Comic Book Review – X-Men Epic Collection: Children of the Atom

X-Men Epic Collection: Children of the Atom (2015)
Reprints X-Men #1-23
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Jack Kirby, Werner Roth, and Alex Toth

The X-Men have had quite a tumultuous history. When I was getting into comic books in the late 1980s/early 1990s, they were insanely hot. X-Men comics were some of the best-selling books, which spun off into action figures, video games, and multiple animated series. When we think of the X-Men, many immediately think of Wolverine. My personal favorites have always been Colossus and Nightcrawler. Yet, none of that is present at the beginning and wouldn’t be for over a decade. The original X-Men was such an oddball book, feeling like an afterthought by Stan Lee. 

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Comic Book Review – Daredevil: Lockdown and Devil’s Reign

Daredevil: Lockdown (2021)
Reprints Daredevil #31-36
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Mike Hawthorne, Marco Checchetto, Stefano Landini, Francesco Mobili, and Manuel Garcia

Devil’s Reign (2022)
Reprints Devil’s Reign #1-6 & Devil’s Reign Omega
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Marco Checchetto

Throughout Chip Zdarsky’s current run on Daredevil, he’s made it a point to show how it’s not just organized crime that creates problems in urban environments. The police & the city government will agitate the public to serve their own purposes, often to continue a flow of money & power from criminal enterprise. Lockdown finds Matt Murdock serving time in prison while being allowed to keep his identity secret due to a Supreme Court ruling within the Marvel Universe. Being spotlighted as Daredevil doesn’t afford him any benefits, though and he quickly becomes targeted by his fellow inmates but also a corrupt warden.

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Comic Book Review – Daredevil: Truth/Dare and Doing Time

Daredevil: Truth/Dare (2021)
Reprints Daredevil #21-25, Annual #1
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Marco Checchetto, Manuel Garcia, Francisco Mobili, Mike Hawthorne

Daredevil: Doing Time (2021)
Reprints Daredevil #26-30
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Marco Checchetto and Mike Hawthorne

Chip Zdarsky has completely sold me on Daredevil, a character I previously was lukewarm towards. The Marvel street-level characters outside of Spider-Man never really caught my attention. For years, I’ve tried picking up a Daredevil issue here and there to see if a new creative team could garner my interest, but they’ve continuously sputtered out. Zdarsky’s take on Daredevil works so well for me because the title is basically a two-hander. The story being told is just as much about Matt Murdock as it is about Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. Years prior, Fisk was elected mayor of NYC, a concept I don’t think any writer has done much interesting with until now. By spending so much time with Fisk, we have really understood and even empathized with the character. He’s undoubtedly a villain, but he’s also a person. 

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Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 7 & 8

Ultimate Spider-Man: Irresponsible (2019)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #40-45
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Cats & Kings (2019)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #46-53
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man goes back into the daily struggle of Peter Parker’s life. He’s still searching for a costume replacement as his last one was shredded. It’s a great reminder that Spider-Man always works best when facing realistic challenges to balance out the fantastic villains that come his way. His relationship with Mary Jane is on the rocks, and he reacts with the sort of demeanor one would expect from a teenage boy, with a lot of immaturity and anger. Despite bearing the moniker Spider-MAN, Peter is still very much a child. That anger translates into an inability to listen to others, such as when Flash Thompson tries to make a connection with Peter, mend fences, and our protagonist blows him off. 

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Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 5 & 6

Ultimate Spider-Man: Public Scrutiny (2012)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #28-32
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Venom (2011)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #33-39
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

In the fifth volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Brian Michael Bendis steps back to focus on Peter Parker even more. While the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories spent much time on Peter’s personal life, Bendis has outdone them. He builds on the readership’s likely background knowledge of the characters to play with expectations and develop them beyond simple archetypes. The Daily Bugle becomes a key feature in this collection, and thus we get to see J. Jonah Jameson clashes with his staff, particularly Ben Urich, who challenges his boss’s view on Spider-Man. In addition, a bank robber is running around town dressed up like Spidey, which gets Jameson salivating over the tabloid possibilities. 

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Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 3 & 4

Ultimate Spider-Man: Double Trouble (2011)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #14-21
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Legacy (2006)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #22-26
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

It was quite an admirable feat. Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were creating a cohesive continuous narrative in comics that hadn’t really been done before. The events of one issue carried over into the next, and the circumstances of an entire year had an actual weight on the direction of Peter Parker’s life. Brian Michael Bendis was writing Ultimate Spider-Man in an era where that continuity was even more expected, and so the ties between Spider-Man and his supporting cast & villains are expected to be even more tightly knit. When villains appeared in the original run of Spider-Man, they had highly loose or no connection to Parker’s world. Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, and the rest became who they were independent of each other, but in the Ultimate Universe, they will have much tighter connections. 

