Welcome to 2006, ladies and gentlemen…the last year of Ambidextrous.

I have been writing and re-writing this portion of the column for several days now, trying to craft some perfectly constructed explanation for the preceding statement, but it just isn’t coming out quite right, and it’s becoming obvious I need to come at this from a different angle. Otherwise, I’ll never get the thing finished, because even though you’re reading this first, it was actually the very last section to get wrapped. And I’m already runnin’ fairly late, and it’s nearly four in the morning now, so I’ll just speak it straight from the heart, and forego some of the usual polish, if that’s all right.

Since I started this column a few years back, the New Year has been that time when I force myself to sit down, take a serious look at the index, and decide if this forum is accomplishing everything I expect it to. More often than not, I’m pretty satisfied with what I’m lookin’ at, but there’s always one or two things I want to strengthen in the next year, even if it’s something purely cosmetic, like trying to standardize the length of the pieces, or shorten more of my sentences. Little alterations that no one even notices, or would pay attention to, even if I pointed them out. This year is different though, because some recent events, and more importantly, some recent conversations, are suggesting that it’s almost time to close it out. And I’m having a bit of trouble disagreeing.

Sure you’ve noticed the schedule sliding over the last few months, and some of that is writing scripts, and some of that is football season grinding against my usual writing day, but some of it is something else. The columns are becoming just a little harder to complete at the level I’m accustomed, and while a less intense schedule has proven a big help, I think I’m feeling a little “what more can I say?” of late. Even if you’ve only read a few of these, you know what I’m about, and you either accept that or disregard it, whatever gets you through.

Point is that I’m feeling we’re almost done here, and while this certainly won’t be the last column you read, as I have some things that need to be settled first, just thought I should let all concerned know that I’m starting this year by rounding the last corner. Have a very specific month in mind, but don’t want to reveal it, because I might have to go past it, if the house isn’t quite in order. Expect some interviews that I’ve always wanted to do, few things I’ve always wanted to say, and on some level, more of the same, celebratin’ the absolute rush that I still get from Wednesday afternoons.

Which is what concerns us this week, as I start ’06 with some opening thoughts on my favorite New Universe, and an appearance by the three best comics of last week.
Enjoy.

 


The New Universe-

Know this probably sounds strange comin’ from me…but I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about DC’s upcoming books. And I’m not talkin’ about the secondary imprints like Wildstorm and Vertigo either, I’m speakin’ on the main DC Universe, and the superheroes that populate it. There’s just a different feel to their characters lately, on both sides of the hero/villain equation, and I don’t know if you want to call it a “darkening” of the landscape, or the “Marvelization” of everything, but to me, it just looks like some additional effort is being applied to make things a bit more interesting.

Marvel’s roster has always seemed to embrace and celebrate a strong sense of “realness,” an apparent accessibility, found even in the most fantastic and incredible situations. DC on the other hand, struck me as somewhat antiseptic, everything too clean and bright, with the fabricated cities, strange alien visitors, amazons, and space cops. I once joked that Batman was really a Marvel character trapped in the DCU, his origin so tragic and emotionally scarring, that he almost had to belong in the Marvel U, where superhero identities are exposed by the tabloids, and mutant teenagers are feared and hated by a world they’d only protect. What DC has in icons, it lacks in raw drama, but things definitely began to spark with the release of Identity Crisis, which if you ignore a somewhat flat conclusion, was one of the best “crossover” stories of the last several years.

The revelation that the Silver Age component of the JLA chose to “lobotomize” some of their more dangerous adversaries, was something I was drawn to immediately. Thought it added that critical element to the DCU, giving it an emotional reference point that made the characters much more approachable. I do realize that some of it rubbed the loyal fanbase the wrong way, unnecessarily tarnishing a few Silver Age components, but I think it can easily be taken as a piece of modular continuity. Something that could be wholeheartedly accepted, or outright ignored, depending on your particular feelings about it. This is likely the approach most long-term fans will be forced to adopt at some point, in a world of shifting continuities, and continuous revamping, leaving only one clear option…if you don’t like it, simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Defeatist, I know, but the alternative is equally dissatisfying, isn’t it?

For what it’s worth though, I like my JLA portrayed as a group of heroes willing to make impossible decisions to keep their loved ones safe. I loved the overall tone that was established in Meltzer’s story, and carried on throughout the almost criminally elaborate Countdown, leading into Johns’ Crisis, which is thus far living up to its hyped billing.

