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Matt Fraction

Best Comics of 2013: Sex Criminals

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sexcriminalsSex Criminals, from that title and those covers alone, felt like a deliberate challenge. How to ask retailers for it with a straight face, or read it on your tablet on public transport without people moving a few seats away from you? How to tell people who haven’t read it that it’s one of the best comics of the year without them looking at you like Fredric Wertham was right all along?

Get past that hurdle, however, and here was something that was not only brilliant – but also utterly charming, in a delightful and surprising way. The better of Matt Fraction’s books, while full of character, have tended to have a wry sharpness to them – but Sex Criminals is unironically, honestly warm. And while Suzie and Jon might indeed technically be the “sex criminals” of the title – in that they use the near-unique abilities afforded to them by sex to commit a crime – they’re also two lovely, well-drawn and deeply human characters.

What’s more, despite the provocative title, the book’s approach to sex is actually refreshingly mature, especially for comics. The respective sexual histories of the characters are always looked at in terms of how they complement(ed) actual human relationships – and the sex itself is dealt with in a frank way, and as something to be enjoyed and celebrated, without a hint of grubbiness. Of course, there are elements of “fnarr” humour involved – how can there not be when at one point the characters watch a film called Hard-On Fink? – but the target is more often the unnecessary shame people place on sexuality, rather than sexuality itself.

As a comic itself, meanwhile, the series sees Fraction firmly in his Casanova/Hawkeye frame of mind (and incidentally, if you’re wondering whither the latter book in our list – we’ve left it out due to its placing last year and the fact that we’ve this other book by the writer as a runner up, but rest assured we loved it just as much in 2013 as 2012). That is, delighting in playing with the medium and form – from those relentlessly hilarious recap pages, to the fourth-wall-breaking “Fat Bottomed Girls” sequence in issue #3 (just about the best comics moment of the year, whether you believe the story it’s telling or think it was planned that way all along).

He’s aided in this by some astonishingly sure-footed visual storytelling by Chip Zdarsky – the cartoonist and humourist’s first major comics work proving something of a revelation. His style is still heavily cartoony, but with a huge amount of character expression and incidental detail that makes it a joy to read. Simply put, you wonder why it’s taken so long for someone to give him a book like this.

At a time when so many comics are being wilfully dark or serious, perhaps the greatest achievement of Sex Criminals is to be a silly and entertaining, yet intelligent and meaningful, treatise on an area of human experience that’s all-too-frequently made to feel shameful or dirty or even brushed under the carpet altogether. And while we are actually talking about sex when we say that, we could just as easily be talking about comics, too.

Seb Patrick | 30th December, 2013

Best Comic of 2012: Hawkeye

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hawkeye 2Admit it. You all saw this one coming. While there are some books from 2012 that we haven’t got around to reading yet which could have given some on this list a run for their money (Prophet and Manhattan Projects spring to mind), there was only ever one book that was going to top this list, and that’s Hawkeye. It’s done more in six issues than some series manage in six years.

On paper, this project was in serious danger of being a dud. Fraction’s form at Marvel has been inconsistent at best, Aja was never going to be available for every issue, and historically, Hawkeye has proven unable to support a title. His last solo series died after eight issues, while his recent team-up series with Mockingbird managed only six. Expectations were low. So it was a double surprise when Marvel put out one of the best superhero series, not just of the year, but of the century. If it lasts long enough, maybe even of all time.

That’s because Hawkeye isn’t just entertaining, although it is that. It’s also experimental and aesthetically coherent in ways that few comics are. It’s got all the spirit and originality that Marvel’s best runs display – Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man, Gerber’s Howard the Duck, Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men. Comics this good don’t come around very often, and when they do, you cling to them and hope the ride never stops. They’re the books that cast a shadow over everything that follows. There are enough techniques and ideas in Hawkeye to keep an entire decade of writers and artists inspired for years to come. You’re going to see them again and again, and each time you’ll remember where you saw them first.

