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(Comics) A Wolf for the People: Sam Wilson’s First 100 Days as Captain America

Reading 150Sam Wilson has not had an easy time of it during his short stint with the shield. He’s basically operating on a shoestring budget out of the basement of a neighborhood church, with only two (testy) people on his staff and no resources. He’s on the “wrong” side of an ideological difference with his best friend and former mentor, Steve Rogers; that same difference has caused most of the public to turn against him. And, for four issues, he was transformed into a wolf/human hybrid against his will by a mad doctor.

Fortunately for us, Sam’s trouble is our delight. The first six issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America makes a bold statement about how he handles the responsibility of being a symbol; writer Nick Spencer positions Wilson as a superhero in an intensely divided country, so no matter what he does he’s going to piss off half the population. Still, Wilson takes a stand even though it’s unpopular, because he’s learned the only lesson worth knowing from Rogers. In order to be worthy of the costume, you have to live up to your morals unflinchingly.

What makes Sam so interesting as Cap is that his morality is so different from Steve’s. Their big rift comes from the fallout of learning that SHIELD has been working on a Cosmic Cube that has the power to reshape reality. The person who leaked this information, an Edward Snowden-type known only as The Whisperer, was nearly caught until Sam helped him — he believed that blowing the whistle on SHIELD’s activities is a public service that he shouldn’t be punished for. Rogers, on the other hand, thinks that though The Whisperer did the right thing, he should still be brought to trial for his actions. Wilson doesn’t believe it’s possible to trust due process in this case, but Rogers does. It’s the difference between Lawful Good and Neutral Good.

That rift deepens when Wilson takes on a militia appointing themselves as border patrol to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and it’s there he discovers people are being taken and experimented on by Dr. Malus. On the run from SHIELD and Rogers, Wilson is captured and turned into Cap-Wolf, which is the real reason you folks should get these issues. Of course.

Wilson’s investigation takes him through the business world, where Serpent Solutions is making a power-play on behalf of other corporations. The commentary on the current state of corporate politics is a little more ham-fisted, but Sam’s resolution of the arc is surprising yet pragmatic; what I love about the way the story winds down is his realization that ideals don’t happen in a vacuum. Choices have far-reaching consequences, because at this point of American life everything is connected. You can’t advance your morality without stepping on a political landmine, and those politics are deeply influenced by gigantic corporate interests whose success and failure affect the livelihood of millions. If you shut down one thing, you begin a cascade that quickly spirals outside of your control.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have different ways of reacting to the system. Rogers’ Captain America was wholly inspirational; he wanted to be the physical embodiment of the best principles America was founded upon. He believes that the system works, but only as long as the people within it strive for the ideals they serve to the best of their ability. Wilson’s Captain America isn’t so sure; he believes that the system is rigged and leaves out a lot of people who can’t defend themselves against it, and those are the people he wishes to serve.

The Whisperer is the embodiment of that difference in opinion. Since Steve believes in the system, he believes that he can convince people to do the right thing and justice will prevail. But Wilson understands that even if they win in the courtroom, other connected threads will act to preserve the status quo however it can. The system will protect its own, and Steve is inextricably tied to it. Sam has always been an outsider, so his morality doesn’t depend on that allegiance.

So who IS Captain America these days? What interest does he serve? As our understanding of the government shifts and our ideas about what it should and should not be doing changes, every once in a while we need to step back and check on that. I love that Nick Spencer is really diving into that through Sam’s turbulent first days on the job, and I’m really curious how Wilson’s journey continues. There is going to be a lot more fighting for him coming up — Avengers: Standoff is getting into full-swing, and there won’t even be time to take a breath before Civil War II lights up comic stores this summer. Somewhere in all of that, Steve Rogers will don the mantle of Captain America once more, giving us two versions of the hero serving two different visions of America.

Maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can hope for.

 

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The X-Men Are Dead, Long Live The X-Men (Comics)

Reading 150The end of the Marvel Universe came and went before Uncanny X-Men #600 hit the stands, and it’s anyone’s guess why the powers that be decided to wait as long as they did. Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel’s big gun writers, had wrapped up the final issue of his years-long X-Men run earlier in the summer only to have it delayed by several months. Nominally, it would have been a great post-Secret Wars story that serves as the capstone to Bendis’ arc with the mutants and a good prologue to usher in the new status-quo set eight months after…well, whatever happens at the end of Secret Wars.

