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The ’90s Revisited – Magic: The Gathering – The Shadow Mage #3

[I’d ‘revisited’ this series as a whole back in August/September 2012 for a group blog that doesn’t exist anymore. And due to a personal issue with Boom Studios’ comics I refuse to buy their new Magic series. So, instead of buying THOSE new comics, and to have my content covering this series fully on my own blog (so as to not disappear when an external blog shuts down), I’m revisiting–as single issues–the ORIGINAL Magic: The Gathering comics published by Acclaim through their Armada imprint back in 1995!]


The ’90s Revisited – Magic: The Gathering

The Shadow Mage #1  |  The Shadow Mage #2  |  The Shadow Mage #3  |  The Shadow Mage #4


magicthegathering_theshadowmage_003War Child

Writer: Jeff Gomez
Penciller: Val Mayerik
Inker: Rick Bryant
Printed Color: Mark Csaszar
Letterer: Bethanne Niedz
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Layton
Cover Painting: Val Mayerik
Cover Date: September 1995
Cover Price: $2.50

After an unplanned three-month hiatus (hey, just like real comics!), I’m back to cover the THIRD issue of this mini-series. And rather than having covered the entire mini while the new Boom series was still on #1…I’m now "in line" with their series, covering the third issue of this classic Armada series while Boom‘s is around #3 or #4..

Perhaps it’s because I’ve had this issue sitting around for a few weeks waiting for me to write up this post, but the cover feels fairly "iconic" to me at this point…though I believe I’d mentioned in my post about #2 that I didn’t even remember the cover and figured it was forgettable. We see Jared in a strange pose somewhat holding up Ezer–or catching him as he falls (but in that case, Jared’s arm should be under his mentor at the man’s back, not around his chest!). Jared looks rather wild and desperate…which is appropriate if he’s facing an enemy more menacing than the Juggernaut carting up behind him!

Getting into the issue itself…we begin with an attack on Arathoxia. Juggernauts break down the city’s gates, before we shift to the Lady Verdenth speaking at Ravidel as the citizenry react to the attack…including Yorgo and his gang, who take up arms to defend "his" city. We shift to the watchtower of Tobias Kavrel, Lord of Stonehaven’s eastern plains, where the lord and his minions come under attack from a Demonic Horde…though they wish to leave the lowly paupers to their fate, Ravidel’s forces aren’t discriminating. Ravidel bids his minions have fun (think Shredder sending Tokka and Rahzar out in TMNT II)…and the scene shifts again. We find Yorgo and crew dealing with Drudge Skeletons before Jared arrives and aids them with a Disintegrate spell. (Amazing in a way that I remember/recognize these). Back in the Sultan’s palace, we learn that he wishes to have the "shadow mage" found, which will give Ravidel what he seeks. Chaos and death continue throughout the city. In House Carthalion, the man who almost caught Jared in the previous issue is found dying. He mistakes Jared for Liana; and while Yorgo and his crew cannot locate "the old woman" Jared bids them find, the man confesses to having part in the murder of the Lady Carthalion (Gwendolyn)…and "releases" Liana. From what, it isn’t immediately apparent. Jared, Yorgo, and crew continue to (try to) help others flee the carnage, while the Lady Verdenth unleashes powerful magic at Ravidel. As that battle (or "duel") continues, Liana retrieves Jared and Ezer, and Ravidel emerges victorious against Verdenth. As Jared prepares to challenge Ravidel himself, Liana intervenes…it’s not yet time. And Jared vows that he will have vengeance against Ravidel.

I’m a bit mixed on the art this time through. On the one hand, it’s not bad in itself, and some of the spells are certainly recognizable if one’s familiar with pre-Weatherlight Magic: the Gathering card art. Other than that it’s mostly "generic fantasy-ish" art…not horrible, but not wonderful. I appreciate the recognizability of characters and spells…but if I didn’t recall the cards and art from way back when, it’d be that much more generic overall. The "planar barge"–that is, the corpse of the Elder Dragon Chromium/Rhuell–is impressive and fairly striking throughout. That Ravidel addresses the corpse as if alive–and it blasts stuff with bolts from its mouth–is interesting, considering it IS, at this point, a corpse, though not obviously a zombie creature or such!

Story-wise, this is also fairly generic in its own way…and yet, we have some progression of stuff. We learn that it was the Lady Verdenth who used her Green magic to save baby Jared while he and Ezer slept in the woods before getting to ‘Thoxia. We also see more "political intrigue" and bickering with the various Houses of the city. And we see Jared’s helplessness and fury at Ravidel amidst allies helping guide him.

As "next issues" go, this one is ok, though not what I’d call "great" or anything. I’m willing to hold it in higher esteem primarily for nostalgia, as this came out in a similar time to the HarperPrism novels, and the whole of Magic: The Gathering lore was still in flux without the directed timeline it enjoys today in 2021. This continues to be a story built around card references…rather than being the story of the cards, or the story on which cards seem based themselves. Re-reading this and poring through to write this post, I re-realize how dense this is…and if my summary above seems to have gaps, I’m trying not to re-write the issue itself as I’d almost need to, with how much is crammed in. Between taking time to "cross-reference" and pick out character names and locations as well as looking at the art based on cards and the sheer density, there’s a lot more time to spend in the issue itself than most modern comics that weigh it at twice or more this issue’s $2.50 cover price…so there’s present-day "value" there, if one already owns and simply reads the issue, or acquires it for the price or less of a modern comic.

To be 3 issues in on this series with a mere single issue remaining…even by pre-2000s standards, it would seem hard to see how this could wrap up with a satisfying ending. While I don’t recall the ending…I do recall that this series was followed up by a 5-issue mini-series…which leaves me assuming that this series did not actually wrap things up in a satisfying way.

Finally…this issue originally came with a sheet of tiny punch-out creature tokens. At one point back in 1995, I had a small container that I kept them in, and actually used them playing some games of Magic. It’s possible I still have that around somewhere, though actually finding them anytime soon/specifically likely would not happen. I’m pretty sure I’d snagged a couple copies of this issue from a bargain bin in the last several years specifically for the tokens, as a novelty-bonus. (Same as I sometimes snag other ’90s comics from bargain bins solely for the polybagged-in bonus item/ephemera).

I’m eager to get to the next issue…as well as to get to more "canon lore"–or at least mid-’90s versions of such–in the Ice Age and other Magic: The Gathering issues.

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_003_blogtrailer

The ’90s Revisited – Magic: The Gathering – The Shadow Mage #2

[I’d ‘revisited’ this series as a whole back in August/September 2012 for a group blog that doesn’t exist anymore. And due to a personal issue with Boom Studios’ comics I refuse to buy their new Magic series. So, instead of buying THOSE new comics, and to have my content covering this series fully on my own blog (so as to not disappear when an external blog shuts down), I’m revisiting–as single issues–the ORIGINAL Magic: The Gathering comics published by Acclaim through their Armada imprint back in 1995!]

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_002Desolate Angel

Writer: Jeff Gomez
Pencils: Val Mayerik
Ink: James Pascoe
Painted Color: Mark Csaszar
Letters: Adam Niedzwiecki
Editor-In-Chief: Bob Layton
Cover Painting: Val Mayerik
Cover Date: August 1995
Cover Price: $2.50

Well, one thing to notice straight away is that you really need to pay clooooose attention to years to know what sort of time has passed! The first issue opened on "Autumn of 1265, by the reckoning of the Sages of Minorad." That issue referenced time in relation to that–a week later, a month later, seven years later. This issue opens in "late Summer, 1280 by the reckoning of the Sages of Minorad." So it’s been nearly 15 years since the events that opened the first issue…and doing the math, we’re opening some 7-8 years after the previous issue ended! So quiiiiite a gap, there.

