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Best Comic of 2013: Superior Spider-Man

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superiorspidermanOh, it WOULD be, wouldn’t it?

It’s probably not a huge surprise that Superior Spider-Man is getting this accolade from us. We’re both huge fans of the character and in previous years we’ve given nods to Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Spider-Men in our end of year lists. But when you consider that 12 months ago, Dan Slott killed Peter Parker and allowed the body of his greatest foe to usurp his life, shouldn’t we be upset? Shouldn’t we be angry? Shouldn’t we be joining those who think Dan Slott has gone too far and calling for his immediate removal?

Well, no. Because Superior Spider-Man is the most original, compelling and consistently brilliant storyline that the Spider-Man titles have seen in years. Whether rehabilitating forgotten 90s characters like Stunner, bringing back early ideas Lee/Ditko ideas like The Living Brain or finding a new and twisted take on existing foes like The Vulture, Slott has managed to create a Spider-Man comic that simultaneously revels in the character’s lore while forging a new one with every issue. The story of Octavius’ second chance is hugely compelling. We may hate him for what he’s done, but at the same time he’s trying to be better, and often facing people so much worse than him that it’s easy to know who to root for. It’s a superhero soap opera with all the classic tropes, and too few comics can do that in such a sincere manner without feeling dated or hokey.

And Peter Parker may not actually be appearing in the comic, but in very real a way this entire run is about him. In every decision Octavius makes that puts others at risk, in every victory he uses to further his image and agenda, in every moment where his confidence spills over into arrogance, you can’t help but think: Peter Parker would’ve done this differently. Where Peter felt he had to put the costume on to save lives, Octavius does it to prove a point: that he’s better than everyone else. He may be getting results now, but we know that it can’t last forever. Half of the fun of reading Superior Spider-Man is waiting for the slip-up that undoes him.

Of course, the entire run isn’t down to Slott alone. He’s had some top collaborators, too. Ryan Stegman has never been a bad artist, but his work on Superior Spider-Man is something else, cementing his place as one of the industry’s best. Chris Yost’s appearances as co-writer haven’t slowed the series down at all, and should the day come when Slott leaves the series, one can’t help but identify Yost as the natural successor. And, of course, editor Steve Wacker – now sadly outgoing following a promotion into Marvel’s animation – has had such a phenomenal output over the last few years that it’s impossible not to recognise his contribution. But ultimately, this is Slott’s baby. He masterminded the story and since its on his shoulders that the abuse inevitably comes to rest, so should the praise. In Superior Spider-Man, Slott has cemented himself as one of the character’s top writers, the equal of Roger Stern, J. M. DeMatteis and Gerry Conway.

You might argue that in a market where you’ve got books like Hawkeye, Daredevil and Young Avengers practically straining to out-innovate one another, Superior Spider-Man is just a little too traditional to be called the best book of the year. But here’s our take. It’s not the most surprising book. It’s not the most clever. It’s arguably not even the best-looking or best-written in a purely objective sense. But when it comes down to it, there’s no other superhero title we’d rather read each week, because through its combination of passion, plotting and execution, it’s managing to be the most difficult thing of all: impossible to put down.

Best Comics of 2011: Uncanny X-Force

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If you had told me last year that Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force would soon rival the best X-Men comics ever produced, I admit, I’d have been skeptical. Prior to his arrival on the series, Remender’s work hadn’t really clicked with me. Although it was clear from the first issue that his X-Force run was going to be good, it wasn’t until issue #4, released in January this year, that people started to realise we were reading something very special indeed.

Uncanny X-Force’s year is defined, of course, by the 8-issue Dark Angel Saga. Named (in what seemed like hubris) for the Dark Phoenix Saga, it follows Angel’s descent into madness as his Apocalypse-created “Archangel” persona claws its way to the surface of his psyche. When he finally tips into world-ending megalomania, it falls to X-Force to stop him. Which they do (of course) – but not without great cost.

The story of love torn apart by power out of control may seem similar to the Dark Phoenix Saga, but even if that’s true the results are every bit as affecting and epic as the original. We have witnessed defining moments for the likes of Psylocke, Fantomex and Angel, and at the same time, we’ve been reminded of how great superhero comics can be. When I reviewed the finale of the storyline at CBR, I said the following:

Although it says “X-Force” on the cover, this is clearly Psylocke and Angel’s story. It’s love and death, as transcendent and epic as it can be. When the final blow is struck, the moment is heartbreaking, beautiful and euphoric in the way all the best death scenes are. And then it’s unexpectedly heartbreaking all over again. The final page? Nothing short of a technical masterpiece in its own right. Artist and writer in perfect unison.