But delays have kept the ending to that multiverse-reshuffling story off the shelves, so here we have the end of one era for the X-Men and the beginning of a new one; the same week Uncanny X-Men dropped, Jeff Lemire’s first issue of Extraordinary X-Men came out too.

The end of Bendis’ X-Men run was laden with all of the problems I’ve had with his treatment of the title all along. Maybe he’s spreading himself too thin here; maybe there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the mutants; maybe too many events and crossovers kept him from doing his best work. But jumping Jesus, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men have been a hot mess for a long time.

Ever since the Battle of the Atom crossover (which saw three versions of X-Men from the past, present and future duking it out), it’s been really tough to get a bead on what Bendis has been going for with the titles. Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast and Storm have been acting and re-acting to each other without a clear sense of what drives those actions, and there’s been precious little in the way of character growth for anyone save for the folks that Bendis have brought on, like Eva Bell and Goldballs. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great characters — but you get the sense that Bendis doesn’t quite care about the rest of the gang.

Full disclosure: I’m a Beast fanboy, born and bred, and I’m willing to admit that most of my dissatisfaction with Bendis’ run comes down to his treatment of Hank McCoy. Under his writing, Beast mutated again, into some sort of oblong-headed, bat-eared, ape-mutant; brought the original five X-Men forward into the future; irrevocably broke the fabric of space and time by doing so, leading to the collapse of the multiverse; got a tongue-lashing from none other than the Watcher before he was murdered; and finally has to endure an “intervention” where pretty much every mutant who hasn’t stood with Cyclops calls him out. Through all of that, Hank has done little in response beyond look sad and then keep doing what he’s been doing.

So “The Trial of Hank McCoy” is…underwhelming for such a landmark issue. The gathered X-Men accuse Beast of breaking the laws of time and space, physics, nature; they want to “help” him, though they’re really vague about what he needs help with and what that help would mean; and Beast pretty much rants at them, calling down shame, saying “to hell with you!”, packing his bags and leaving in a huff. Before he leaves, he gets to see Cyclops — the entire reason he brought the original five into the present in the first place — hold a televised peaceful demonstration that…somehow proves him right?

It’s frustrating to see these characters you love twisted into shapes you don’t recognize by writers who don’t understand them. And I say this knowing full well that I’m just dude with a blog ranting about a fictional character in a universe that allows for Spider-Man, The Blob, The Punisher and Squirrel Girl to exist right alongside one another. I get how this sounds.

But there’s not a lot of cohesion to Bendis’ story with the X-Men. The only feeling you’re left with after reading #600 is “well…that happened.” There are interludes where young Bobby Drake confronts his older self about his sexuality, with Jean Grey there to provide the commentary, and the older Iceman’s reasons for remaining closeted all this time are actually pretty solid: because of who he was and who he ran with, he wanted just one part of his life to “feel normal”, even if that meant denying a basic part of himself. Those of us who exist in multiple minority spaces can sympathize with that — it can feel like you’re fighting against the current in every aspect of your life, and sometimes you’d give anything to know what it’d be like to not have to do that. I wish there had been more space devoted to this, but so far there’ve only been two whole scenes exploring the psyche of Bobby Drake. It’ll be interesting to see how this is handled elsewhere.

Ultimately, Uncanny X-Men #600 is a fitting capstone to Bendis’ run. The emotional beats are seldom earned, characters behave in confusing ways, and you’re never quite sure what to make of what’s happening. As a fan of Bendis’ work in the Ultimate Universe, I really wish he had done better here.

Jeff Lemire takes over from there in Extraordinary X-Men #1, and while a lot of the building blocks of the story are worn smooth by now there’s enough potential there that I’m curious to see what happens next.

Eight months after the end of Secret Wars and the restoration of the Marvel Universe, mutantkind are dealing with another extinction-level threat. The Terrigen Mists of the Inhumans are causing an illness in mutants and rendering them sterile; the rise of one race means the end of another. Against this backdrop, Cyclops’ stunt at the end of Uncanny #600 has caused humanity to lose their sense of respect (??) for mutants. Knowing they’re on the ropes and unlikely to fight back, mutants are being ostracized and eliminated to prevent the spread of “m-pox”.