The young Jared Carthalion is now 14ish, having spent the last 3/4ths of a decade training to take on Ravidel. However, while Ravidel knows where and how to find Jared, knows that Jared’s got access to magic, and even declared that their final duel had begun…he apparently decided to kick back and leave Jared alone for awhile, rather than finishing his would-be opponent while he could.

So we get some verbal exposition–as Jared is pained using his magic, Ezer has had him attempt to train physically so he can put up SOME sort of fight, if not magically. A giant spider is summoned to them and attacks–Ezer immediately recognizes it as "a minion of Ravidel" because of course. This is the last straw, and NOW Jared determines to fight back, and summons a Hurloon Minotaur. In the midst of the giant spider attack, the Minotaur and Jared discuss what’s happening, share introductions (the minotaur’s name is Sings Two Ways, and he and his people were granted a boon by the elder Carthalion that they cannot repay, and thus Sings Two Ways gladly fights in defense of Jared and Ezer). Jared sees the spider apparently winning and steps in and the two slay the creature.

The spider defeated, Sings Two Ways laments he must leave…he’s been poisoned and will die unless Jared returns him to his people. Their home destroyed, Jared and Ezer are now homeless in the rain in the streets of Arathoxia. Jared spots a beautiful young woman and laments his raggedness by comparison. Before long, he and Ezer are in a hospice, the older man dying, and Jared determined to seek out some way to save him. Leaving the hospice, he’s set upon by Yorgo and his gang, and Jared summons some goblins, but is then horrified when they nearly kill the boys and laments, wondering if butchering others is what his power can do. We get a page of Arathoxian politics re: Ravidel, and then find Jared speaking with the Vizier’s wife in House Carthalion, where he has ventured for help. She references "the battle of Aster Fall" (which contextualizes the previous issue a bit) and shows him a Black Lotus, but they’re interrupted by the vizier’s return so she gives him an Alabaster Potion and sends him off. Jared steals the Black Lotus, recognizing its power, but while he tries to figure out how to use it, is greeted by that beautiful young woman–who invites Jared to Beggartown that evening.

After giving some of the potion to Ezer, Jared meets her there, where we find a whole community of thieves/beggars, including Yorgo’s group…and they’re none to happy that Liana has brought Jared into their space. But Jared offers some of the remaining potion to one of the boys hurt by the goblins earlier, though it earns him no thanks. The city’s guards descend on the group from nowhere, and Liana stops Jared from using his magic as that would bring the wrong sort of attention. As the crowd flees…Jared and Liana are suddenly confronted by none other than Ravidel himself! Jared lashes out immediately, but the more experienced planeswalker casts a spell and defeats Jared. Liana steps in–apparently she and Ravidel have some history–and drives the planeswalker off after revealing she has multiple moxes and referencing "The Treaty of the Shard." Ravidel claims a proper duel now would run counter to his plans, so leaves. Hours later, Jared and Liana pose for the page, as we see she’s second-guessed what she was going to tell Jared, as the boy realizes he’ll have to go it alone.

Well…that’s a loooong summary, and I’m sure I really glossed over some key details! There’s enough going on here to fill 3-4 issues in terms of modern comics’ pacing and such. This is a really dense story…and one that relies on the reader to have picked up on and remembered a number of subtle details! The reader also gets to fill in a lot of blanks, between the 7-year-gap between issues to imagining the details of Sings Two Ways’ relationship to Jared’s father, to the nature of House Carthalion. There’s also the curiosity of Ravidel allowing so much time to pass without expending much effort to personally confront Jared until he’s begun finding apparently-powerful allies, such as Liana! While I have some meta-textual knowledge of "The Shard," I’ll leave that to discuss more as it comes up in other Armada Magic issues, since I’m going issue-by-issue through one series at a time here.

The story continues to hold more potential than what it executes…it’s not bad, but feels too dense, too "compressed" for me after 20 years of "decompressed" storytelling in comics, and more years removed from the depths of Magic: the Gathering knowledge. Back in 1996, I was fresh into the game and fairly steeped in knowledge of the various cards and bits of lore. Taking stuff month by month, where the game had only even existed for a little under two years, it was a whole different thing back then than now, some 25 years later reading this from a muuuuch different vantage point!

The art is good, and I feel like I liked it better in this issue than the previous, though it’s the same art team! Perhaps because–while dense story-wise–this issue didn’t have to cover 7+ years, so there was more of a sense of consistency…and I’m beginning to get a better sense of characters, now that things have settled a bit, and been able to build a bit on what’s come before, which I suppose allows me to appreciate the art more, not being as overwhelmed with "everything."

This definitely looks like a fantasy comic, and continues to remind me a bit of Barry Windsor-Smith‘s art for some reason.

I was also interested to note ads in the issue…particularly for the Chronicles set. This was the set, after all, that released in August or so 1995, offering white-border "unlimited" editions of previously-limited black-border cards from the Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark expansion sets…and which led to Wizards of the Coast establishing their "Restricted List" that persists to this day.

We have the addition of Liana–apparently a planeswalker herself–to the story, and it seems obvious something bigger is afoot. There’s the general knowledge displayed by House Carthalion of the battle of Aster Fall; their possession of a Black Lotus; and Liana having history with Ravidel. At the second issue here, that suggests "the world" of Magic is about to get a whole lot bigger than Jared’s little corner of things.

As mentioned in covering the previous issue…this story is one built around the cards…rather than the cards being built around the story. The issue–as with the first (though I didn’t get into it)–has a bit of "backmatter" with words from the editor to the reader, as well as a mini-column "Seer Analysis" by Shawn F. Carnes where Carnes looks at the issue from the point of view of Magic: The Gathering the game, pointing out details such as a Hurloon Minotaur being a 2/3 creature, while a Giant Spider is 2/4, and so while the two creatures would indeed damage each other, neither would one-shot-kill the other.

Also like the first issue, this issue’s cover announces the inclusion of a genuine Magic: The Gathering card. UNlike the previous issue, though…this one has the card in a clear plastic insert/wrapper stapled into the issue itself, rather than being loose in a polybag. This certainly allows a better situation wherein one can READ the issue itself and choose whether or not to remove the card! It may be a crapshoot if you find this issue "in the wild" on whether it includes the card or not, but it’s more likely, perhaps, than if you find #1 in the wild. [Edit to add: the card this issue comes with is a 4th Edition Blue Elemental Blast]

I also have a certain amount of personal sentimentality to this issue, as I recall a visit to my grandmother and having this comic with me, as I associate this cover with that visit; it also puts me in mind of an aunt, who had tried to show interest in my comics for my sake. I know I had consciously recalled bits of the first issue, as well as this issue from its cover (and it’s great that the cover shows something from the issue itself–a Hurloon Minotaur vs. Giant Spider!). I don’t have the same conscious recollection of the covers, even, of the 3rd and 4th issue of this series, nor even the story or how things turn out…even consciously recalling having re-read this series a few years ago!

Two issues down, and we’re halfway through this entire mini-series…

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_002_blogtrailer

The ’90s Revisited – Magic: The Gathering – The Shadow Mage #1

[I’d ‘revisited’ this series as a whole back in August/September 2012 for a group blog that doesn’t exist anymore. And due to a personal issue with Boom Studios‘ comics I refuse to buy the new MAGIC #1. So, instead of buying new comics, and to have the content fully on my own blog to not disappear, I’m going to re-revisit–as single issues–the ORIGINAL Magic: The Gathering comics published by Acclaim through their Armada imprint back in 1995!]

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_001The Aster Fall

Writer: Jeff Gomez
Pencils: Val Mayerik
Ink: James Pascoe
Painted Color: Mark Csaszar
Letters: Bethanne Niedz
Editor-In-Chief: Bob Layton
Cover Painting: Val Mayerik
Cover Date: July 1995
Cover Price: $2.50

To the best of my understanding, this is THE first Magic: The Gathering comic. Though its story may not chronologically be the first, it was the first-published, kicking off the Armada imprint from Acclaim, and introducing the (comics) world to MTG in the spring of 1995. The game itself had premiered in October 1993, some 18 months earlier…and with its setting as a “multiverse,” it was certainly a ripe thing to bring to comics!