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Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 1 & 2

Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility (2000)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Ultimate Spider-Man: Learning Curve (2003)
Reprints Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley

Last year, in the build-up to Spider-Man: No Way Home, I read through the entire Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run that created the character. It was a very interesting experience as I’d only experienced these stories fragmented and often not in order before. Reading them straight through did two things. The first was it opened my eyes to what a fantastic artist Ditko was. I may disagree with the guy in his completely bonkers political views, but the man was a brilliant penciller on the title and showed tremendous growth over the years. Second, I truly understood the character Spider-Man/Peter Parker was intended to be in the early days. Parker truly was a complex and sometimes unlikeable hero. His problems were relatable, and so were his mistakes. He was a teenage boy, much like the readership, so his struggles were meant to reflect theirs.

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Comic Book Review – Thor by Walt Simonson

Thor by Walt Simonson Omnibus (2011)
Reprints Thor #337-355, 357-369, 371-382, Balder the Brave #1-4
Written by Walt Simonson
Art by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema

I can’t say I was a fan of the Thor comic books growing up or even as an adult. I loved mythology as a child, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Mythology got me hooked. But something about Thor just didn’t hook me. I was certainly intrigued by the art I saw, but the stories, with their very austere manner of speech, were a little much. Every time a new creator comes onboard the title, I will give it a chance, only to find myself growing bored. I wish I could tell you I fell in love with Walt Simonson’s legendary Thor run, but I can only really say that I respect it, and there were parts I enjoyed a lot. He’s undoubtedly a lover of Norse myths and infuses the series with it from the first issue.

Simonson had done pencil work on Thor when Len Wein wrote the title. He worked on Thor for about a year in the late 1970s, but by the time Simonson took over as both writer/artist, he’d intentionally worked to change his style. I don’t know how to fully describe Simonson’s artwork, but it’s not like much else I’ve ever seen. It has traces of styles present in illustrations from the 1960s and 70s. Male characters are often “chunky,” square in shape, and broad-shouldered. Female characters are smaller but still powerful, agile, and muscular. That’s really just describing the heroic and villainous characters. Supporting characters come in a wider variety of shapes. Volstagg and his wife are both very plump and round but not drawn for comic effect, instead presented as just who they are. Movement feels fluid due to Simonson’s line work; there’s a visual path used to show characters flying through the sky or bringing a weapon down on an enemy.

Simonson opened his run by shaking things up. He introduces Beta Ray Bill in #337, a figure who, for people outside the comics, will sound insane. Bill is an alien, specifically a Korbinite. His people have been displaced from their home in The Burning Galaxy and have a massive space ark working its way through the universe to find a new home. The Korbinites use their technology and willing test subjects to create a champion. Bill is the one who passes the tests, and he is transformed into a fierce cybernetic warrior. SHIELD detects the ship crossing through our solar system, and Nick Fury calls on Thor to help investigate. Thor loses his hammer during the fight, and Bill can lift it, transforming him into a variation on Thor. Eventually, Bill and Thor become friends, and Odin is able to forge Stormbreaker, a new hammer just for Bill.

Thor had always been one of the more Jack Kirby-influenced Marvel comics, so blending high fantasy and mythology felt like a natural fit. Beta Ray Bill is also such a unique character that throwing him on the cover of that first issue felt like a declaration that Thor was getting a major shake-up. During Simonson’s run, Bill is paired with Lady Sif, one of Thor’s potential paramours, and I found their dynamic to be far more interesting than any relationship the title character ever had. Bill’s story also ties directly into the central story arc that makes up the first big chunk of Simonson’s run. His homeworld was overrun by fire demons who ended up being the acolytes of Surtur, a devilish figure in Norse mythology. 

Simonson had previously done art for the immensely popular Star Wars title Marvel published at the time, which is where his art style was really reinvented. When he gets Thor, he’s employing those skills to present large-scale space battles and showcase the scope of the mythology that runs through this pocket of the Marvel universe. Throughout the first year of issues, we’re constantly teased that something is happening in the background that will tie these stories together. A shadowy figure forges a large sword on an anvil, and the narration frames this as more than just a blacksmith. Making this weapon is a cosmic act; the hammer working the metal is cosmic thunder. Eventually, we’ll see this sword being wielded, and its swing will rent a chasm through the Nine Realms. It’s not a sword; it’s a manifestation of ancient dark power. 

While Simonson ties his epic stories to events on Earth, this run was the one where Thor’s human ties were quietly pushed into the background. Previously, Donald Blake had been Thor’s human form on Earth. It’s relatively straightforward that these are two separate entities, and Simonson has Blake disappear, and Thor simply never turns back into him. Instead, the hero establishes a secret identity of Sigurd Carlson, rents an apartment in NYC, and gets a job as a construction worker. Unfortunately, the Carlson identity doesn’t seem to be an element Simonson loved dearly, as it is used as a plot device and then discarded for most of the run. 