Somehow, what Fraction has managed to do is metabolise the slicker-than-thou, medium-bending action of Casanova into a Marvel Universe superhero title. Aja displays a complete mastery of the page (it’s tough to imagine anyone else cramming 20+ panels onto a page and still make it look so fucking gorgeous) while guest artist for issues 4 and 5, Javier Pulido, proves that a lighter, Kirby/Steranko-influenced style can work just as well, illustrating a hotel gang war like it was a 40s screwball comedy and somehow maintaining the tone. Colourist Matt Hollingsworth, meanwhile, is the best example of what the right colourist can for to a series, complementing the pencils with deliberately limited palettes, never overwhelming them.

The basic idea behind Hawkeye is a simple one: he’s the man on the street who’s an Avenger in his spare time. Sometimes, that means he’s dealing with extortionist landlords. Other times, it means he’s being abducted from a rooftop cookout by SHIELD. The series reads like an action movie about a street-thug turned secret agent, as the unflappably down-to-earth Hawkeye and his Girl Friday Kate (also code-named Hawkeye) bicker and fight, as much with each other as with the villains they’re trying to defeat. The book’s pace is relentless, but it never seems like a slight read. Every panel and piece of dialogue seems to do two jobs at once. It’s dense, but not fatiguing. Simple but not facile. It’s not a gritty series, but the character study is intense and realistic. When Hawkeye thinks he’s falling to his death, he’s not sarcastic or scared: he apologises, even though no-one can hear. It’s a subtle reminder of the context of everything Hawkeye does. Of his practical, hands-on, one-day-at-a-time approach to achieving the redemption that he doesn’t feel he deserves, and doesn’t realise he’s already attained.

In 2012, Hawkeye released only six issues, but you could pick up any one of them and make a case for it being one of the best individual comics of the year. And that’s why it’s our favourite series of 2012. Realistically, nothing else even had a chance.

Best Comics of 2011 Runner-Up: Casanova: Avaritia

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We’re pretty wary of putting comics on our “best of” list when they’ve only released a few issues in a year. For us, “best” doesn’t just mean technically outstanding and original, it’s also a measurement of entertainment value as spread over 12 months – and if a series is late, absent or slow, that counts against it. It’s why the otherwise brilliant Avengers: Children’s Crusade didn’t make the cut, for example, or why we felt it too early to put Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men on the list separately.

The thing about Casanova is that in only two issues, it’s managed to do more than some comics manage in a lifetime – not just in terms of technical skill, but in its tapestry of concepts, characters and plots. Written by Matt Fraction and drawn, in this instance, by Gabriel Ba, the best compliment I can offer Casanova is to say that it’s truly a comics-readers’ comic. It panders to no-one, dares you to keep up with it, doesn’t look back if you fall behind. At a time when the world’s creative industries are obsessed with providing accessible material with as much popular appeal as possible, it’s refreshing to find a creative team willing to treat its audience as if they’re as intelligent and enthusiastic as they are.

It’s tough to decide what the real strength of Casanova is. Its pace and density. Its originality. Its humour. If I had to pin down the one thing about Avaritia that gave me most pleasure, it would be the meticulous control of the comic’s tempo. Where some writer-artist teams get you raving about a fantastic spread or plot twist, this one excites you with details as minute as a page transition. Turning from a 20-panel action sequence set in 16 different realities where universes die in the gutters, to a languid post-coital splash. It’s the kind of reckless gear change that should make a story flip over itself, turn into a fireball and skid roof-first across the tarmac. But somehow, it doesn’t.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Casanova: Avaritia is that in a year where Fraction’s Marvel output has ranged from “disappointingly pedestrian” to “complete misfire”, it somehow manages to be the absolute best work of his career. We could speculate why, but the fact remains that we saw two Matt Fractions in 2011. The writer of Fear Itself, Thor and Iron Man, a reasonably good creator struggling to live up to even those mild terms, and the writer of Casanova: Avaritia, an absolute genius deserving of mention alongside the likes of Morrison, Ellis and Gaiman.

If I were a professional comics writer, I’d utterly hate Casanova, if only because every issue would make me think “great, another brilliant storytelling device that I’d never have thought of, and which I can’t use for another decade without looking like a cheap imitation.” As a reader, I’m just happy to see those ideas put down once. It’s really only being kept off the top spot by the technicality of having delivered only 2 issues in 12 months – but the fact that merely the first half of the third arc is enough to make us call it one of the best reads of 2011 should tell you how strongly we both feel about this comic. Outstanding stuff.