The issue opens on an active battlefield. We meet Lord Carthalion, Ezer, and a Lieutenant as they witness a falling star–a bad omen. A magic-powered ship bursts onto the scene, carrying Battlemage Ravidel…the enemy of this Lord Carthalion. The two engage into a “duel” and exchange spells to weaken and harm the other…culminating in Carthalion sacrificing himself to buy time for Ezer to flee with baby Jared…last heir to the Carthalion name. In the aftermath of the battle, Ezer has been artificially aged to a wasted old man, though the baby is relatively unaffected. As Ezer laments their situation–drinking himself into a stupor–we see the baby apparently work some protective magic to save his own life against the intrusion of a (dire?) wolf. Later, city guards at Arathoxia do not believe that this frail old man is in any way who he claims to be, nor the child with him…functionally banishing them from what should have been a life of relative luxury (despite their losses) to that of lowly street-rats, scrounging for food and living off the scraps of the city.

7 years pass, and the young Jared Carthalion is an able thief, stealing food for himself and father-figure Ezer to survive (barely) on. He is bullied by others his age and in no way “included,” existing all but alone. Even after the years that have passed, Ezer tries to keep alive the flame of who Jared really is, where he’s come from, though the boy can’t even envision anything ever getting better…which enrages the old man, who strikes the boy. Meanwhile, using a scrying device, Ravidel spies on the boy and his guardian, and opts to arbitrarily send a summoned minion to kill the boy. When the berzerker bursts in on the pair, Ezer works some magic…as does Jared! The boy has “tapped!” This excites Ezer–the boy WILL be able to avenge his house! However, Ravidel revels in this as well, declaring that their FINAL duel begins.

The last time I read this series, I blew through all four issues pretty quickly, glossing over details and simply taking it in as a totally generic fantasy story with too-fast pacing, lack of characterization, and largely being Magic in little more than name-only. This time through, sticking to this single issue and looking back over stuff and taking it in as a singular thing, I enjoyed it a bit more.

Story-wise, this IS a fairly generic thing. There’s hardly room in ~21 pages to worldbuild when the entire issue encompasses a massive battle, travel, and spans more than seven years.

We’re introduced to Lord Carthalion–the patriarch/leader of the Carthalions. He seems to have some magical ability…but is a mere mortal, compared to the power of a PLANESWALKER in Ravidel. We never get a rason for this battle, for Ravidel’s assault. He’s a two-dimensional villain for the sake of being a villain, apparently. An opponent because their MUST BE “an opponent.” We also get no real sense of what a “planeswalker” is, or WHY a “planeswalker” is and so on. Meta-textually, the reader probbbbbbably knows what one is–the allure of a Magic: The Gathering comic is almost certainly to expand on the cards and game one already knows.

Now in 2021, I’m looking back on this comic from 25 years later, as a person 25 years older, and with 25 years and a number of additional comics as well as dozens of novels and quite a few short stories, and “newer resources” such as Wikipedia and a Magic: The Gathering -specific fan-wiki, and podcast resources/interviews with creators, and generally a heckuva larger understanding than 14/15-year-old Walt had. And I can “appreciate” this issue as the first bit of a much larger thing, rather than something to be taken in total isolation.

The art doesn’t overly impress me–though it’s not bad, really. It’s absolutely better than anything I could produce, but none of these characters are REALLY all that singularly-recognizable and are far from “iconic” visages. The overall visuals certainly evoke a certain mid-90s feel…perhaps due to thinking of the artist recently as I read this issue, I see hints of Barry Windsor-Smith, and overall early Valiant here…though it’s obviously other creators.

While the visuals try to evoke very specific cards and their in-game use; and a column in the back of the issue elaborates on very specific Magic: The Gathering cards represented in the action–I’m far enough removed from early MTG and these cards and any such knowledge I was steeped in as a kid reading this, so it reduces the cards’ representations to generic fantasy-ish magic effects and some random-ish action that meant little to me in the reading.

The cover gives us Lord Carthalion in full strength wielding a sword in one hand, casting a fireball (presumably) from the other; while we also get a representation of the baby facing a looming wolf in a wooded space. This is relevant to the issue–Carthalion’s duel, and Jared’s fate…so it’s not just some arbitrary, random, unfocused magic-user. This is a singular cover; to this day, I am only aware of–get this: ONE SINGLE COVER for this issue. My copy has “Direct Sales” in the barcode…hence this came from the “direct market” or “comic shops.” There may be “newsstand sales” for the issue–copies that sold through newsstands or non-comic shop locations (Bookstores like Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, or found at a grocery store or such). But the difference would be the barcode itself…NOT a different cover image!

The issue originally came polybagged with a 4th edition Fireball card–an actual, playable card from Magic: The Gathering . This was from right as Revised Edition was fading away and 4th Edition was ramping up…I don’t recall for certain but I believe this FIreball may have been the first 4th edition (or 4th edition-STYLE) card I owned for the game. Unlike many such comics at the time, despite the polybag, there’s a banner across the top of the cover itself proclaiming the inclusion of the “free” card. So minus the bag and card itself…the banner remains.

The card was not a unique card “exclusive” to the comic or anything; it wasn’t some limited edition or variant or whatnot. It was just…a card. For the game. Playable. A little piece of the game included with a comic based on the game. What a far cry from more recent Magic comics with alternate-art cards shrink-wrapped with an issue and prompting an extra-sized cover price for the inclusion of a sheet of cardboard, the card itself, and shrink-wrapping in addition to the other regular costs of producing a comic (referencing the IDW-published Magic comics from 2012 or so).

This first issue of The Shadow Mage kicks off a story set in the “world” of Magic…but it’s a case of the story referencing the cards, rather than the cards referencing a story. I’d put it as well that this is from when the entirety of Magic: The Gathering was a more vague “idea” than concrete story, and what would eventually develop was still BEING developed.

There’s not really much of anything to this issue to make it a destination-read or something to seek out…unless one specifically wants to go back to the beginning of Magic’s appearance in comics. Or snag the first appearance of Jared Carthalion, Battlemage Ravidel, the first Elder Dragon represented in a comic (Chromium Rhuell’s corpse being part of the planar barge), and so on.

That said…it’s actually not a bad read–and I certainly enjoyed it much more than I did Gerrard’s Quest #1 that I read last year!

After an apparently-failed launch of “modern” Magic comics a couple years ago by IDW, Boom Studios got the license and has just launched a new series, titled simply Magic (dropping the “: The Gathering” part) and I haven’t a clue where they’re gonna take the story. After a brief 2-book return to the world of printed novels, Wizards of the Coast went right back to digital-only to tell the story of card sets, so this new Boom series is a different return to print…and some “hype” I’ve seen suggests they’re hoping for a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers level resurgence of the property in comics. However…it’s that comparison that seems to have sparked hype on THIS original series with some crazy activity on The Shadow Mage #1 in graded condition and such with speculators apparently flocking to it in hopes that something from that issue pops up and becomes The Next Big Thing in modern Magic comics.

Me?

I’m gonna sit back and enjoy re-reading original 1990s’ Magic: The Gathering comics, and appreciate the lack of overhype, lack of variants, and (relative) lack of pure, greedy speculation.

magicthegathering_theshadowmage_001_blogtrailer

Alien (2021) #1 [Review]

alien(2021)_001Writer: Phillip Kennedy Johnson
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Color Art: Guru-eFX
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Cover: InHyuk Lee
Variants: [Too Many]
Design: Jay Bowden
Assistant Editor: Shannon Andrews Ballesteros
Editor: Jake Thomas
Published by: Marvel Comics
Cover Date: May 2021
Story Pages: 30
Info Pages/Credits Pages: 2 (double-page spread)
Cover Price: $4.99

There’s a lot to unpack here, mostly cosmetic and comparison.

