Welcome to the Civil War installment of Ambidextrous…

Something I’ve been working on for weeks, with another six tie-in books released last Wednesday, the piece is finally ready for a little public consumption. And by little, I mean lot, because the word count, and my ever-so tolerant editor Craig Johnson, is receiving a serious workout on this one. Been reviewing these things in sequence, so somewhere near the middle, Marvel drops that huge bomb everyone’s been talking about for weeks now, and will probably keep talking about clear through the summer. Really great twist in what’s shaping up to be an excellent summer event, and because I love you all, there’s a gang of reviews included below to prove it. Case anybody is having those lingering doubt things, about this latest massive crossover served up by the Big Two. Did skip commentary on issue one of the main mini, but pick the trail up soon after, with one of the first supplemental releases, which seem to be serving a real purpose thus far. Enjoy, and on a completely unrelated tangent, go see Superman Returns once, or possibly twice, if so inclined.

Wolverine #42 (Marc Guggenheim/Humberto Ramos)

Seriously, is every single Cliffhanger artist now working at Marvel? Who would’ve predicted there’d be a time where Joe Mad, J. Scott, Ramos, Francis Yu, and Bachalo would all be down with the House, simultaneously? Don’t know what that implies, but it’s just one corner of a very impressive artistic roster that already includes cats like Bryan Hitch, John Cassaday, Steve McNiven, etc., that suggests the industry might need to implement some kind of “slaughter rule” to keep one company from snatching up too much talent at once. Just doesn’t seem fair is all, but I’m already drifting…

So, Humberto is the main reason I picked this up, with the Civil War tagging being a close second. Lovin’ what Marvel is doing with the branding, maintaining a relatively basic design, and using a title’s specific color scheme to give it an extra visual pop. Really makes sure the CW tie-ins stand out on the racks, which is even more of an accomplishment, since the design essentially turns the covers into half-shots.

Content-wise, Wolverine is given a very clear role in things, tracking down the one guy who’s really responsible for the Stamford disaster, something that seemed to get a little lost in all the public outcry and congressional hearings. Much of the ground covered in the first issue of Civil War is recounted here, in some instances verbatim, so there is a bit of repetition, but new writer Marc Guggenheim offers a couple of “branched” scenes, including a really nice opening sequence, and an interaction with Luke Cage worth noting. The very tenuous comparison of “this type of prejudice, is the same as being black” is thrown out there, but the analogy isn’t TOO stretched here, so it ultimately works. Luke’s neck is another story, but that’s a very minor exception, because the majority of Ramos’ stuff is pretty tight, his somewhat exaggerated style working almost as well as it did on Spider-Man. Think he’s working with a different inker than usual, there’s a little more grit on everything, the lines not quite as crisp, which definitely works for Logan, given his character.

The inevitable Nitro fight should be fun to see, and Guggenheim makes a good first impression here, making the most of an incredibly high profile stage. Sign me up for a couple issues of his upcoming Blade series, I’m thinking.

Amazing Spider-Man #532 (J. Michael Straczynski/Ron Garney)

Wonder if they’ll actually go through with this? Because unless the cliffhanger is a complete feint, Marvel is going to “out” Spider-Man, and well…who knows where things go from there? But here is a very perfect example of why it’s cool, and even necessary to have other titles feed into the main event. My one little gripe with the first issue of the series was the sense that nearly every one of the scenes could’ve benefited from an extra page or two, for better balance. There just isn’t enough space for everything and everybody, and JMS takes full advantage of that, outlining the mechanics of the Superhero Registration Act, and dropping the added wrinkle that effectively turns a hero’s family members into criminals themselves.

This concern obviously anchors Peter’s big decision, which is well played throughout, despite how quickly it has to be made. There really is a feeling that things are moving much faster than Peter can handle, and neither choice is particularly preferable. One has him going on the run, with May and MJ along for the ride, hunted down by his contemporaries, and the other with him giving up the one thing he’s held closer than anything else. Instinctively, the former sounds impossible, but I suppose you could make the argument that Pete’s crew traveling with a permanent SHIELD detail is safer than most situations. Although, giving up the identity would likely multiply the amount of people trying to kill them. And there are the other folks on the fringes, that don’t rate permanent bodyguards, like Robbie Robertson, Flash Thompson, and Peter’s students to consider. Guess that’s what makes the question so interesting, and how you could probably argue it in both directions for as long as you needed to. The point I’m sure, is that such things can only be expected when the government leans into “private” affairs, in the interests of quelling public outrage, and a need to feel “safe.”

