idea she’s still alive.  Logically, the Shi’ar would be incensed and/or terrified to see Jean alive again, even though none of the writers post-Claremont seemed to notice this.  

Claremont also seems to be catering to more of the online complaints about the series, teasing a few bits of unrevealed continuity and reviving some of the forgotten supporting cast members from this era of the titles.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t do an awful lot with the large cast he’s assembled, since the bulk of the story is dedicated to the X-Men fighting the Imperial Guard.  And since the fight is mostly represented by a double-page spread and a few giant panels, there’s no real choreography here -- the battle feels as if it lasts around twelve seconds.  I admire Mike Grell’s art, and I get the in-joke that another former Legion artist has been brought in to pencil the Imperial Guard, but the story just doesn’t give him enough to do.

One final complaint, if this issue could carry eighteen pages of extra reprint material without adding to the cover price -- why couldn’t every issue?  What would it harm to give readers extra reading material each issue?  Heck, pull out some obscure Claremont material like the first Mystique appearance in Ms. Marvel and throw that in here.  There’s no way that would’ve hurt sales.  For four bucks an issue, it’s not an outrageous suggestion.

But What about Vengeance?
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Fernando Blanco (pencils), Jason Paz (inks), Wilfredo Quintana (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  A mysterious female executive within the Consortium consults with SHIELD official G. W. Bridge.  On her orders, Bridge releases a report implicating the X-Men in the death of Tony Stark.  The Avengers meet and plan an attack on the X-Men.

Continuity Notes:  
  • The Avengers consist of an amalgam of the East and West Coast teams of this era:  Captain America, Thor, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver.
  • G. W. Bridge is apparently a villain in this continuity.
  • Consortium agents are performing surgery on what appears to be Amelia Trask, who was shot in the chest by Tony Stark, and are unsure if she will survive.

Review:  I’ll repeat that Fernando Blanco should’ve done more work for this title.  Sturdy, three-dimensional figures, moody lighting, and just an overall strength of line are what the book needs when Tom Grummett isn’t around.  Why this title ended up with so many mediocre fill-ins if Blanco was available is beyond me.  This is a brief tease for the opening arc in X-Men Forever 2, which has the Avengers targeting the X-Men.  The only purpose of the story is to get the Avengers in position to fight the team, and it accomplishes that goal competently enough.  Some might whine about the casual way Claremont’s playing around with the Avengers line-up, but I’m willing to give him the leeway and say that all kinds of things could be happening in the hypothetical Marvel Universe of this title.  A merging of the East and West Coast Avengers isn’t that much of a stretch; it’s the specific X-Men continuity that’s been manipulated with no explanation (I'll cite tween Nathan, yet again) that bothers me.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #24 - July 2010

Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Tom Grummett (pencils), Cory Hamscher (inks), Wilfredo Quintana (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  As the X-Men prepare for Beast’s funeral, Xavier asks Jean to become co-headmaster of the school with Cyclops.  She’s reluctant to agree.  Nick Fury calls a meeting, announcing that his contingent of SHIELD agents will live with him at the school while they investigate corruption within SHIELD.  At Beast’s funeral, the X-Men are joined by Beast’s teammates in the Avengers and Defenders.  Later, Moira studies a way to restore Sabretooth’s healing factor, Nightcrawler comforts Rogue, and Xavier reflects on the X-Men’s past.

Continuity Notes:  
  • Shadowcat tells Xavier that she not only has a portion of Wolverine’s healing factor, but she’s also dreaming in Japanese now.
  • Cyclops is back to wearing his ‘70s/’80s costume, with no Jim Lee accessories added.
  • The Avengers appear in their early ‘90s looks at the funeral, with the exception of Carol Danvers, who is now back to her traditional Ms. Marvel costume.  

Review:  X-Men Forever closes out its first volume, although the Giant Size X-Men Forever special is just two weeks away, followed immediately by the debut of X-Men Forever 2.  Claremont does attempt to make this issue feel like some kind of an ending, with the Beast’s funeral serving as an obvious means of closure.  The issue has a few of the typical human touches you would expect in a Claremont mourning story, and going straight to the funeral instead of inserting a new storyline (as done after Wolverine’s death) helps to sell the idea this is “real” in a way.  There’s a great idea here that the X-Men are the only heroes not allowed to be “out” during the funeral, emphasizing that the X-Men don’t expect or even desire public acceptance.  