They very first thing for me is that–as always–there are TOO MANY DARNED VARIAN COVERS. Do a pin-up gallery or something! Give us bonus art pages–the back cover, the inside covers, I don’t know. Knock it off with all the ****ed variants, though!

Secondly but still surfacey…what a freaking BORING logo. Basically just a spaced-out generic FONT. In my (surely vast) ignorance on the matter, I do not "get" the shift in branding to ALIEN (singular, with boring/generic font as "logo") away from the more dynamic, attention-grabbing ALIENS with the glowy effect and such. Same sorta problem I have with the novels from Titan. Maybe it differentiates a bit from Dark Horse-published stuff, but….I’m rather irked at all the crap regarding the licensing and such anyway, so this does nothing to endear this to my heart! While I know that the logo for the original 1978 film was basically just this "boring/generic font as ‘logo,’" the logo for the 1986 film was much more interesting, so in terms of using a logo from the series, it’s not like that one isn’t available (as far as I am aware, as just some dumb customer).

Thirdly and (also still surface stuff): yet another $4.99 #1. I pay $5/issue for a LOT of stuff lately, and generally without complaint (I’m looking at current-day X-BOOKS stuff in admitting that). But then, those are things I’ve been buying en masse and not sitting down to "analyze" and specifically, singularly discuss as a single-issue item in a relative vacuum. $5 gets you 5 things from Dollar Tree. You can go more upscale and get something at Five Below. But a mere 2 $5s is $10; 4 is $20, and that $20 might net you a "fine" condition back-issue (even a "key"!) decades-old that will be more memorable and appreciated than SEVERAL generic modern issues flocked by oodles of generic variant covers.

So, getting back to the cover: While on a technical level, this cover’s not bad….it’s very, very generic. It’s nothing but a pin-up image of a lone Xenomorph on a black background, with generic white text denoting several creators and the title. Nothing about ANY specific characters, or the world of the franchise, not even any sort of creepy background or something to be atmospheric beyond a lone creature coming out of the darkness with enough light glinting off of it that–the more I think on it–the more it seems there should be SOMEthing visible besides the creature.

We open on flashback/dream stuff of someone in some sort of capsule with "Alien Inside" painted on it from the outside (with spray-paint? With blood?) and come to find one Gabriel Cruz talking with his therapist–a Bishop-model synthetic. He’s retiring from his position as Security Chief on Weyland-Yutani’s Epsilon Station to go back to Earth and try to rebuild a relationship with his son. We then briefly meet a couple, conspiring on something…and find that the male is Cruz’s son, Danny. He’s feigning his part of patching things over to get ahold of his dad’s old W-Y badge. After they split, we get more insight into Cruz and his background and this dream sequence thing in a Xenomorph hive, seems to be about another son since lost. Back to Epsilon Station and the son, girlfriend, and others bust in, murdering indiscriminately, and find that they’ve breached a laboratory rather than a server farm. They find scientists still present, and before they can all be killed, a lockdown is initiated, destruction ensues, and facehugging commences. To Be Continued…

The flashback/dream stuff here is obviously present to have the Xenomorphs make an appearance in the issue for an issue that is part of a Serialized Graphic Novel that does not feature the titular creature(s) in its first quarter (sixth?). The comic IS titled ALIEN, after all, and I’m sure Marvel would hope loads of "new readers" would flock to their iteration of the title just for that word "MARVEL" on the cover and buy into the thing. This is Marvel, but this isn’t 2001 Hide-The-Hero Marvelright? And other than these bits, this is basically just a comic about normal humans with typical-ish (albeit 200 years in the future) human technology. No superpowers, no gaudy costumes, no hopeful musical montages.

The art itself is good quality; I like the appearance; and there’s nothing "bad art" about this thing in and of itself. Between the glimpse at the Xenomorphs/nest and present-day stuff, just flipping through this it looks like an Aliens comic. (Oops. Sorry. ALIEN. Singular. Darn that "s"…)

Story-wise…I’m neither impressed nor disgusted. This in no way reads as anything new or spectacular; there’s nothing revelatory or really…anything different whatsoever from pretty much any other Alien/Aliens comic published by Dark Horse. The story is a couple hundred years in the future from us as readers; it’s set after Alien and Aliens (preserving the film canon/timeline) but otherwise is a bit nebulous and indistinct. We have some arbitrarily-chosen human protagonist, haunted by something horrible that happened in the past either to him directly or to someone close to him that involved creatures in darkness that he may or may not know what they are–while we (the reader) know (by the title on the cover, at least) exactly what they are. Yadda yadda yadda, Weyland-Yutani is evil, misguided people accidentally wind up loosing facehuggers to begin an outbreak, etc…blah blah blah.

We do have 30 story-pages (as opposed to a standard 20) so the extra 10 pages for $1 are a better value than a standard $2 per 10 pages. We also get a double-paged spread of 2 pages "infopage"/"credits pages" with dramatic placement, going for a cinematic presentation. Cold open, slight development, bam! Credits, scene cut…comics. Nothing special or original. Despite my annoyance with Almost Every First Issue Must Be An Oversized Five Dollar Thing Heaven Forbid First Issues Just Be First Issues, the TECHNICAL "value" is there, so…yeah.

While by no means a "bad issue," this lacks anything significant–to me, at least–for being a NEW #1, fro a "NEW" publisher, etc. 30 years of Dark Horse publishing Aliens comics, and then Marvel gets the license due to the Disney buyout. And a bit of a gap from DH trailing off and nothing at all for a few months. And now "the big debut" from Marvel (my phrasing, not Marketing) and the property is not even given the Star Wars RUSH/deluge of publishing (as I’m recalling from 2015, Marvel had an omnibus AND first issue of new Star Wars ongoing published the very first week of 2015 when their license went officially active, followed either that same month or immediate months after with multiple other series.) These were directly, overtly placed in a singular, known timeline, building a new/additional canon.

Alien, however, does/did not get this. No, this is a new series launched practically FOUR MONTHS into  Marvel having had the license. That Omnibus? It’s not even due til sometime later in April. And…but for the title on the cover (ALIEN singular) and the publisher logo (MARVEL)–there is really no difference…no new or exciting feel, no particular tone (whether internal or external/meta) to indicate this is any sort of a new era, nothing about new/rebuilding canon, just nothing at all that there’s anything that Marvel brings to the table that Dark Horse did not.

Except that Dark Horse never did umpteen variants on a single issue.

speculators_guide_marvels_alien_001a

By and large, this issue could certainly just be the first issue of the next Dark Horse-published mini-series. The art is good, but nothing new for the property. The story is good, but nothing new for the property. The (main, ignoring variants) cover isn’t bad, but nothing new for the property.

If you’re already a fan of the property and were regularly buying the content from Dark Horse, this should be right in line with any of that and thus no reason not to buy Marvel‘s #1. If you’re newly interested in Alien/Aliens/etc. in comics, this is just as decent a jumping-on point as any other #1 with the title on the cover. I suppose the only real difference is that where so many "firsts" were already exhausted by Dark Horse, this provides a Marvel Modern Reset to stuff, dragging a 30-year-old comics property into a New Age for New Speculation.