There’s no part of this issue that can be called half-hearted or unsuccessful. Even praising its dialogue, its visuals, its plotting, comes across as an inadequate deconstruction. While these elements are all superb in their own right, it’s a comic that’s vastly more than the sum of its parts. When you put it down, you won’t be remembering how great Deathlok’s lines were, or the plot twist Fantomex unveils, or even how well Opena and Ribic drew every page. You’ll come away from it feeling emotionally bruised, with a hole only the next part of the story can fill.

In many ways, it’s tempting to end a review like this by claiming that the story is so good, it has transcended its genre, as if superhero comics can’t really work this well without being something else. But what are superhero comics for, if not this? They’re modern myths, playing out classical themes on a grander stage than our own world allows. Characters living, loving , and dying for our entertainment, showing us truths about our own lives.

There was one further point I didn’t find room for, though, and that’s how part of Uncanny X-Force’s success is due to the dialogue it had with its fans. It managed to be fan-servicing without compromising on its content. The Dark Angel Saga didn’t just tell a self-contained story; it was built on old ones. Remender weaved those continuty threads (the Age of Apocalypse, the Horsemen, Archangel’s various transformations, Weapon Plus…) in ways that supported and expanded the narrative, rather than limiting it.

The truth is that in superhero comics, readers want to see a little of something familiar. Something that respects the stories that came before, and ties this new one to them. After all, if we weren’t nostalgists, we probably wouldn’t be reading superhero comics at all. Perhaps this is why the San Francisco era of X-Men had such a hard time generating excitement – it’s too different, too new, too detached from everything prior to it. Remender found a way to tell a new story, supported by the framework that was already in place. And that, alongside everything else, was what made Uncanny X-Force one of the best comics of the year.

Forgotten Runs: Nicieza & Bagley’s Thunderbolts

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Title: Thunderbolts
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team:Fabian Nicieza (writer), Mark Bagley (Penciler), Pat Zircher (Fill-in Penciler), Norm Breyfogle (Annual Pencils)
Core Issues: Thunderbolts #34-50, Thunderbolts Annual 2000
Essential crossovers: Avengers (Vol. 3) #32-#34, Maximum Security
Years: 2000-2001

Kurt Busiek may have been the original Thunderbolts writer, but the one with the longest pedigree on the series is still Fabian Nicieza, who shaped the team from issue #34 of the original series, right up until #109. Nicieza spent most of his run working with artist Pat Zircher, who took over with issue #51 – but many will have forgotten that for the first year or so, he mostly collaborated with original Thunderbolts penciler, Mark Bagley.

Today, when creators leave a title, it’s generally at the end of an arc, and often involves a relaunch or repositioning of the characters. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, Busiek actually began several plot threads in the couple of issues before he left for Nicieza to pick up – the most major being the series climax, in which Hawkeye (who was leading the team at the time) announced that the Thunderbolts were going to take down the Hulk.

Much of Nicieza’s early run owed something to Busiek’s plot notes, which is why the veteran writer retained a credit for several issues after. With events such as the return of The Beetle, the debut of MACH 2, the unmasking of Citizen V, the introduction of the new Scourge and the death of Jolt the early issues retained – indeed, recaptured – the pace of Busiek’s earliest stories. Although the opening 12 issues are considered classic, the latter half of Busiek’s run was comparatively limp – many of the book’s biggest events, in fact, occurred during the Nicieza/Bagley period.

Artistically, the book had been consistent ever since the series began. Bagley had drawn almost every issue, and his particular blend of superheroics and storytelling was then, as it is now, a joy to read. When Bagley was taken off the title to concentrate on his Ultimate Spider-Man run, he quickly became one of the industry’s top talents – or rather, people finally recognised him as such. Those of us reading Thunderbolts were already well aware.