James Hunt | 30th December, 2011

The Book of Hope, Chapter Six: Uncanny X-Men #524

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We’re up to Part Six of Second Coming, and that means the seventh instalment of our weekly, increasingly nerdy look at the crossover! So nerdy, in fact, that I began the numbering from zero. That’s just a little programming joke, there.

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Casanova Comeback

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The news that Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Casanova – something we’ve already described as one of the best comics of the last decade – is moving to Marvel’s Icon imprint later this year is spectacularly good. Not that I particularly care who puts the thing out (and nor is it a massive surprise that Marvel should want to keep another of their hot writers sweet by letting him play in the creator-owned imprint), merely that it guarantees that a third volume will be on the way around August/September. Splendid.

It’s also great to hear that volume two, Gula, will finally make it into trade – I managed to track down the individual issues after an extended hunt last year (having not been smart enough to have been into the series when it was actually coming out), so it’s nice to know that it’ll be available in a much easier-to-obtain format (and it also means that James might finally get round to reading the damned thing, as he refuses to do so until he can actually own it in trade).

But the third main aspect of the C2E2 announcement is one that I’m slightly more apprehensive about – the news that in their new editions, volumes one and two will be recoloured. It’s one of those where you wonder if it’s strictly necessary – there’s nothing wrong with the two-tone palettes used in either volume, they certainly don’t hamper the reading experience (although, granted, they’re probably slightly offputting to someone picking it up and browsing if they’re unfamiliar with just how bloody good it is), and I’m never sure how keen I am on the idea of going back and “fixing” comics just for the sake of it. On the other hand, if future volumes are going to have more colour (and there’s no denying that the brothers’ work looks even more beautiful that way), it makes a bit of sense to unify things a little. And, more importantly, if you look at the samples that have been released, it’s clear that it’s not a move to full colour, just adding a few more tones. And it’s hardly to the detriment of the thing – quite the opposite, in fact.

So, mark me down as excited for this one. Even if it does mean I’ll end up with two copies of Luxuria on the shelf. It looks like late 2010 is going to see something of a Casanova blitz, and it’s about time.

Seb Patrick | 18th April, 2010

The Book of Hope, Chapter Two: Uncanny X-Men #523

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Welcome to this week’s instalment of our regular look at the current X-Men crossover, done for no better reason than the fact that I’m a bit of an X-Men nerd. This week: Uncanny X-Men #523. You can also go back an read last week’s deconstructions of X-Men: Second Coming #1 and Second Coming Prelude if you’re so inclined.

Uncanny_523_1Synopsis: While Cable and Hope hide out up in a motel, the Alpha Team complete their interrogation of the Sapien League, during which time Nightcrawler is shocked to learn of the existence – and methods – of X-Force. Meanwhile, Bastion – who is tracking Cable’s techno-organic virus – sends Stryker and his Purifiers to kill Hope. Cyclops sends the New Mutants to Cameron Hodge’s facility in St. Louis to destroy his cache of anti-mutant weaponry, but not before Cypher is able to point him in the direction of a disturbance near Westchester. The Purifiers attack Cable and Hope, pinning them down, but thanks to the intel provided by Cypher, the Alpha Team arrives, ready to free them.

Mini Review: The second chapter of Second Coming feels a little less urgent than the first, despite dealing with all the same plot threads. Although Dodson is generally one of the best artists on the X-Books, his style isn’t a natural fit for dramatic action scenes, especially in the wake of David Finch who – despite his weaknesses – can do that sort of material more justice. Elsewhere, Fraction’s versions of Cable and Hope are slightly one-note, which would be find except it’s not the same note we’ve seen in any of their previous appearances. In particular, the scene where Hope stares longingly at a pink hairbrush seems utterly bizarre, given her previous experiences of growing up in a post-apocalyptic future. It seems more likely that she’d be confused at what it was even for, rather than wish to own it. Although the tone of the issue didn’t quite work for me, I did, nonetheless, enjoy the plot developments, which were tightly considered. Not a huge amount happened, but for a story on a weekly pace, it kept enough ticking over that things shouldn’t get boring.

Commentary

Let’s start with Hairbrushgate:

Uncanny_523_2As you may have noted from the review above, I’m not a particularly big fan of this scene. Hope has been living exclusively in a post-apocalyptic world, so the idea that she would stare longingly at a pink hairbrush of all things seems a little unlikely, unless we’re supposed to believe there’s some innate gender attraction at work. And I hardly think Matt Fraction would go there.