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X-Men Legends #1 [Review]

xmen_legends_001The Burning Blood Part One: Shattered Crystal, Scattered Dreams

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciler: Brett Booth
Inker: Adelso Corona
Colorist: Guru-EFX
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
Assistant Editor: Lauren Amaro
Editor: Mark Basso
X-Men Senior Editor: Jordan D. White
Cover Date: April 2021
Cover Price: $4.99

Possibly my earliest conscious memories of X-Men comics are the X-Cutioner’s Song event/crossover issues polybagged with a trading card…because a friend was collecting that crossover. It didn’t mean anything to me at the time, personally…though I wasn’t too far behind getting in thanks to the then-new XTAS, and Fatal Attractions event/crossover. There’s still the nostalgia for me for those ranges of issues as such. Two of the earliest issues I can remember owning for myself are Uncanny X-Men #300, and X-Men #24. I do NOT remember "Adam X" nor much of anything about a "third Summers brother" at the time despite whatever issues I was reading…anything I DID know or think surely came from trading cards and/or Wizard Magazine. When Brubaker got to tackle the definitive answer to the question of that brother in 2005’s Deadly Genesis it also didn’t mean too terribly much to me for not being all that invested in there being or who was "the third Summers brother."

Anyway…X-Men Legends #1:

We open on Erik the Red directing his minions–the Crystal Claws–to attack Providence Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. After much destruction and death, they find the people they’re after: Philip and Deborah Summers. The scene then shifts to find Cyclops and Havok–Scott and Alex Summers–back to back opposing a different wave of these Crystal Claw folks. Once victorious, they seek out Xavier for answers, given his relationship with a certain Shi’Ar. Before they get any, the brothers are called to Alaska where they learn of their grandparents’ kidnapping and ransom. The scene changes again to some flashbacky stuff of the childhood of a character calling himself Adam. He’s meditating in a field and when confronted, gets to show off his abilities with throwing weapons by killing a snake. Cable shows up and talks before giving Adam’s location to the Summers Brothers. While Adam deals with more memories, he finds himself set upon by Hepzibah and Raza of the Starjammers. Their fight is interrupted by Cyclops and Havok, and Adam fights them as well. When the three find themselves at a questionable stalemate, a ship decloaks to reveal Corsair–father of Cyclops and Havok. While he notes the confusion on their faces, Corsair reveals that he knows more than they do, and fires his weapon at them. To Be Continued…

There’s something refreshing and yet challenging about this issue. It’s refreshing to have an issue that has so much packed into it…rather than the decompressed, semi-cinematic, un-captioned, un-narrated, dialogue-less nature of too many modern comics. It’s refreshing to have a first issue start out right into action, rather than being all setup for the next five issues or so, as a mere 1/6th of a singular story. It’s refreshing to have editor’s notes and footnotes. And it’s darned refreshing to this fan of ’90s comics and ’90s X-Men to see Cyclops, Havok, and Xavier in their early-’90s look, not to mention an adult/older Cable, and various other touches that feel very reminiscent of the ’90s. It’s a bit challenging, however, coming 26-27 years after the comics it’s meant to fit around, and though familiar with the general time-frame, I’m not steeped enough in conscious memory of 1994 continuity, "Adam X," and the finer details of that. I don’t feel like I knew Erik the Red prior to Uncanny X-Men #350 in 1998 or so, and I’ve never been a huge fan of the Shi’Ar and such. I’ve also been conditioned especially over the past 20+ years to the decompressed format of modern comics, so found it a bit jarring to have so much going on in this single issue, jumping all over the place. For a new-in-2021-comic, it feels very out of place and a bit choppy/clunky.

The art team manages to capture a ’90s feel in addition to simply depicting the consistency of a ’90s-era "house style" of the characters’ costumes and such. It’s by no means a perfect fit, as it is still a comic actually published in 2021 with seemingly contemporary art, carrying with it a modern aesthetic I can’t quite put to words. The visuals are clearly intended to evoke the colorful, dynamic, over-the-top-ish frenetic action that I, at least, tend to associate by reputation with ’90s comics. This isn’t Jim Lee art by any means, but I liked it and found it rather enjoyable, particularly in the moment as I read this issue. At the minimum, the visual style helps the issue to show us this is a ’90s-era-style story, rather than just telling us the fact.

Nicieza‘s name was a huge selling point for me–he was one of the main X-writers when I first got into the X-Men in 1993 or so. Getting a new story from him that’s meant to fit right into existing continuity and that is not further-ballooning out modern elements was extremely appealing to me. I mentioned earlier that this issue felt very out of place and choppy/clunky. That’s in the context of being a comic published in 2021, based on modern 2021 comics tropes, generalities, and conditioning over much of the past several decades to the fairly strict, rigid decompression of every 6 issues being a single story, rather than having multiple core stories and numerous plot threads woven across 6 issues. The Summers brothers’ interactions; the quick shift to Xavier for information, the convenience of plot elements falling into place within pages…it worked for me.

If this was a modern issue, I’d expect a multi-page sequence of a mysterious ship approaching a planet that turns out to be Earth followed by multiple pages of attack and double-page spread(s) of the devastation left behind and a cliffhanger of two people with the surname SUMMERS being found. Instead, that’s just several pages’ prologue. In that regard, this issue could pretty easily–by modern standards–be broken out into 3-4 issues. At 30 pages of story in a $4.99 comic…it (grudgingly) actually seems worth its price compared to most same-length/same-priced comics.

This felt like a much longer read than I expected, and I enjoyed the details and captions and such…it’s not that the reader is spoon-fed, but the reader gets to read a story–they don’t have to participate, they don’t have to nitpick and think-deeply and pick stuff apart from subtle visual clues that lack any sort of dialogue or caption reference for key parts of the story…and the only "homework" the reader would need to do–if so chosen–is follow the editor’s notes to check back to X-Men #39 (immediately prior to Legion Quest and the Age of Apocalypse) and a Captain Marvel (Genis-Vell, I presume) issue. There are no "infopages" nor "infographics" interrupting the flow of the story, and really what you see is what you get.

This is by no means a perfect issue, and it is $4.99. But it’s an issue that I was looking forward to for awhile, based primarily on the concept and the cover; and that $4.99 gets you 30 pages of story rather than merely 20ish for $3.99; an extra 50% of story for only an extra 25% of price. The cover sports the "classic" bold, blocky 3-D-ish X-MEN logo certainly associated with the ’90s comics (and then some!) with "Legends" and "#1" worked into it…much the way the ’90s Superman comics fit "Action Comics" and "The Man of Steel" in against "Superman." The cover image of the main/standard/non-variant cover (pictured above) strongly evokes the ’90s to me and lent itself strongly to my sense of nostalgia and thus interest in checking this out…as a series, and certainly as a first issue.

Given that this is a story by a prior writer, meant to fit into a point of continuity nearly half the property’s existence in the past, this certainly won’t be for "everyone," nor will it appeal to everyone. It absolutely appeals to someone like me that grew up with the ’90s X-Men and looks fondly upon that period of the property. While likely a curiosity to readers brought in by Hickman‘s House of X Powers of X, Dawn of X/Reign of X/X of Swords and such…this is absolutely non-essential to what I understand of the current books, and more a chance for older, lapsed readers to get something new. Or for newer readers to get a taste of something out of the past that is actually new.

I’m certainly not keen on a comic’s being $4.99, but I definitely feel I got my money’s worth out of this issue and am really looking forward to #2 and beyond. Honestly, a telling point should be that I so thoroughly enjoyed this issue that it prompted this review at all, marking my first review of a "current issue" in maybe a year or more!

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TMNT: Jennika #1 [Review]

tmnt_jennika_0001The Cure for You
Story, Art, Cover, Letters: Brahm Revel
Editor: Bobby Curnow
Cover Date: February 2020
Cover Price: $4.99

I was barely aware of Jennika as a character a year ago. In retrospect after she came to prominence about 10 months ago, I REMEMBERED the character…but in her first appearance, she was "just another character," a random face for some exposition or plot or whatever. At that time–TMNT #51–I was taking in the whole new status quo and marveling at a series firstly actually making it to #50 and secondly NOT being renumbered back to #1 to reflect the status quo shakeup and such. The "hype" and "speculation" around the issue where Jenny mutated (TMNT #95 or so) has been a frustration to me, having bought every issue of TMNT that IDW has published within the month it was released (single-issue-wise). Suddenly having "competition" just to get a "regular" issue is annoying and rather off-putting to me and detracts a fair bit from the characters and story; the "meta" imposing on the continuity and such.