Straczynski plays it pretty even, and provides Tony a few nice scenes that characterize him favorably, despite his willingness to back the president and SHIELD. Even if you don’t completely agree with him, you understand his perspective, and realize everybody is against the wall. For a guy that’s supposed to be able to see the big picture, Stark is just doing the inevitable, which is keeping within his character and standing in the Marvel U.

So, I don’t know, we’ll see if the ending is just a fake-out, or if Peter Parker, and Marvel Comics especially, is willing to go all the way with this.

Frontline #1 (Paul Jenkins/Ramon Bachs/Steve Lieber/Kei Kobayashi)

Okay, while JMS straddles the line. Jenkins just dives completely over it, making an impassioned argument against superhero registration, clear across three separate chapters in the book. Sally Floyd, his lead from the sleeper hit Generation M, is along for the ride, and despite some bad history and bad memories, her heart remains in the right place, and she looks to a very capable “adversary” to Ben Urich, who’s somewhat stifled by Jameson’s overriding conservatism. The notion that both of them will be embedded in different camps is a really good one, and Jenkins finds a nice seam to directly link the Bugle staff to the Stamford disaster, these books again knitting themselves together using shared characters and extended scenes.

As a storytelling technique, I absolutely love it, and it really gives the impression this is just one gigantic story being told from different angles and perspectives. One page in the main book turns into three in Wolverine, the second story tells what happened to the only surviving New Warrior, and so on. Can’t recall if this was billed as an event that could be followed exclusively in the main series, but this first batch of tie-ins have already strengthened Millar and McNiven’s original effort, which I imagine is the intent. And while it is a bit funny that Frontline will number more issues than the actual CW book, I’m diggin’ the mission statement for it, and its somewhat biased perspective on the assault on civil liberties.

More Sally Floyd is a good thing, and given time, I’m confident Jenkins can turn her into the sort of character Jessica Jones has become, but the real draw here is the fate of Speedball, who warranted or not, is left to take responsibility for Nitro’s explosive outburst. The issue is clouded instantly, as the first thing the young hero does after regaining consciousness is accidentally kill two civilians, but you reflexively spring back to his defense once you see him arrested, while lying on a hospital bed, powerless, and with no idea where he even is. Think splitting the book into sections like this will make the narratives more focused, and naturally help them cover more ground.

The final bit I’m not too crazy about, I think I know what the goal is, but it really plays in that grey area, where to inject a level of drama into fictional events, we contrast them with actual events in history, and more often than not, it really only casts our “comic book wars and crises” in their proper light. Nothing that happens in these pages could ever match the intensity and severity of the more disturbing moments in American history, and honestly, calling this thing “civil war” is probably the connection where the real and the fake should end. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a couple months, but it’s the only thing here that hits a wrong note, and I suppose even that says more than enough.

Civil War #2 (Mark Millar/Steve McNiven/Dexter Vines/Morry Hollowell)

………………………………………………

They did it. They really fucking did it.

I mean yeah, the huge cliffhanger has been the subject of intense speculation for weeks now, and was even strongly suggested at the close of the recent Amazing, but still, despite all that, these are comic books we’re talkin’ about here. A medium, which among other things, is completely obsessed with altering the status quo, if only so a few months down the line, it can be subsequently reversed. The “retcon” turned into its own delicate art form, and on some intellectual level, we know better, but continue to play along anyway, because let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun to watch. And even more to talk/debate about for months on end. But, come on, seriously…who really believed they would go ahead and do it?

The worn proclamation “everything changes” may actually apply, ’cause for the time being, this clever twist looks completely irreversible. The tone and focus of the event just takes the usual “fixes” off the table, your worldwide mind-wiping, alien shapeshifters, magic spells, etc., that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing whenever a superhero needs to put a genie back in the bottle. With the heavy political leanings, and uncompromising real-world feel, none of that stuff could be introduced without yanking you by the back of the neck out of the story. Meaning that despite my, and probably several others’ considerable level of amazement, this is the real deal.