Infinite Crisis is really chaos storytelling at its finest, the sheer volume of characters and actions coming at you faster than you can even react. Some bits aren’t hittin’ me with the same force that Johns is probably intending, because I’ve never read the original Crisis, but I use the characterization of Batman as my unofficial barometer, when the Earth-2 elements spin me around a little. Setting the “Big Three” against each other has only served to highlight the fundamental differences between them, and wholly justify the unrelenting sense of paranoia that’s both greatest strength and weakness for Batman. While his innate distrust has the DCU drowning in OMACs, you can understand why he’d ever think something like a Brother I was necessary, given the JLA’s decision to erase parts of his memory, Superman’s complete inability to resist mind control, and Wonder Woman killing a man on national television. He had the best line of the entire first issue, the best scene of the third, and with an upcoming “disagreement” with Nightwing scheduled next month, DC is giving their most complex character some well-written spotlight material. On the real, even if they weren’t, I’d probably still be incredibly intrigued about this whole One Year Later deal.

Playing with “missing time” is something that’s been done more than a few times, in a variety of entertainment mediums, and obviously there’s good reason this storytelling approach is always effective, if for nothing else, than getting people’s attention. It instantly puts you off-guard, and there’s something immediately engaging about that, because you’re thrown head first into a situation, with no explanation of how and why things got that way. Then the questions propel you through the story, that feverish need to know exactly what happened taking permanent hold. Initially, I thought DC should never fully explain what happened in the missing year, but the creative line-up on the weekly 52 is more than encouraging, and if done right, it’ll add an entirely new dimension to serialized storytelling. A weekly superhero drama syndicated in comic stores nationwide each and every Wednesday. But I’m gettin’ slightly ahead of myself, let’s address the recent March solicits…

I’m reminded of the Marvel Comics from a few years back, you know the one I’m talkin’ ’bout, the one where even the mid-level books looked pretty damn good. There was a concerted and noticeable attempt at strengthening the entire line with new creators and new approaches, giving the books an undeniable buzz. You weren’t sure that every single thing would ultimately appeal to you, but there was a sense of urgency coming off everything, a feeling that nothing was being wasted. Even from a cursory look at the March offerings, the effort there is unmistakable.

James Robinson on Batman. Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns on Superman. Busiek and Butch Guice on Aquaman, of all things. Green Arrow the mayor of Star City. Robin wanted for murder. Catwoman pregnant. Simonson & Chaykin on Hawkgirl. Supergirl in the Legion. Hell, I’ll probably even check out the new Blue Beetle series. And if they can make even THAT look cool, they’re doin’ something right. And this is just March, with even more stuff coming in the next several months that will garner at least a serious look. That’s what the DCU feels to me recently, much more serious and focused in their execution. These cats are attacking my wallet with a renewed passion, and as a result…I’m anticipating they’ll get more of my money in ’06 than ever before.

And now, for the three hottest books of last week. Would you believe they’re all from Marvel? It ain’t March yet, people…


X-Factor #2 (Peter David/Ryan Sook/Dennis Calero/Wade Von Grawbadger)

Well, this was a little unexpected…

In the wake of House of M, and Scarlet Witch’s three magic words, I’d officially sworn off any and all X-books (with the exception of Astonishing) for the next several months. Now to be fair, I wasn’t supporting but a handful of them anyway, so my little impromptu boycott could hardly be considered far-reaching, but I seldom will make such a personal decree toward an entire line of books. Something about it just strikes me a bit too “fanboy rampage,” an oft-repeated internet cliché that we’re all too willing to publicly level at books we deem unworthy of our hard-earned dollars. But even realizing that, I went ahead and “swore” it anyway, more than moderately disappointed by House of M, and its resultant universe altering status quo. Elaboration coming later on, though the actual point is that this new X-Factor series left me in a bit of a quandary.

See, like a lot of readers, I was incredibly impressed with the Madrox mini that laid the groundwork for this new launch. Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man, has always been one of those third-tier mutants with a really cool power we hadn’t seen fully exploited yet. Not sure if David was the very first creator to really examine the “identity crisis” Jaime’s powers inadvertently cause, but it’s a damn compelling way of pluggin’ us into the character, along with the premise of an agency of mutant detectives. Seriously though, if different aspects of your personality could somehow grow feet and get loose into the world, things would certainly get…interesting, to say the least. Which definitely applies here, as a duplicate of Jaime, representing the piece of him that simply cannot be trusted, makes what I’m sure is only his first appearance.

Besides that dynamic to consider, David has also turned close attention to the support cast, which includes respective third-stringers like Strong Guy and Wolfsbane. Thus far, as with Madrox, he’s finding slightly new perspectives for them, whether it’s using Rictor to detail the emotional loss of a mutant stripped of his powers, or exploring new, yet logical, extensions of Siryn’s abilities. The inclusion of Layla Miller is also proving fairly inspired, giving it a more direct connection to House of M, and suggesting that the rumor David will have his mutant detectives investigate the widespread effects of Wanda’s depowering is true, settling my primary beef with the story.