That said…

This mini-series looks to be a solo focus on Jennika herself as she is adjusting to her mutant-turtle form. Though the issue carries the TMNT logo foremost and prominently, that seems basically for branding purposes, as the ONLY mutant turtle in this issue is Jennika herself–and as a mini-series and all, I’m absolutely ok with that!

We have two stories in the issue. The first/primary sees the eponymous Jennika going about her usual day in "mutant-town" when she sees someone make a break for it, leaving the area. She gives chase, concerned about a mutant putting themselves in harm’s way outside the safe zone. They soon run into the Purple Dragons and Casey Jones, giving Jennika an awkward pause, reuniting with her former would-be partner. Leaving with Vincent (the mutant rabbit she was pursuing) she’s invited to his gig, where she enjoys some nostalgia and return of the past in the indy/live music club scene. When a couple other mutants start some trouble, her ninja side kicks into gear, getting the attention of yet another mutant who she quickly recognizes as someone out of her past. History crashing into her, she is also blindsided when this mutant suggests that with her help, there might be a cure for mutants to be had. (To Be Continued…)

If you’re just checking stuff out in the TMNT books with this issue or the last several of the main title, you’ll notice that much of the action centers on this "mutant-town" full of mutants, despite much of TMNT being about four mutant turtles, their sensei/mutant rat Splinter, and a handful of other mutant allies and enemies. In the run-up to and major events of TMNT #100, events led to a mass-mutation of the populace of part of the city, and they’ve been separated off into "mutant-town," at least for present and the Mutanimals have been serving as "enforcers" keeping mutants IN, while the WORLD PROTECTION FORCE THINGY GROUP keeps mutants in from the outside. Dynamics there are unfolding as it’s a recent (end of 2019 comics) development and part of the new status quo.

The story is pretty good, and I appreciate its slice-of-life nature. It’s not specifically tied to current issues of the main title so stands alone quite well. It’s obviously rooted in the "present" of the earliest post-#100 TMNT issues time-frame of continuity, but other than basic context (above about "mutant-town") it doesn’t seem like TMNT is required reading for this, nor does this seem likely to be intrinsic to the TMNT story. This builds onto the Jennika character and likely will leave the character better fleshed-out and add depth that will be appreciable in reading the main TMNT title, while hopefully this mini will be its own whole as a story/arc.

I’m not overly keen on the art here…Revel‘s style is rather stylistic, and though I recognize the manga influence and visual shorthand for stuff (and some of it certainly comparable to the 2012 TMNT animated series) it’s not my ideal. In particular there’s a panel where Jenny is angered, and we see a comically open mouth with pointed shark’s-teeth essentially, despite the main appearance of the character being clean, even, normal-sized teeth. It works for the story, it’s not unheard of, but it’s also just not to my personal liking.

Time and Again
Story, Colors: Ronda Pattison
Art: Jodi Nishijima
Letters: Shawn Lee
Editor: Bobby Curnow

This second story is a small vignette that gives us another glimpse into Jennika’s past. We see her in prison, encountering and befriending a rat. When she and another prisoner escape, the rat flees from her. We also see her in an early moment with Splinter juxtaposed with a moment with another mutant in "mutant-town" as she Splinter reminded her of an old friend, and this new mutant reminded her of Splinter.

At only 4 pages, this story is nothing drawn-out or deep, but it conveys a lot, and is definitely a "slice of life" moment…and a good one at that.

I much prefer the art in this story to the main…probably because it’s a lot closer to the main art I’ve been used to for awhile, and without a side by side/immediate comparison, my mind says it’s reminiscent of Santolouco‘s art, which I love.

All in all, this is a relatively strong first issue. As something to draw in newer readers, it definitely could have used some notes to contextualize the setting ("mutant-town") and such. At the same time, as a $4.99 issue with most of a year’s hype around the character, one probably already has some of that context if one is choosing to buy this (with speculation stuff being centered on the TMNT issues).

If this was any other property than TMNT, the art in the main part of the issue (and the cover) would have seriously put me off. I bought this as I buy/read every single-issue TMNT-and-directly-related thing published by IDW, and read it for the same…and though the art is largely off-putting to me, I enjoyed the story and vignette, so it’s not a waste of my time or money, particularly as a mini-series.

I would encourage anyone interested in the character to at least consider the issue–flip through and glance at the art to see how it fits your personal tastes. As mentioned above, this does not seem essential to the main TMNT book nor vice-versa. If you’re an all-in reader of the ongoing TMNT saga, though, you’ll definitely want to get this.

I do look forward to the next issue–despite pricing. I continue to feel that I’d be rather content with 4-5 TMNT books if they were kept on a weekly cycle and didn’t "cluster" or double-up one week while leaving another week empty. There’s a LOT to dig into in the TMNT universe, as IDW has developed, expanded on, and generally incorporated aspects from a number of previous iterations of the TMNT property, creating the richest and deepest TMNT continuity yet. This continues that developing/expanding/building.

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The ’90s Revisited: Uncanny X-Men #303

90s_revisited

uncanny_xmen_0303Going Through the Motions

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Colorist: Joe Rosas
Special Guest Artist: Richard Bennett
Inks Pgs. 8, 14-18: Dan Green
Editor: Bob Harras
Cover Date: August 1993
Cover Price: $1.25

My first issue of Uncanny X-Men that I got off the shelf was #300…partly BECAUSE it was #300. Big, round number…shiny, foil sparkly cover…a group shot of a bunch of characters I recognized from the animated series…it was a great attention-grabber. (Even if right now, I wouldn’t be able to tell you 27 years later what that issue was ABOUT/what its plot was).

I then missed several issues, picking back up with #304 (Fatal Attractions) and found a newsstand copy of #303 (at least as I recall offhand).

And it was #303 that really stuck with me. I always remembered that it was an issue that actually moved me to tears…it hit hard. And it was a character death that then informed several key things going forward for a few years into 1999’s The Twelve and onward.

When I decided to re-read it as a random "grab an issue from a stack of recent quarter-bin hauls" I recalled the emotional impact…but figured since I knew what was coming, knew where things had gone, character arcs and returns…SURELY this time through would be a clinical thing for me to analyze and consider the issue in terms of reading as an almost-40-year-old versus having read at age 12 or so.

But wow, was I wrong on that front!

The issue opens on Jean Grey entering Professor X’s ready room to check on Jubilee, to see how she’s doing after what just happened. Jubilee puts on a tough front, but as she and Jean talk–and we as readers see the flashbacks–that front cracks, as we see Jubilee open up and begin to accept the enormity of what she’s just seen unfold. Namely, that despite the Professor and Moira doing everything they could…they were unable to SAVE Illyana. Meanwhile a squad of X-Men including Colossus–Illyana’s older brother–was on their way back. Jubilee had bonded a bit with the visiting Kitty Pryde, and through Kitty’s translating, found out that she–Jubilee–had actually been having a positive impact on the dying young girl. But then things ‘blew up’ as Illyana went into respiratory failure, and though they eventually were able to stabilize her physically…she was left comatose, unlikely to regain consciousness. Leaving consideration to be had of what the young girl would (have) want(ed). We get this from Jubilee’s self-deprecating point of view as she considers herself and how dumb it was to say, place Illyana’s Bamf doll in her arms, while "the adults" argued over what to do going forward.