Storm has taken leadership of the mutant nation now, and Iceman is her second-in-command. Right off the bat, it’s exciting to see Bobby step into a leadership position. Despite the fact that he’s apparently one of the most powerful mutants to ever exist, he hasn’t really lived up to his potential. It’s quite possible he’ll get to do so here.

The first issue is “the collection,” the part of the story where a catalyzing force realizes the need and taps heroes on the shoulder. Magik is put to use as the travel agent, locating mutants in trouble and bringing them to the Haven, a secret location where the X-Men are based. She goes for Colossus, of course, who is content to live out the rest of his days with a farm and a bottle of vodka. When she tells him he’s needed, he tells her he just wants a normal life — the same thing Jean Grey tells Storm and Iceman when they come to collect her.

Already, members of the team feel like they’re facing the same problem in different ways. Storm has doubts about her ability to lead mutantkind; Iceman has never really had any responsibility for anyone before; Colossus has never had a taste for the craziness of the X-Men; and Jean Grey doesn’t want the burden of being a symbol for Xavier’s dream. Almost none of them want to do what they’re being called to do — they’re doing it because they have to.

Nightcrawler and Old Man Logan round out the team — or will, once the former is rescued from a mysterious band of mercenaries collecting mutants as test subjects, and the latter once Storm and Bobby convince him to come along and figure out what his deal is. I get the feeling that the issue-ending reveal of the old Wolverine is supposed to be a big shock, and it probably would have been if Secret Wars had ended on time.

The art for both issues is pretty strong; Bendis has a number of collaborators for #600, and while it could have been distracting to have wildly different art-styles bouncing around between scenes it mostly works here. There’s enough continuity in the character models that you’re not left wondering who’s who, and there are some great dynamic panels that lend a sense of motion and emotion to the proceedings. (You can tell I don’t know how to talk about art here.)

But the artistic team of Ramos (pencils), Olazaba (inks) and Delgado (color) is pretty wonderful in Extraordinary. The character designs are crisp — cartoonish, but grounded — and the color palette does a great job at enhancing the mood of every scene. And not for nothing, but the new-look Colossus? Super hot. God. Damn.

The story for Extraordinary X-Men is likely to be unpopular. We’ve already covered the mutant race with their backs against the wall before, and the rumors that Marvel is effectively swapping out the Inhumans for the mutants seem to be 100% true. It’s kind of interesting that the editorial office is leaning in to the controversy by having the Terrigen Mists actually BE the reason for the extinction of the race.

But still, I’m hopeful for mutantkind. Even though they’re in possibly the worst situation they’ve ever been in story-wise, they’ve got good writers on their titles. It’ll be interesting to see how Lemire handles the relationships among Storm’s team. How will the adult Bobby react to the teen Jean Grey? Magik and Colossus haven’t seen eye-to-eye in quite some time; is all that bad blood really under the bridge? How is Storm going to get along with Logan? How does Logan deal with everyone else? I suppose we’ll see.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Comic Books, Reviews

 

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The Month in Comics – October 2015

Reading 150I fell back into comics this month, and I fell a little hard. It was a perfect opportunity to check up on things, actually — the first wave of Marvel’s revamped universe was shipped under the All-New, All-Different Marvel banner. Even though the big summer event that allowed them to shuffle the deck hasn’t ended yet due to delays, it’s still a good time to check in and see all the stuff the House of Ideas is doing with their flagship franchises.

I talked a bit about the comics I was planning to buy here, and on what platform, and why. Once I got in to my local comic shop, though, I realized just how much I missed spending time there. Anna and the gang at Illusive Comics work really hard to make it a community shop for the geeks in Santa Clara, and they want it to be as safe and welcoming a space as possible. I’ve got to support that, so I dusted off my old pull box and will be steadily stocking up on title subscriptions there. This might mean a smaller reliance on Comixology, but that’s just fine with me. Amazon borked the service quite a bit when they bought it, and I’ve been reluctant to go back to it ever since.

Anyway, I picked up a few Marvel titles last month — Sam Wilson: Captain America, the next volume of Guardians of the Galaxy, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and two Star Wars miniseries, Chewbacca and Shattered Empire. I’m holding back on Uncanny Inhumans, and will probably go digital there. I’ve also picked up a few non-Marvel titles: Archie (from Waid and Staples), Jughead (from Zdarsky) and Bad Moon Rising, because I’m a sucker for a cover with a really intriguing werewolf.