For such an important piece of storytelling, designed to set the tone for the entire Marvel Universe for years to come, my disappointment ultimately stemmed from the lack of explanation and controls in place. Scarlet Witch’s emotional outburst looks to have arbitrarily affected some mutants, but not others, and the same could be said for their memories of the whole event. How did Madrox and his small crew manage to emerge with their mutations intact, for instance? Too many dangling loose ends to be settled in future storylines, and too big a status quo shift to hold for longer than a year, at best. But I suppose if the development beget a monthly X-Factor series by this creative team, featuring these characters…I could alter the above exception to include it alongside the flagship book Astonishing. The book really is too cool to ignore, and apparently, that assessment is shared by more than a few others, as both issues have met with almost immediate sell-outs. With an explosive cliffhanger promised for the third issue, Marvel is probably already workin’ on the next press release.


Black Panther #11 (Reginald Hudlin/Scot Eaton/Klaus Janson)

Well, guess Panther is gonna be marrying Storm this upcoming summer…

Marvel has been teasing at some big development involving the Black Panther for months now, and it didn’t take much to see where everything was heading. Storm has had an increasing presence in the title for months now, with appearances in the House of M issue, and the subsequent X-Men crossover, that served to again float the possibility of a serious romance sparking between these two. The precedent is certainly there, and it was a thread Priest picked up on in his Love and War storyarc, one of several strong moments throughout his run by the way, but with Hudlin and then best-selling author Eric Jerome Dickey laying the final groundwork on this, I’m going to be optimistic about this one. And honestly, having Panther marry one of the X-Men almost ensures that he’ll remain a prominent force in the Marvel Universe, and I’m down with pretty much anything that guarantees that.

Before we can get there though, a few things to consider, chief among them, an army of ninjas that have attacked Panther and Luke Cage, for some unknown purpose. But as clever as the actual rationale is, all you really need to know is verbalized by two amazed onlookers, after the brawl spills out of Cage’s safe house, and into the street-

“Yo, dude is nice against those ninjas.”
“For real, though.”

That sentiment propels Hudlin’s latest installment in the front end, with a guest appearance by Shang Chi and his villainous father, who wants to make T’Challa an incredible offer, closing things out. There are a host of cool bits throughout, like Cage complaining about the ninjas trashing the couch that holds a fond memory, or Panther insinuating that Iron Fist is hatin’ on Shang Chi, and his “master of kung fu” ranking. Hudlin is really finding his voice in recent months, blending the attitude, with the humor, and ultimately smoothing out the characterizations so they vibe with what’s come before, while standing on their own merits. End of the day, despite my initial hesitation at the scope of this revamp, Hudlin has a respect for the title character that’s clearly undeniable, and that’s the most important aspect of any potentially successful run. And it’s something he shared with Priest, who many fans, including yours truly, insists on comparing his work to. Work that’s gradually increasing in strength, and should lead to a very interesting summer event, a royal wedding in the middle of civil war. Can’t wait.


Daredevil #80 (Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev)

DAMN.

Now, this is how you end a creative run. Hard to believe that Bendis has been writing this book for almost five years, and despite the pedigree of incoming scribe Ed Brubaker, it’ll certainly be different reading a comic about Matt Murdock, that doesn’t have Bendis and Maleev listed in the credits. Even with “The Murdock Papers” having one more installment before it’s completed, the arc is standing amongst the best they’ve offered during their lengthy tenure. While comics have seen their share of “outings” throughout the years, none were executed with the same level of complexity and emotional depth found in Daredevil. In my ever so humble opinion, the book stands right up there with Powers as the most significant and consistent long-term work that Bendis has contributed to comics, and is destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Frank Miller’s, that once re-defined the character.

But all of that is stuff you know, and hardly a surprise coming from me, with an index littered with mentions of this title, and this writer, who remains one of THE most skilled dudes in comics, despite one of the heaviest workloads. Planning something a bit more elaborate next month, to properly commemorate the actual conclusion of the run, but would’ve felt a little guilty if I didn’t say somethin’ about it, given the incredibly powerful cliffhanger in this penultimate issue.

So, now I feel better. Please go read this one, so you can too.


Okay folks, that’s all I’ve got for now. Hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year, and that you’ll hang with me as I creep towards the end of a run that lasted far longer, and came to mean far more than I ever thought it would. Ya’ll be good, and I’ll see you in about two weeks…

Peace,

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