And then she recounts Peter’s arrival after–his getting off the X-jet and asking why no one was looking after his sister and if they couldn’t be trusted to look after her, should he ever leave. Only for Xavier to break down, having to tell Peter that his sister was gone, that they did everything they could. She was alive when he left, and alive when the group had last communicated, but now, arriving home, his beloved little sister was gone (and he hadn’t gotten to say goodbye…he wasn’t there in time, he wasn’t able to save her, etc.)

Which is–there–some of my projecting. And I actually laid the comic down and pushed it away, failing to hold my own tears in check.

Because this one hit close to home. Really close to my heart. Easy to project, easy to put myself into the situation. To see from Jubilee’s side, her coping mechanism. To see the anguish in the others–in Xavier and Moira. To imagine being in Peter’s position, being told of the passing of a loved one when–even if it was expected as a chance coming up, wasn’t prepared for FOR THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT.

The writing is quite good. It carried a strong authenticity to it–from Jean going after Jubilee and just being there for her, to Jubilee and her reactions to events as they’d unfolded (in flashback) as well as her after-it-all tough front and eventually breaking down. While I don’t relish the death of a child or anyone…this left an impact on me 27 years ago and it ripped into my heart again this time. This is the sort of issue that made me a fan of the franchise. Not some big globetrotting adventure or 6-issue battle with or for Magneto, not some culmination of years of subplots and rumors of a legendary group destined to rise up and defeat a villain, nor the identity revealed of some secret traitor.

Just a (relatively) "quiet" issue involving the characters just being PEOPLE, being a family, being…"normal." Being RELATABLE.

And there was certainly some impact from the bulk of the issue being flashbacks. There’s a sense of trepidation as the issue opens, and as Jean and Jubilee begin to talk and it becomes obvious that something really important has happened. To become increasingly aware of what it was, and that it has already happened–there’s not that "will they or won’t they" wondering, and not even that "hope" of some last-second save. Just the details unfolding and dealing with the loss this family–immediate and extended–has suffered.

The art is good, but in a way, it’s almost forgettable. Not in a bad way, mind you–but in that it has no particular problems or such to distract from the story itself, and so the story is just experienced. For me, it’s also that the dialogue and the fact of what’s happened that drives the issue…the artwork is there because it’s a comic book, a visual medium. But it’s the characters’ interactions, what they have to say to each other about stuff that matters more. And there’s nothing for some big double-paged splash scenes missing dialogue. That the art "disappears" into the "story" makes it a strong positive to me.

The events of this issue come out of then-recent plot elements in the X-titles, particularly out of the crossover event The X-Cutioner’s Song. If I’m recalling correctly, Illyana’s death was the first from the Legacy Virus…before the virus had even been named. It heavily influenced immediate changes such as Colossus first defecting to Magneto for a time and then eventually spending some time overseas with Excalibur before ultimately returning to the X-Men and then dying himself to activate a cure for the Legacy virus…and later both brother and sister resurrected and so on to where-ever the X-books and all the characters are in 2020 preset-day.

The issue stands along pretty well the way it’s written. And as the cover proclaims–"If you read only ONE X-Title this month–this issue MUST be it!" If you find this issue in a bargain-bin: 25-cent, 50-cent, even $1 or so…it’s well worth the read, and without even really NEEDING much context. But having read it will lend contextual value to most anything else X-related to be read that was published from 1993-2000/2001 or so in particular…including the (in?)famous Age of Apocalypse.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Strangers #6

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strangers_0006The Tao of Physiques!

Author: Steve Englehart
Pencil Art: Rick Hoberg
Ink Art: Dave Simons
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Color Designer: Robert Alvord
Color Team: Prisms
Editor: Chris Ulm
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

This issue opens with a full-page image of Deathwish throwing Electrocute through a wall. The issue’s title–The Tao of Physiques!–is big and bold on this page, as well an explosive callout proclaiming "All Out Action with The Strangers And" [issue credits]. There’s also a small box saying "Thought he was GONE, didn’t you? So did THEY…"

Essentially, this first page is like an AD for the issue, something you might find in another comic. Or like some sort of ’90s action movie poster, showing a hero vs. a big bad with a title, some hype-y language, names of creators, and some tagline.

This seems like something that absolutely would NOT be found in modern comics, and helps ‘date’ this issue as something out of its true to life time period OF the ’90s. It’s also something that–having recently read a discussion thread on some of the ills of modern comics particularly post-2000–feels all the more welcome as something of a time some quarter-century-plus in the past.

The Strangers have just defeated Deathwish, and help clean up the destruction that resulted from that battle; the various members discussing this need and the "explosion" of Ultras onto the scene and whatnot. They then find a survivor–an old man–in the wreckage and he gets transported to a hospital, with several of the Strangers following. Once there, weird stuff starts happening…and Deathwish rises again! Yrial seems detached and basically AGAINST helping, leaving the rest of the Strangers to deal with Deathwish. As they fight him–and marvel at his still being around when they thought he was destroyed–we see Yrial perform some Voodoo stuff she doesn’t want the Strangers to know about, and it turns out she’s gotten to the bottom of things…as she releases another entity from a dying woman, that seems to balance out the power of Deathwish; the new entity confronts Deathwish and both disappear, while the two human bodies they came from disappear into dust. As the issue ends, we see that the Strangers will next face Prototype during Break-Thru!

It’s kinda interesting to me that the issue ends with reference to Break-Thru but not much "selling" of the event or its premise; and no standout ads for it coming up, nor even one of the Ultraverse Checklist ads. The previous issue seemed almost a done-in-one with the rise of a new villain that had been foreshadowed, but then immediately defeated. Yet here already we have the "return" of the villain, and again a "defeat," perhaps permanently, with the introductions out of the way previously, allowing a full unleashing in this issue. We also get "moments" of development for other characters, the lost art of thought balloons, and generally touching on several plot threads at once (Hugh and Candy, Yrial and Zip-Zap, the whole team vs. Deathwish).

Surfacy as some of the stuff might be, it’s pretty loaded with potential when one looks a bit between the lines, so to speak. We see a growing relationship between Yrial and Zip-Zap…a friendship more than mentor/mentee; for lack of better phrasing, almost like a Storm/Jubilee thing from the X-Men ’92 cartoon, if Jubilee was Storm’s anchor-point rather than vice-versa. Candy is self-aware, but still not truly alive, and wants to know what it is to truly be alive and feel real feelings and such, and takes a lot of her frustration out on Deathwish. I don’t know if these elements get explored in further depth as this series progresses, but I look forward to future issues and finding out!

The art is pleasantly detailed–it’s not over-rendered into false realism but it’s not simplified cartoony. It continues to be strong and consistent with past issues, which is a great thing that seems another element lost in many modern comics. I recognize all the characters that seem like SHOULD be recognized, save for the woman the light-entity comes from; but I suppose that could be argument for a job well done as she was seemingly "just some woman" and not someone we SHOULD have paid attention to (and none of the characters did, either…it was Yrial’s magic that allowed her to even pick up on anything).

In 2019, this sixth issue would be the conclusion of a singular opening story; and we’ve essentially had several smaller stories within this title, including a crossover with Hardcase. But this does kind of cap things off with Deathwish seeming even more out of the picture than the previous issue, and the team more "gelled" than before; and this is the last issue before the first big "event" of the Ultraverse in Break-Thru.

As a total broken-record, I say yet again that this is an issue that doesn’t necessarily work entirely on its own as a single issue in a vacuum; there’s no great reason to go into a 4-longbox-bargain-bin section and pull just this issue as a prize unto itself. You’ll get bits of character stuff for a number of characters; a rise/return of a powerful villain and the team fighting him, and so on–so a bargain bin buy wouldn’t be horrible. But this would be enjoyed a lot more with at least the previous issue, if not as part of a small run of all 6 issues thus far (7 if you also get the Hardcase #4 crossover issue).