Jean Grey serves as the focus for much of the issue, which is slightly annoying for any reader who hasn’t bought into her romance with Beast.   Let’s face it, Jean’s been bouncing from partner to partner throughout the run of this title so far, but Claremont is putting some effort into making her sympathetic.  Jean is now declaring that she can’t be close to anyone, since she’s obviously bad luck for everyone she loves.  This becomes the latest excuse for her not to be with Cyclops; Jean tells him this issue that she wants him to be able to watch his son grow up.  Claremont certainly seems committed to keeping Scott and Jean apart, while fighting any cheap attempt to make either character the bad guy.  It works surprisingly well, but even after seeing the story through to the conclusion, I still have a hard time rationalizing pairing Jean with Beast, especially when the book opened with Jean “cheating” on Scott with Wolverine.  Is Jean now fodder for perpetual love triangle plots and nothing else?  Claremont also seems to be skirting over the relationship between Jean and little Nathan.  She became his mother figure in X-Factor, as I recall, yet she’s totally ignored his existence in this series so far.

The biggest relief this issue is seeing the return of Tom Grummett and Cory Hamscher.  Killing off Beast and Tony Stark was already a dodgy move, but doing it in an issue without the regular art team made it seem even more unreal.  Their return makes the funeral feel like more of an event, and it’s a nice excuse to see Tom Grummett’s interpretation of the Avengers of this period.  The issue also has a much stronger handle on the splash pages; they’re still present, but they’re now being used as the background for very Claremontian speeches.  The splashes feel much less obtrusive and arbitrary here because they actually carry some weight.  For the first time in months, the story doesn’t feel needlessly padded.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #23 - July 2010

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Part 3)
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Rodney Buchemi (pencils), Greg Adams (inks), Sotocolor’s A. Street (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  Jean gives Beast a kiss goodbye and reunites with the X-Men.  They leave the space station before it explodes, but are attacked again by Ziggy Trask and her Neo-Sentinels in space.  Meanwhile, Tony Stark recovers and shoots Amelia Trask in the chest.  He telecommutes with Nick Fury and Beast, giving them information needed to stop the Neo-Sentinels and the Plague-X generator.  Cyclops blasts Ziggy into the station as it explodes.  The Neo-Sentinels are defeated, but the team receives word that both Beast and Tony died in the explosion.

Continuity Notes:  Tony Stark is revealed as Nick Fury’s mole within the Consortium.

Review:  We are now very firmly into What If…? territory.  Not only is Beast killed, less than a year after Wolverine’s death, but Tony Stark is rather casually whacked as well.  There’s absolutely no pretense that this is what would’ve happened if Claremont had continued his original X-Men run, but even judging the story on its own merits, it’s hard to deny that this is rushed and lacking the appropriate sense of drama.  Some of the blame lies in the art, which is almost lifeless, but the story also doesn’t seem to be taking these massive events very seriously either.  All of the poetry and baroque prose you might expect from a Claremont death story has been replaced with rather matter-of-fact dialogue exchanges.  There’s no deeper sentiment than Jean and Beast exchanging a blunt “I love you” shortly before his death.  Jean has a very brief monologue that has her questioning why she’s unable to save the men she loves, but other than this one panel, she seems fairly emotionless throughout the issue.  Perhaps I’m biased because I always felt the Jean/Beast romance was a bad idea, but at no point in the issue did I get the sense that I’m reading some great tragedy.

Not only does the issue fail as a goodbye to Beast, but you also have to wonder what on earth Tony Stark has been doing in this story.  No part of his involvement holds up to any scrutiny:  Why did he wait so long to act against the Consortium?  Why was Nick Fury unable to do anything against the Consortium, even with Tony acting as his mole?  Why did Fury keep Tony’s identity a secret, even when he knew the X-Men were wasting time investigating Tony’s connection to the Consortium?  Another annoyance is the casual way heroes are killing of villains this issue, with both Tony Stark and Cyclops offing the Trasks with no moral dilemma whatsoever.  There was a “heroes don’t kill” speech as recently as last issue, as I recall, and now that’s been forgotten like it’s nothing.  I’m not adamantly opposed to ever having the heroes kill (and I seem to recall both Trasks miraculously pulling through), but the story needs to build up the proper stakes to justify it.  Claremont’s obviously trying to craft a story with the ultimate stakes, but the sense of drama never properly develops.  Again, it feels as if you’re reading a random issue of What If…? and you’re stuck in one of those “And then…everyone died!” montages.