Uncanny_523_3On the other hand, I really like this moment for Colossus. He’s probably as outraged and disappointed as Nightcrawler, but he takes a more pragmatic view of the situation in the short term. It wouldn’t surprise me if he later had his own angry chat with Wolverine and/or Cyclops, but for now, he’s focusing on the good he can do in the immediate future.

Uncanny_523_4For those wondering, Cyclops did raise Cable – although he was in a different body and several thousand years in the future at the time. Let’s try and be as concise as possible, shall we? Nathan Summers, son of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor, was taken into the future by the Clan Askani so that he could be cured of the techno-organic transmode virus that Apocalypse infected him with. As a safeguard, the Askani created a virus-free clone of Cable, who later grew up to become Apocalypse’s apprentice and intended vessel, Stryfe.

Meanwhile, in the past, Madelyne Pryor went insane and was revealed as a clone of Jean Grey (who had recently returned from the dead) then killed herself. Free from the shackles of his first marriage, Cyclops eventually wed Jean. On their honeymoon, however, their consciousnesses were pulled into the future by Mother Askani and implanted into imprecise reconstructions of their own bodies, assembled from the genetic material of their descendants. They lived for about 12 years as “Redd” and “Slym”, raising the young Nathan after the Askani were scattered by Apocalypses forces. Eventually, the three killed Apocalypse, at which point Scott and Jean’s minds were pulled back to the present. Leading the resistance against Apocalypses remaining forces, Nathan grew into the man called Cable, and eventually returned to our time where he unfortunately ended up drawn by Rob Liefeld.

Uncanny_523_5Yet more wrongness. Hope has always been shown with something of a defiant streak – but never before has she been this frivolous, especially when stuck in a hostile and unfamiliar environment. I can see that Fraction’s attempting to give Hope a sense of immature wonder at the opulence of modern living, but to me, it doesn’t ring true to her character at all. Immaturity is a character flaw that Hope has simply never had the luxury of.

Uncanny_523_6Update him indeed! I don’t know what these towers are, but it’s never good when villains start building towers, is it? Last time I remember robots building towers in the X-books, it was during the Phalanx Covenant storyline. Which, in a probably unrelated coincidence, was one of the last times Hodge and Lang showed up until they were revived by Bastion.

Uncanny_523_7OF COURSE the Internet is going to seem rudimentary if you insist on using a dial-up connection. I believe that’s a only a 1200 baud left arm he’s got plugged in there. Also, you missed out “sarcastic comics reviews” from the list of things the Internet is used for. Idiot.

Predictionwatch

In which I catch up with some of the predictions I made in Chapter Zero of this article series.

Nightcrawlerwatch: It has come to my attention over the last week that the recent X-Men Origins: Nightcrawler one-shot was billed as a “Second Coming Tie-In” for no obvious content reason. Assuming it wasn’t an error, the logical assumption can be made that this is because Nightcrawler dies in Second Coming, and Marvel think retailers might therefore want a few extra copies of the Nightcrawler comic kicking around for the brief period of time that people are talking about him.

Also, he’s in the new teaser image, released this week. One of these X-Men will die! they say, with a strange sense of bloodthirstiness. If we assume this death isn’t going to be a repeat performance, we can rule out Colossus and Magik, and Iceman was already alive in the scenes from “prelude”, which haven’t happened yet. This leaves us Cable, Nightcrawler, Frost and Angel. At this points, odds greatly favour the former two – but Wolverine’s reaction in the Prelude story suggests Nightcrawler or, at a push, Angel – a character he’s responsible for under X-Force. Personally, I think things don’t look good for everyone’s favourite German.

Aaaaand that’s it for this week. Back here in a week’s time (ish) for a look at the events of Chapter 3 of Second Coming as found in New Mutants #12.