For many years now, Marvel has treated the series rather like the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe. While Busiek’s opening 12 issues garnered much acclaim, it was soon eclipsed by his work on the returned Avengers title. Nicieza’s run – explosive though it was, by the fans’ standards – never quite managed to get the book much attention. A cancellation was undone by a Busiek and Nicieza Avengers/Thunderbolts collaboration, and the relaunched book ticked over under Nicieza until it was handed to Warren Ellis and reworked into something massively successful – though perhaps not entirely similar to what came before.

In light of the rejuvenation of the brand, Marvel did little to remind people of the Thunderbolts’ more conventionally superheroic past. Even Busiek’s run – acclaimed though it was – has never been reprinted past issue #12. Nicieza’s run, even those issues with a name collaborator like Bagley – is unlikely to ever see print, if only because the second and third volumes required to get to it will end up slogging through Busiek’s weaker period first.

And yet the Nicieza/Bagley issues are arguably the title’s fasted-paced period, every one featuring a major event and interleaving several compelling plot mysteries. Although Nicieza eventually succumbed to his own predeliction for convoluted plots and pet characters, the run with Bagley, which ended in the title’s fiftieth issue, was incredibly entertaining.

It might not be revolutionary stuff – but if you’re interested in reading a companion to Busiek’s own Avengers run (which received a complete reprint in hardcover), the Thunderbolts of this period is the perfect book for it – not just because of the direct crossover, but because Songbird features in Avengers Forever, the Genis-Vell Captain Marvel of Avengers Forever guests in Thunderbolts, and the 2000 annual follows up on a Hawkeye/Mockingbird plot thread introduced in one of Busiek’s earliest Avengers stories. And best of all, it’s doubtlessly available on the cheap.

James Hunt | 12th February, 2011

Nathan Christopher Dayspring Vincent Askani’son Summers

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Look, we’ll stop making the joke when it stops being funny, alright?

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James Hunt | 22nd September, 2010

Amazing Spider-Man: One Moment in Time

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Another week, another discussion about comics – this time, Seb and I consider the implications of OMIT, the most recently-completed Spider-Man storyline which cleared up some of the mess around One More Day – for some interpretations of the phrase “cleared up”. Click through for the full discussion.

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James Hunt | 15th September, 2010

James Reads Comics Then Writes About Reading Them #1

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A few thoughts on some of the comics I picked up this week:

Amazing Spider-Man #640
I have to admit, as an exercise in continuity bungs, the first couple of issues of OMIT weren’t bad, aside from the ridiculous story-logic of “I don’t want kids with you, so let’s not get married”. Quesada’s pages are brilliant on just about every level, and it kind of surprises me that he’s able to improve so consistently as an artist when he appears to draw about 6 things a year. Or maybe that’s why. Anyway, OMIT is getting into weird territory now, as it starts telling the story of how Peter went from unmasked and living with his wife/long-term partner MJ to single, unknown and living with his Aunt. I’m not really sure we needed to see these details, because frankly, “A Satanic analogue did it” was more than enough to get Marvel out of any continuity scrape. So while it’s not terrible, it’s just sort of academic at this point.

Avengers Academy #3
I kind of love Avengers Academy. It reminds me of Busiek’s Thunderbolts, from back in the day. Strongly-defined characters with strongly-defined powers, a frisson of will-they, won’t-they villainy, it’s pushing all the right buttons for me. Hazmat and Finesse are two of my favourite characters right now. The first is an angry Japanese girl whose powers have made her a walking biohazard, confining her to a hazmat suit. The latter is a potentially sociopathic genius who can replicate any action, but has trouble interacting with people. And she’s blackmailing Quicksilver into giving her secret classes in BEING EVIL. Amazing. Anyway, this issue is a crossover with the current Thunderbolts comic, and it’s the better of the two, really. There’s a hilarious scene where Valkyrie gives the girls on the team a lesson in avoiding the male-centric man-ocracy, and later the kids visit The Raft, and a few of the team decide they’re going to go kill Norman Osborn. And despite the number of times characters have proclaimed that they’ll be doing that over the last year, this time it’s actually quite good. It’s not a very Avengers-y book, but I really like it.

Thunderbolts #147
This is the first Parker/Walker issue which hasn’t massively clicked for me. Part of the problem is that it “crosses over” with Avengers Academy – the issues portray the same events from different perspectives – but where Avengers Academy is taking two issues, Thunderbolts takes one, and has to quickly wrap up the previous issue’s plot, so it’s all a bit rushed and spotty. Large swathes of story that will presumably turn up in Avengers Academy #4 are dealt with in the space of a single dismissive panel. I’m inclined to say that it hasn’t really worked, although the part of the story that involves John Walker to fight a bunch of villains into submission despite the fact he’s currently missing a hand and half a leg was completely badass, as was Cage’s encounter with the Purple Man. Always nice to see plot threads from Alias get a look in.