Thor having a mortal persona has just never made sense to me. It makes sense for Spider-Man or Iron Man; they were someone before they became the superhero. Thor is just Thor; that’s who he was born as. On the other hand, Thor had been handled a little like Captain Marvel/Shazam in his creation. Blake would smash his wooden cane down and, in a blast of thunder & lightning, be transformed into the hammer-wielding Norse god. By discarding Blake, it would be as if Billy Batson shouted Shazam and never went back. In Donny Cates’ current run on Thor, he’s had a storyline that addressed the abandonment of Donald Blake. If you are a fan of that aspect of Thor, I do not think you would enjoy how that story turns out.

Simonson also clearly loves the character of Balder the Brave, like a whole lot! Balder doesn’t exist in the MCU; maybe in the future? In Norse mythology, he plays the role that Thor has been thrust into in the movies. Balder is the golden child of the Norse pantheon; he’s the God of Light and, therefore, deeply beloved by Odin. In the myths, Thor is a cantankerous moody figure. It makes sense as he’s the God of the Storm; they pop up and are destructive, and suddenly everything is calm again. Balder is having an existential crisis when Simonson’s run begins. In the comics, he goes through the story of a myth where Balder is betrayed by Loki and dies. Balder is back in the land of the living but shaken up by that experience, growing overweight from depression and just hanging around Asgard doing nothing.

Balder’s story happens with small connections to Thor’s and feels like a separate comic book inside Thor’s title. Balder encounters the Norns, the triplet goddesses of destiny. They show him a vision of what will come for Asgard, which sets him off on a redemption arc. He transforms himself into the hero he’s supposed to be and fights entities from throughout Norse mythology. Simonson does some deep cuts to build out the world of the Nine Realms. Thor & Balder’s great-grandfather Buri shows up for a bit to cause problems while Odin is experiencing one of his many deaths. To his credit, Simonson brings out a lot of humanity from characters that so easily could have been written as distant from human experience.

Some new elements are also introduced, and I don’t think they are great. Malekith, the Dark Elf, is introduced here, and I was surprised at how inconsequential he feels. He’s certainly a threat, but one that is overcome easily to make way for the war with Surtur. Lorelei is the little sister of The Enchantress, and she just feels like a repetition of that character but less interesting. There’s also Kurse, a character that the writing seems to want you to believe is a possibly amnesiac Thor, but of course, isn’t. I like how Simonson took the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and made them one and the same, essentially with the Faerie. I don’t think The Wild Hunt storyline here is entirely coherent, but I get what Simonson was going for. Also, I think this run does some interesting things with The Executioner, and I wish Simonson had used him more.

I can’t say this earned its spot as one of my favorite Marvel runs of all time. I think it was essential to read it as one of those benchmarks in the history of the comic medium. This clear vision remade Thor and influenced everything that has come after. It could be argued that almost every creative team that came after Simonson is actively repeating the stories & themes he told or pushing back against them with a deep awareness of how they transformed the book. If you are a fantasy fan or someone who enjoys the big, bold action-oriented stories that comics can tell, this omnibus will pack a mighty punch for you.

Comic Book Review – JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers (2022)
Reprints JLA/Avengers #1-4
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by George Pérez

Not a hoax! Not a dream! The Justice League finally crosses the omniverse and meets Marvel’s Avengers. This was the dream project of comics creator George Pérez for decades. He was there in the 1980s when the first project started. It fell through due to the infamous Marvel EiC Jim Shooter’s interferences, but Pérez constantly made it known that he was drawing this comic if it ever came to pass. When Pérez entered into an exclusive contract with independent publisher CrossGen, he even carved out an exception if this comic was finalized. In 2003, it finally happened, and Pérez got his wish to draw EVERYONE in a single story that crossed companies. On May 6, 2022, Pérez passed away from complications of pancreatic cancer. He had announced he was terminal in 2021, and comic fans had entered a state of mourning. I want to look at his dream project and talk about his influence on my life as a kid, reading and exploring the scope of American comic books.

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Comic Book Review – Doctor Strange Epic Collection V1: Master of the Mystic Arts

Doctor Strange Epic Collection Volume 1: Master of the Mystic Arts (2018)
Reprints Strange Tales v1 #110-111, 114-146, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Art by Steve Ditko

For such a massive movie star, Doctor Strange’s origins didn’t guarantee that level of fame. He began as a back-up feature in the aptly named anthology Strange Tales. Despite the name, Strange Tales was initially a showcase for science fiction stories in the 1950s. It was part of Marvel chasing the popularity of gorier stories found in EC Comics like Tales From the Crypt, but as superheroes rose back into popularity in the 1960s, the company pivoted. The feature story of Strange Tales in the early 1960s was The Human Torch. While having waned in popularity in recent years, The Fantastic Four was the premiere book published by Marvel in the 1960s. They were the company’s entry into the Silver Age cape & tights landscape, and the Torch was one of the most popular characters. A few issues in, a back-up feature was needed, and there was creator Steve Ditko with the idea for Dr. Strange.

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