Uncanny X-Men #520

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Uncanny 520This week saw the release of a charming, if far from perfect, issue of an intriguing series. Unfortunately, Seb has beaten me to the punch on Joe The Barbarian, and so for the second month in a row, Comics Daily is going to take a look at events off the coast of San Francisco. Then again, there are worse fates than being forced to dwell on an engaging and thoughtfully-characterised, if well-established, book…

Matt Fraction’s assembling of a distinctly oddball cast continues, with Wolverine, Psylocke and Colossus’ trip to the big apple turning up another of the franchise’s misfits as the continue to pursue what’s superficially Nation X’s a-story. Meanwhile, the remainder of the cast continue to cope with life on their artificial island one day at a time. The writer does a good job of retaining the high0flying tone of the book from his more sci-fi initial issues, while still doing justice to the ‘trapped in exile’ scenario. As with last month’s outing, it’s a slid grasp of the iconic core cast, stripped of the superficial irony of the SFX arc, which provides the backbone of the title.

If there’s one part of the book which isn’t quite ringing true, it’s Magneto’s rebirth as an altruist. Previous issues struck a nice balance, with the character’s admiration for Neo-Cyclops managing to square the circle and deliver a compelling reason for Erik to take up residence in the book. Here, however, Magneto is depicted as being somewhat put-upon, with his good intentions distrusted by the other inhabitants of Utopia. Fraction is presumably seeking sympathy for the anti-hero, in order to gain the readership’s acceptance of his addition to the cast, but even considering the retconning away of Grant Morrison’s take on the character, it’s hard to buy him being as completely selfless as is shown here. The solicits have made clear just what his grand gesture of redemption will be, but while the revelation hasn’t spoilt the story in the same way as recent Buffy publicity materials, it calls for a further suspension of disbelief. The other misfortune affecting the book is artistic inconsistency, with the need to give Greg Land and Terry Dodson both prep time for the forthcoming Second Coming event sadly forcing a breakdown in the hitherto-successful policy of rotating the pencillers on alternate arcs. The material frankly deserves better than the resultant relay approach.

Julian Hazeldine | 22nd January, 2010

Comics of the Decade: Casanova

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cas1For three Wednesdays, the Comics Daily team will be taking it in turns to pick a comic – a run, full series, graphic novel or even single issue – that we feel defines the last decade in some way. These aren’t necessarily our absolute favourite or objective “best” of the decade (if we could even pick just one of such a thing), just books that we think have been a special part of our comics reading over the past ten years. This week, it’s Julian’s choice…

While it’s become something of a cliché to describe Casanova as being one of the books which will influence comics over the next few years, it’s just as true to name is as a book which influences comics today. As this year has run its course, I’ve found myself using a particular word more and more frequently in ‘Daily’ reviews: freewheeling. The industry is starting to move on from the Brian Bendis-inspired decompressed arc model, with rising prices of single issues forcing creators to find ways of making the readers feel as if they are receiving more story for their money. Book after book is beginning to cram its pages with an apparent superabundance of plot and information, telling a story in the traditional way but adding in an array of detail and extraneous data that makes the world created feel so much denser and more interesting than a more minimalist approach to writing could convey. And it’s easy to see where this trend started.

But Casanova Quinn’s misadventures deserve to be remembered for so much more than their contribution to the storytelling medium they call home. While virtually every writer to tackle the archetype created by Ian Fleming has pile on the hi-tech elements of the superspy model, allowing their agents to achieve more and more remarkable feats, Matt Fraction approached this genre from exactly the opposite direction. He regards the hi-tech world of pocket teleports and instantly-reversible revisable sex-changes not as sources of wonder, but as the prerequisites which would be needed to make a character like Bond plausible.

It’s a remarkable piece of thinking in a type of story strangely resistant to change, but what the writer does next is even more extraordinary. With perfect timing, he brings to the boil the comedy inherent in each of the situations his stories create, without ever diverting from the plot. Indulgences such as the inconsistent acronym of W.A.S.T.E. are mere window dressing compared to the way that humour is used to progress the plot. When Cornelius Quinn needs to put something in writing but doesn’t have any paper, it’s only the director of E.M.P.I.R.E.’s stern manner which prevents the assembled cast from joining the readers’ laughter as the affidavit is carved into a metal desk. Fraction almost never goes for the cheap gag, with every piece of humour driving the plot forward, rather than undermining it.

For all its more conventional imitations, Casanova remains unique. While the completed seven-volume tale would undoubtedly tower over the rest of the medium, the achievement of ‘Luxuria’ and ‘Gula’ alone is remarkable.