Uncanny X-Men #527
I don’t know what’s going on with this series, but as near as I can tell, Matt Fraction has a strong idea of what he wants the book to be like, but no-one else remotely agrees with him – least of all the people reading it. In this issue, we appear to learn for the first time that Sebastian Shaw is supposed to be a “secret” prisoner – that is, only Emma and Danger know about his presence – which doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly given the “no secrets” talk Scott and Emma had comparatively recently. It certainly doesn’t help that Whilce Portacio is turning in some shocking work, too. I know he’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I’m sure he used to be better than what we get here. It’s a mess of ruined perspective, failed anatomy and self-consciously arty storytelling panels that don’t work. I’m having trouble remembering the story because the issue just feels like it’s ripping itself apart on a purely technical level.

Web of Spider-Man #11
I bought this on a whim because I saw it had a Black Cat story in it, and a Jackpot story by Sana Takeda, both of which are relevant to my interests, so I was even more pleased to discover that the lead was actually a Mary Jane/Black Cat team-up with nary a hint of Spider-Man in it. A shame, then, that Felicia spends most of the comic with her breasts hanging out, but it was a good enough read that I’ll probably buy #12 toget the second half. The Jackpot story turned out to be the last part of a coda to her recent miniseries (which was thoroughly risible) and this wasn’t much better, really. I think it gives some closure to the plot about Boomerang being her arch-nemesis, so there’s really no more stories about the character that demand to be told. Probably best to leave her alone for a while, now.

Stories about Stories

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The other day, Tom Brevoort made the (entirely valid) point about Batman #701 that if Batman: RIP and Final Crisis had been written and marketed clearly the first time around, there wouldn’t be any need for a story which plugs the gaps in between. He also used his Formspring page to make a point about Marvel playing a little faster and looser with continuity because they don’t want to end up telling “stories about stories” – the kind of self-referencing, inward-looking arcs that exist to create logical narratives between tales that were never intended to tie into one another. By implication, the kind of stories DC *does* like to tell.

Now, without wanting to actually use the words “pot”, “kettle” and “black”, I can only ask what, exactly, Brevoort thinks is going on in Amazing Spider-Man over the last few months.

For those who haven’t read the first issue of the current storyline, OMIT, it flashes back to the original wedding of Peter and MJ (complete with reprint sections and narrative inserts) to explain exactly what happened to prevent them from becoming man and wife under the revised “Brand New Day” continuity, as well as finally revealing what MJ said to Mephisto in One More Day. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, little more than a story about a story.

Which is fine, but we just got the last instalment of The Grim Hunt, and if you read the subtext of that issue correctly, it appears to be all about how Kraven’s Last Hunt was a really good ending and that it’ll be very difficult to create a sequel worth telling with the character. Which is, again, a story about a story.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a big chunk of story missing between The Grim Hunt and Young Allies. The latter suggested that the former would explain why Arana lost her powers and became Spider-Girl – only, it didn’t. She just got a new costume for no particular reason. Because one story hasn’t done what the other thought it was going to, there’s a small chunk of Arana’s redefinition that doesn’t make any sense – and I have a horrible feeling it’s going to require a story about a story to make right again.

So, I said I wasn’t going to use the words “pot”, “kettle” and “black”, but that was a foolish restriction to place on myself because it’s clearly the most appropriate metaphor here. I love a little continuity like any comics fan, but Tom, if by some chance you’re reading this, you should probably be aware that DC don’t exactly have the monopoly on it.

James Hunt | 23rd July, 2010

Spider-Man to go twice-monthly?

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Bleeding Cool is reporting that plans are afoot for Amazing Spider-Man to go twice monthly, with Dan Slott as the continuing writer. Marvel has not confirmed – but neither has it denied. Which begs the question: if it is going to happen, what, exactly, made them reconsider?