The secret of Marvel’s greatest hero is laid bare, and even more than providing a fantastic cliffhanger, it irrevocably changes Peter Parker, because one of the most fascinating aspects of the character, involves the incredible lengths he goes to in keeping his two lives separate. And the really terrible consequences when he fails. Jonah’s reaction really says it all, and there’s no question this will make for a very interesting batch of stories, and that something this drastic has been talked to absolute death, so they must know what they’re doing. They have to.

Even past that, there are quite a few notable sequences to be had. Though my hate/hate relationship with Captain America is well documented, here in Civil War, I have to admit to just loving the guy. You take that dope-ass “SHIELD escape” scene from issue 1, and couple it with the fact he’s runnin’ the underground resistance alongside Luke Cage and Falcon, and it’s officially a wrap. Cap is quite simply that dude, for the foreseeable future. And possibly even past that. Oh, don’t even start with me, he kicks a mouthy SHIELD agent out of a moving truck, while rescuing the Young Avengers, and getting them back to his top-secret base of operations, supplied by none other than Nick Fury. You sit there and try to tell me that doesn’t just sound incredibly cool.

Right…that’s what I thought. Another little thing is my suspicion that Iron Fist has been masquerading as Daredevil, while Murdock is locked up, is pretty much confirmed here. DD and Cage working side-by-side, Fist nowhere to be found, and people like Cloak & Dagger, and Cable in attendance makes for a rather convincing smoking gun. Any month now, expect to see Rand ignite that fist of his while in DD’s costume, and expect it to look pretty cool drawn by Michael Lark.

Though the “rebel alliance” has accounted for all of the really nice action moments, Stark and company do get a few opportunities to further explain their motivations, and honestly, their approach seems far more logical than Cap’s covert strike team, but that’s really beside the point. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the great thinkers in the Marvel U (Richards, Stark, and Pym) are choosing to get behind the registration act, despite that icky feeling attached to anything governmental that restricts civil liberties. These guys are supposed to be “futurists” after all, and to see them scurrying around creating blueprints and ideas to revolutionize the meta-human community is a nice touch, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming FF issues, which will no doubt detail Reed’s rather obsessive behavior, and this secret “42” thing.

Taken all together, this more than lives up to its billing, and is undeniably gorgeous on top, cementing McNiven as one of the most talented artists in the biz. Millar promises even bigger surprises down the line, which seems almost inconceivable, but you can’t deny they’re off to a pretty incredible start.

X-Factor #8 (Peter David/Dennis Calero)

What is it called when the crossover tie-in book isn’t really a crossover tie-in book? Everyone is making a decent go of it, but this doesn’t have that much to do with Civil War, despite the attractive tagging, and the cover image I’ve been drooling over since it was released months ago. Beautiful piece of art by artist Ryan Sook, which is the first of several steps in addressing the CW deficiency, which still leaves us with another very excellent issue of the revamped X-Factor, that features one of the most charismatic ensemble casts in comics. Layla Miller is still a huge draw, even though her ability to “know stuff” is seriously tested in this issue, with a few cool encounters with Pietro, on top of her usual cool encounters with the rest of the squad.

House of M continues to cast a looming shadow over the book’s focus, but things take a progressive turn when Siryn coerces Spider-Man into givin’ up the goods on Wanda’s three-word outburst. Peter continues to be the weakest link in the HoM chain, as SHIELD trapped him on the helicarrier in New Avengers recently and did something pretty similar, which suggests that Stark should’ve built some psychic shielding into Spidey’s new armor. This scene represents the bulk of the Civil War coverage, an impromptu debate kicking off between Peter and Siryn, though the Madrox, Agent of SHIELD bit is fairly clever, again showing just how important the Multiple Man can be, if handled correctly. So, really, business as usual here, David advancing his main sub-plots and leading to next issue’s showdown with the ever Astonishing X-Men, and what really went down on “M-day.” Far from a necessary chapter in the overall CW framework, but if the additional spotlight brings more readers to this title, then it’ll be well worth it.

And that cover is incredibly tight though, right?