Julian Hazeldine | 16th December, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #518

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UN518Since the Utopia crossover repositioned the oldest X-book as leading the line, writer Matt Fraction has hit a run of consistent quality which eluded him during his earlier arcs for the title. The title may have come a little more introverted (for all the efforts taken to establish the proximity of San Francisco to the artificial island, the action has been distinctly inward-looking), but consistently strong characterisation and a smattering of the innovative ideas that the creator originally brought to the book deliver solid entertainment.

Taking a break from the day-to-day logistics problems of the X-Men’s new set-up, Cyclops focuses his attention on helping Emma Frost overcome the injury she sustained during the mutant’s clash with Normal Osborn’s Avengers, but may have taken one of his oldest friends for granted one too many times. What’s most striking about the Nation X story is how the writer has learnt from his earlier work on the book, retaining the aspects of his initial approach which have proven successful, whilst subtly discarding less popular elements. The Science Team continues their foreground role, but there’s no sign of Pixie or downtown San Francisco to be found. For the first time, Fraction’s work matches the fondness he has claimed to feel for the book’s early days, with the cast paired back to the surviving original X-Men, Emma Frost and Magneto. This approach serves Terry Dodson’s art well, allowing him to focus on sharp and clear incarnations of these classic characters. I don’t find Greg land’s work as objectionable as my fellow ‘Daily reviewers, but I can’t deny that Dodson’s work is a cut above his colleagues’. The schemes in a white void may have helped the artist achieve the effect, allowing him to concentrate on figures, but his sheer talent shines through.

It’s hard not to feel that the book’s strong form is in part due to the structuring of its stories. Instead of the trade-friendly four issue arcs which initially defined Fraction’s run, Utopia adopted a six issue format. Shorter than many recent event storylines, the tale didn’t outstay its welcome, and has been complemented well by the more meandering Nation X.

Julian Hazeldine | 7th December, 2009

Dark Reign – The List: X-Men

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darkreignthelistx-menI’ve never been a particularly big fan of the Sub-Mariner, and even less so in his capacity as a mutant, so imagine my joy when I found out that the X-Men instalment of “The List” was going to be about Namor coming to terms with his place as an X-Man. It’s fair to say that I was not particularly keen.

Perhaps it was those low expectations that made me find this comic more engaging than I thought. It certainly helps that it’s drawn by Alan Davis, who reminds us just how definitive an X-Men artist he is whenever he puts pen to paper, but it’s Fraction’s presence that helps keep the story grounded enough in continuity to work.He knows what he’s doing with the characters, so when Psylocke shows up with her new powers, or Emma and Namor’s relationship is tense, it builds perfectly on earlier groundwork.

The issue sees Namor accepting his role as both leader of the Atlanteans and a member of the X-Men, and dredges up an old piece of continuity to make a point – which it does very well. If anything prevents the story from being particularly interesting, it’s that the focus is heavily on Namor, and at this point in time, it feels too early to base an X-Men special around a character who only just joined the team and, more importantly, doesn’t really fit into the mutant-verse remit. There’s nothing of traditional X-Men themes in this story, and very little in the way of traditional X-Men characters. As a fan of specifically the X-Men, I feel a little like I’ve been cheated out of a story. Had it been called “Dark Reign – The List: Sub-Mariner” I’d be much more forgiving.

So, while this works as a Sub-Mariner story, I’m still left uncertain that it fills an important role in the Dark Reign arc. The Avengers issue contained a major Avengers development, the Daredevil issue, although less important, did at least showcase the new direction for the character – this just feels like another X-Men issue with the focus on a transitional period for Namor, but without any major turning point revealed. And particularly when placed alongside the recent X-Men specials, Exodus & The Confession, it feels decidedly unimportant in the grand scheme.

So, we’re left with the most damning of faint praise: I didn’t hate it. Unfortunately, since this was supposed to be a special, it’s hard not to argue that its failed in its mandate. A backup strip of Fraction’s earliest Marvel work is welcome, especially since I hadn’t read it before, but it doesn’t change the fact that this supposedly important comic involved little more than Osborn fighting a few X-Men, ending in a draw – and we only just read that crossover.

James Hunt | 30th September, 2009

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