It probably isn’t scheduling problems. Since the title went to a thrice-monthly schedule with issue #546, the book has shipped more consistently than almost any other Marvel title – probably because of the larger-than-average lead time it requires. In almost a hundred issues since the new schedule began, the only major scheduling blips I can recall have been one month where only two books were solicited, and this month, when issue #633 slipped so far back that it came out the same week as #634 (although lord only knows why #634 couldn’t be shunted back to accommodate.) That’s actually pretty good going for a series, whether you judge it by months or issues.

Many will place the blame on sales. However, it seems as though sales of the Amazing have actually remained within reasonable parameters. Admittedly, according to the (reportedly inaccurate – but consistently so) ICv2 numbers, the book is selling around 53k, which is down around a fifth on the combined sales of three monthly spider-titles – but then, the rest of the industry is down too – often far more than Amazing Spider-Man is. Over on his Formspring page, Tom Brevoort recently pointed out that regardless of sales numbers, the book sits fairly comfortably in the Top 10/15 sellers, and that by that metric it’s undeniably doing well compared to the rest of the industry.

Furthermore, the question must be asked: how will releasing one fewer book a month raise overall sales? Perhaps the logic is that it’ll revitalise the market for Spider-Man spin-offs, which has utterly collapsed since the schedule revisions began. The “Amazing Spider-Man Presents” minis sell poorly, while the monthly anthology has been through several titles and formats and seen sales plummet month on month ending in yet another cancellation. Perhaps the logic is that a single writer and less frequent release schedule will draw in some of the buyers that have left the series of late.

Either way, to simply break even, Spider-Man would needs to gain roughly 50,000 additional sales per month – so either 25,000 per issue, or a new companion series selling 50,000+ copies. Slott is a popular writer, but it’s debatable whether he has the name power to raise sales on a book by 50% (though paired with a big-name artist, he might). On the other hand, a second ongoing spider-book would face the same kind of problems that have dogged recent Spider-Man spin-offs – indeed, Marvel themselves played up the fact that Amazing is the “core” Spider-Man book. They’d quite probably have to undo their own marketing to make a second ongoing work.

One alternative is that the book is going to make a permanent change to $3.99, and Marvel feel that the book’s popularity would dip too far if readers were asked to essentially pay an additional issue’s cost per month. Personally, I’ve dropped many $3.99 books for being too expensive, and that’s when they come out once a month – there’s no way I’d stick with thrice-monthly Spider-Man at that price. Amazing has been fairly good at keeping the price down, only raising it with an associated increase in pagecount – but even with backup material, I know I’d find it difficult to spend so much money on one series per month. Maybe Marvel’s hope is that 2 books at $3.99 will retain/gain enough readers to bring in more money than 3 books at $3.99 would.

Whatever the logic, one hopes that this change isn’t being made for creative reasons. Amazing Spider-Man has been one of the most consistently excellent series Marvel has put out over the last few years. The sheer variety of writers and artists means that it’s a virtual buffet of excellent talent. Admittedly, it isn’t always brilliant, but with shorter arcs and frequent single-issue stories means that you’re never stuck with a bad creator for long. Indeed, Amazing Spider-Man has been so good that it won our best ongoing 2008 award, and would probably have had the best ongoing of 2009 award if we had been forced to give one.

At this point, there’s no way of telling whether Marvel actually will make this change – but it’s difficult to see that it would be a positive one if they did. And one thing’s for certain – it’ll mean that those who disliked the post-One More Day status quo will treat it as a victory for their cause – and frankly, anything that encourages them must be by default a bad idea!

James Hunt | 17th June, 2010

(non-)Silent (form)Spring

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Every Marvel fan should be reading Tom Brevoort’s Formspring page, if only so they can see how NOT to be a comics fan. The amount of loaded questions is a real sight to behold, and Brevoort deals with them all fairly and honestly (though sometimes bluntly.) Recent choice responses:

Asked by a reader why they, as a fan, apparently “don’t deserve” to see a married Spider-Man:

Because that’s a selfish viewpoint. And while you as a reader have the luxury of being selfish, I as an editor do not. [...] Spider-Man doesn’t belong to you, Spider-Man belongs to posterity.

And other assorted examples of sense.

James Hunt | 6th June, 2010

The Book of Hope, Chapter Nine: X-Force #27

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Actually posted before the next issue comes out for a change, Chapter Nine of our look at the current X-Men crossover, Second Coming. Click behind the cut to read more!

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