I enjoyed this, and I’m looking forward to the next issue as much for continued development of the Strangers as for getting into the event itself.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Hardcase #6

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hardcase_0006Friends and Enemies, Part Two: Returning Favors

Writer: Jim Hudnall
Penciller: Scott Benefiel
Inkers: Mike Christian & Jordi Ensign
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design: Moose Baumann
Interior Colorists: Family Fugue
Editor: Hank Kanalz
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

After being stabbed and looking like he was bleeding out, we open this issue with Hardcase having an out of body experience, watching Choice find his body, fend off Hardwire, and try to get Tom to a hospital. While having this experience, Hardcase–Tom–is told by Linda (Starburst) to go back while he can. After waking in a hospital bed, Tom and Choice are visited by an old friend…who turns out to be an "old friend" in The Alternate. She claims she’s trying to help them survive, while "The Man Who Isn’t a Man" prepares to send agents to the moon to get something for him that he can destroy all Ultras with. Thanks to his remarkable healing, Hardcase is up and ready before long to re-confront Hardwire, and being prepared this time, succeeds. When police show up, Hardcase dislocates both of the villains arms, so that he can’t use his fingers against them. After this all wraps up, Tom lays in bed with his mind in overdrive, reflecting on the evening–Choice, as well as what he actually saw while dying.

The art for this title has been rather uneven…but it worked well in this issue, taken alone. The cover is nicely detailed, with Hardcase looking like Hardcase…even though it has him seemingly deliberately looking AWAY FROM the attacking villain. Within the issue, the art seems good as a whole. It seems slightly "off" to me–but then, my primary memory of the title and its art comes from the first issue, so that’s what I tend to judge a lot of the art against. It’s better than a couple of the other early issues, though, and better than I remember some of the later issues. The story’s not hard to follow–the action of what’s going on–and that’s the main thing. It’s nothing to write home about, but nothing I’m gonna really complain about.

Story-wise, we get some solid follow-up on Hardcase’s injury–and that while he’s nearly invulnerable, he can be hurt; but he also heals much faster, so even dire damage isn’t necessarily fatal. That said, we get some hints at forthcoming answers for Choice, and knowing what I do of the Ultraverse, it’s easy to pick up on the references to the moon and such (all the more after seeing them in Prime–which is another "core" Ultraverse title as one of the three originals). We get some resolution to this initial encounter with Hardwire; foreshadowing of stuff to come, and generally have a decently well-rounded ’90s comic that moves everything forward as an "episode" rather than being just a 1/6th slice of some singular graphic novel the way most modern/2018/2019 comics seem to be.

As with many ’90s comics and other Ultraverse issues, one could pick up on context simply reading this issue…but it’s not one I’d recommend in isolation or as some singular target issue. It bridges the previous issue and what’s to come in Break-Thru, contributing a bit of setup for that event and preparing us for Hardcase joining the greater stage of the Ultraverse as a whole. This is well worth a 25-50 cent purchase to have along with the earlier issues…but you’re better off grabbing the first issue than this if you just want a single issue of Hardcase.

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Ultraverse Revisited: Prime #6

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prime_0006Primal Changes

Written by: Gerard Jones and Len Strazewski
Art by: Norm Breyfogle
Letterer: Tim Eldred
Color Design by: Keith Conroy
Interior Color: Violent Hues
Editors: Chris Ulm & Hank Kanalz
Cover Date: November 1993
Cover Price: $1.95

For it being at least 20 years (most likely) since the last time I actually read this issue…it’s amazing to me what a sense of familiarity it has. While I have certain (what I would call) "key" memories of the series in general, some part of my mind wants to stretch or condense stuff, apparently…in an inversely-proportionate way for the way things actually unfolded!

As with many other "early" Ultraverse issues…the cover is rather "iconic" to me. Not so much in a singularly-standout way, or "this would/did make an amazing poster!" way. But for the sheer oddity of it, the way its weirdness sticks in my memory. We basically a grotesquely-bubbly Prime,either armless or with arms stretched behind his back, a look of distress on his face.

The previous issue left off with a badly-weakened Kevin being taken into government custody, their leader excited about what he’s found. We open this issue with Prime fighting a dinosaur–before suddenly finding himself in space, where he loses consciousness as he can’t breathe. We see that Prime is experiencing a simulation, as Col. Samuels insist he be kept alive. Coming out of the VR setup, Prime attacks, before being calmed down as he realizes it’s The Government and he–Kevin/Prime–can be of service. As proof of the claim, Prime is introduced to then-president Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea. Meanwhile, Kelly’s mother informs her of a call from Eden Blake’s mother–Kelly’s needed for babysitting (see Mantra #5). Back with Prime, Kevin/our hero has agreed to the Government’s testing/etc, in preparation for what turns out to be an astounding mission: He is bound for the moon! (literally!). Another simulation sees Prime facing off with super-agent Wrath (from Aladdin). Prime then sets off quickly for the moon…simply up, up, and away flying to the moon. Unfortunately, he’s not physically capable, and crashes back to Earth after a bad re-entry. Ready to give up, Kevin’s father encourages him to keep trying…though we find out Mr. Green is a lifelike simulation. The REAL Mr. Green and his wife argue over what’s been going on with their son Kevin…Mr. Green blaming himself for everything. Later, equipped with precautionary equipment designed to protect Kevin if the Prime body fails again, Kevin once again "Primes up," this time with a much different body. Now, Prime is READY. Now, Prime can survive in a vacuum without his body having issues. Now, he is (as he proclaims on the final story page) "…primed for outer space!"

The cover is another that both "sort of" shows something from within the issue, while being its own thing. Prime indeed goes into space, where he "bubbles up" which necessitates some modifications if Prime is to be able to survive in space. Kevin, of course, seems quite authentic! Sure, he "Primes up" into this big, buff super-hero…but he’s still "just" a 13-year-old kid. So the idea that he will–under his own (super-) power be expected to fly to the MOON is this ***really*** big deal to him! It also makes sense that he’s not yet disillusioned by "the Government" and such, and sees the Government as "the good guys" and wants to make them proud…almost as much as he wants to make his parents proud.

The art is the usual solid Breyfogle work. I like the familiarity and style, though there’s at least one panel where I’m reminded that there’s some sort of thing with Prime’s face where the actuality of it on the page somehow doesn’t match something in my memory.

Story-wise, this is very much a ’90s comic…visually and structurally, and I like it! There are multiple plot-threads being moved along, with a couple of distinct-seeming subplots: Kevin’s parents, and Kelly. Kelly’s subplot ties this title in to Mantra, where we see Kelly’s side of things prior to Lukasz/Eden returning home in Mantra #5. There’s also the use of Wrath and reference to Aladdin that continues to build on that organization’s place in the Ultraverse as it becomes more of a "thing." We also see more of the Prime-body’s development, that it isn’t just one set default, but takes on properties that the host (Kevin) need at the time or based on stuff handy. I know "Space Prime" becomes a bigger deal in the next issue, but it’s cool seeing the "setup" and development here in this issue–that Kevin doesn’t "just" spontaneously generate that body.

Unlike so many modern comics, there’s a lot to be had within this single issue. It does serve as a bit of a transition from solo title to moving Prime into a larger picture, as the next issue is part of the nearly-line-wide event Break-Thru; which I believe was really the first time many of the characters truly interact with each other.

The setup from the first five issues do mean that this issue doesn’t totally stand alone as well. In a way, it’s standalone, but one will get a lot more out of it having read the previous issues…especially (at least) THE previous issue, #5. For 25 cents this would not be a horrible purchase, but it’d likely be enjoyed with more context–#5, and likely #7 as well. I wouldn’t seek it out as an isolated single issue.

For better or worse…there’s a certain lure to this title that I have to resist, as I want to charge ahead through this series (much as with Mantra) without worrying about the larger context of the Ultraverse…but for this Ultraverse Revisited project, I’m determined to go month by month through all the titles!

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