I’ve only read three or four issues out of my haul, so next month’s write-up will be a bit beefier. For now, though, a few thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.

THE NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA
Sam Wilson made headlines last month with the first issue of his new series, and reading it I can totally see why. Nick Spencer is taking Captain America closer to the streets here; Sam wants the shield to be more than just a symbol, but something that regular Americans see and care about. Steve Rogers was more aspirational in his role as Captain, staying above the political fray as much as possible and making sure every single action he took reflected his ideals. Not a bad tack to take, but I could see how it wouldn’t work for Sam.

Besides, Steve has worked for SHIELD and the US Government for how long? He knows what they’re capable of, and his decision to change the way it works from the inside is something he has a fairly good chance of doing. However, Sam’s experience as a black man dealing with institutions he and his community has been disenfranchised with for so long leads him to simply abandoning them and trying to affect change on his own. That makes sense, too — even though it makes it that much harder.

Sam’s first story takes him to Arizona, where the Sons of the Serpent are rounding up illegal immigrants for some unknown purpose. I’m impressed that neither he nor Nick Spencer, the writer, is taking baby steps with this; they both know the shit-storm that’ll come down as a result of these choices, and they do it anyway. It’s a bold statement, not just for the character and the writer, but for Marvel itself. I know we’ve said Cap has always been political; while that may be true, it’s very rare that he’s been this topical.

I dig the hardscrabble nature of Sam’s operation, and Misty Knight, his right-hand gal, is lifted straight from a 70s blaxploitation movie in the best possible way. There’s a hint of romance there, because of course there is, but with Captain America and the new Thor kissing somewhere down the line in the new Avengers comic who knows what’ll happen there. I hope that they don’t introduce relationship troubles before the team’s really had a chance to come together.

Still, the strength of this first issue and the boldness of its choices has earned this a spot on my pull list; now that I know Sam has made the choice to distance himself from SHIELD and the government, it makes me a lot more intrigued to see if the All-New, All-Different Avengers will take a similar stance that promotes the idea that superheroics are best left outside the shifting landscape of the political theatre.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
My engagement with Bendis took a major hit over the course of his X-Men tenure; the quippy, crackling dialogue that worked so well with Ultimate Spider-Man didn’t translate so well to what was happening with the mutant corner of the Universe, and the direction he’s taken them is something I have a few issues with. Using Beast as a catalyst for his run — by breaking the time-stream to bring the original five X-Men forward to the present — has seen Hank McCoy’s character pretty badly damaged over the past few years; we’ll see how all of that shakes out with his run-ending Uncanny X-Men #600.

But what does this have to do with the Guardians? Well, a lot of the problems that Bendis brought to the X-Men have popped up with the Guardians, too. The dialogue, while pretty snappy, doesn’t quite fit all of the characters, and the plotting is so loose that there’s not a good chance to really get a feel for the title or the team. I was hoping that this new volume would be a chance to introduce a new status quo for the Guardians that would see them somewhat more stable, but the first issue makes me a little nervous.

Peter Quill — Star-Lord — has taken over as leader of the Spartax Empire and left the group, which means Rocket is the de-facto leader. The Guardians spend the first issue stealing an unknown artifact from the Chitauri, and that serves as an introduction to the new team — Rocket, Groot, Drax and Venom are joined by The Thing and Kitty Pride, who’s taken on the mantle of Star-Lady. (But where’s Lockheed?)

In order to find out what the thing does, the Guardians visit an obviously unhappy Peter and it’s clear they’re not on the best of terms with each other for various reasons. But before they can do much in the way of expositing, the issue ends with the appearance of two people — one the ally, the other, a villain.

It’s all a bit…shallow. There isn’t any room for deeper character beats, and the plot points don’t even get a chance to sink in before we’re on to the next thing. It makes me wonder if Bendis simply can’t write team books all that well; while he’s really able to do amazing work with single character books, I’m really not digging his team stuff. Maybe it’d be better to pick up Iron Man and drop this title? I don’t know.

Next month will see The Ultimates, Extraordinary X-Men (Welcome to Marvel, Jeff Lemire!) and a whole host of other titles for ANAD Marvel, and I’m sure I’ll pick up a lot more titles than I mean to. See you then!

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2015 in Comic Books, Reviews

 

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