The Shape of Things to Come
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Fernando Blanco (art), Sotocolor (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  The Warskrulls lead a successful attack against a Shi’ar base. The Shi’ar investigate and discover that the Warskrulls gained access to their files because Xavier did not secure the datanets he studied.  A Shi’ar admiral declares that Xavier will pay.

Review:  This back-up is a prelude to the upcoming Giant Size X-Men Forever special, which will serve as yet another vehicle for writing Xavier out of the book.  There’s not enough of a plot here to pass a real judgment, but it’s refreshing to see Claremont back away from modern decompressed storytelling and actually use five pages to his advantage.  The pacing here is much closer to what you’d expect from a traditional Claremont story.  Fernando Blanco’s art is a noticeable improvement over the pencils and inks in the main story, evoking a slightly darker Clayton Henry, making me wonder why he didn’t do more work for this series.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #22 - June 2010

Rise -- to the Challenge! - Into That Good Night (Part 2)
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Daniel HDR (pencils), Greg Adams (inks), Wilfredo Quintana (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  The X-Men invade the Consortium’s orbital platform and face Ziggy Trask and the Neo-Sentinels.  Jean Grey and Beast leave the fight to find the energy projector that will unleash Plague-X.  Tony Stark turns on the Consortium and allows Jean and Beast access to the projector, but Stark is soon ambushed by the Neo-Sentinels.  Amelia Trask orders the projector to fire, just as Jean and Beast finish planting charges around its energy source.  Beast informs Jean that if the beam is fired after the charges go off, the blast will sterilize the planet.  He must stay behind and dismantle the firing system.

Continuity Notes:  
  • Shadowcat is now wearing that awful leather jacket and miniskirt combo, although her hair never matches the design from the cover of issue #4.
  • The X-Men fly into orbit in a new “X-Plane” constructed by Forge with the aid of Nightcrawler.
  • The Neo-Sentinels move like spiders, slightly reminiscent of the new Sentinel designs from the Morrison/Quitely New X-Men run.  According to Amelia Trask, the Trasks and Sentinels can communicate telepathically.
  • Tony Stark is referred to as an “organic/bionic hybrid” by one of the Neo-Sentinels.  Amelia Trask is intrigued and says she’ll investigate later.  I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, unless Claremont’s referencing Tony Stark’s “heart of steel.”

Production Note:  For the first time in this series, the opening page of the comic is actually the first page of the story; the recap page is moved to page two.

Review:  The first page of the issue is an homage to the famous “Professor Xavier is a Jerk!” splash page, which probably explains why the recap page has been moved to the second page, since comics didn’t greet you with a page of text back in 1983.  It’s a cute gag, but it would’ve worked much better had Paul Smith been available to do another fill-in.  The audience doesn’t need yet another reminder that Daniel HDR is no Paul Smith.  HDR’s rendition of the Beast isn’t so bad, and his Sentinel renditions are passable, but his normal human figures are the definition of mediocre.  There’s no real personality in the work here; HDR doesn’t seem to be interested in either caricature or realism.  Consequently, you’re left with one dull drawing after another of the X-Men that doesn’t have the unique touch of a strong artist’s style, or any recognizable human reference.  I can’t even guess at how he handles an action scene, because even though the plot might lead you to believe this will be a knockdown drag-out fight between the X-Men and Sentinels, the action is restricted to around four pages.  The bulk of the issue is spent on having the X-Men plot out their attack (a Claremont Quirk that's emerged in recent years), and once the plan is executed, the attention shifts to Jean and Beast planting charges around the Consortium’s giant gun.  The only visual element of the story that’s potentially exciting is relegated to the background.

The lone scene that elicits any real emotion is the confirmation that Tony Stark isn’t a villain after all, which serves as a welcome affirmation that there is a line Claremont won’t cross.  However, the idea that Tony Stark has been working undercover to stop the Consortium all along and is only now kicking himself for letting things “go this far” is insane.  Tony Stark, Iron Man, had no opportunity whatsoever to stop the Consortium as they built this massive operation?  He couldn’t do anything about the giant mutant death-ray that’s been constructed in space?  He’s only acting now to stop this?  That’s ridiculous.  It reads as if Claremont became enamored with the dramatic reveal of Stark as the head of the Consortium, but didn’t exactly think through the consequences.