Frontline #2 (Paul Jenkins/Ramon Bachs/Steve Lieber/Leandro Fernandez/Kano/John Watson)

Another fantastic little cover, and have I mentioned how much I love the trade dress for these books? Oh, so it’s come up before? Okay, moving on then…

Anyway, Jenkins serves us even more stories than he did last issue, the instant crowd pleaser being Jonah’s reaction to learning he’s been paying Spider-Man’s bills for the last several years. Funny thing is that for once, you can actually understand Jameson’s perspective, as it was always slightly dodgy for Peter to be runnin’ around taking pictures of himself for money. The inevitable Ben Urich exclusive interview is also set into motion, which is sure to be the cornerstone of this series, and a nice moment for the guy who also shares Daredevil’s confidence. Sally Floyd’s side of things includes an interview with a former New Warrior, who’s choosing to hang it up rather than play ball with the government, and the first arrest of an “unregistered combatant” by Iron Man and his goon squad. As the narrative escalates, Stark’s credibility is slowly eroding away, as actually seeing him take down a “hero,” essentially minding his own business, feels a little different than him talking about his big plans for “the future.” He’s called a traitor in this scene, and it’s really hard to disagree.

The Speedball story probably contributes to that though, which makes anyone even associated with the government look fairly bad. They are good enough to offer him an incredible deal, but it hinges on his admitting guilt in the Stamford disaster, which his principles won’t allow, leaving him at the complete mercy of his captors. Who do not hesitate to piss all over his “civil” rights, denying him counsel, or even a phone call to let his parents know he’s still alive. Which might be up for debate, after he spends a few weeks in a max security facility, surrounded by hardened criminals, with absolutely no powers to speak of.

Final bit is a small clip of Peter’s press conference, which really upsets Norman Osborn, but who even cares…dude kinda deserves it. But if I know anything about comics, he’ll be out and about, and on a goblin glider, in a couple months. And no, I’m not just sayin’ that because he just happens to appear on the very gorgeous cover to issue 5. Purely coincidence, I swear…

Fantastic Four #538 (J. Michael Straczynski/Mike McKone)

JMS plays with a really interesting idea here, that the events of Civil War might actually cause a serious split between Reed and Sue Richards, but right before he can even get it goin’, he slides it off into the corner, and focuses on Ben Grimm and Thor’s hammer, neither tangent feeling nearly as strong. Probably a month ago, Straczynski gave a really good interview, where he teased the development, and commented that the subject of politics is good for polarizing even the closet of family members, so I was holding high hopes we’d see the start of that. Especially given Reed’s behavior in Civil War 2, a little cold, a little pre-occupied, and treating the whole situation like a complicated social experiment, thinking so much about how many cool ideas he and Stark can implement, the very immediate human element somewhat lost of him. But alas, it was not meant to be, JMS is holding onto it in this issue, shifting the focus elsewhere.

Now, there is something to Grimm’s point of view, the idea that people relatively unaffected by something this far-reaching have already made up their minds about it, and so strongly, they’re demanding everyone else do the same. This notion of a Superhero Registration Act seems to be good at forcing characters, even ones in the distant background, to make snap judgments, and Grimm only wants some time to think, which dramatically is the last thing you want. Cause there is nothing better than someone forced into a corner by competing ideologies, bad choices on both sides, but pressed to choose one, and choose it quickly. I like to see the “war” spilling out onto the streets, with ordinary people sticking up for the heroes that have stuck up for them, because again, it escalates the overall problem, and raises the stakes. Because when the superheroes get to killing each other, won’t be long ’til some bystander gets crushed under falling rubble, the staple of any decent superhero fight. Until then though, The Thing is being all non-committal, and I really want to see Reed and Sue fight, but perhaps that comes next month. A few nice moments, but was expecting JMS to dig into the main conflict a little more, like he’s been doing over in Amazing. The Thor stuff also falls on closed ears, but for cats waiting for him to make his re-appearance, this issue advances that along quite a bit.

Wolverine #43 (Marc Guggenheim/Humberto Ramos)

Even more ammunition for those wishing to dislike Tony Stark, who makes a key appearance here, as Logan continues hunting down Nitro, the villain actually responsible for bombing Stanford. Stark plays absolute hypocrite here, attempting to reprimand Wolverine for the same “reckless” behavior he was completely cool with a few months ago, when he asked him to join the Avengers. Not only that, but he goads Logan into giving up some valuable intel, then hands it off to the government’s “superhuman restraint unit,” then fades off into the background like a punk, and leaves everybody to get blown up, in one of the worst “takedowns” ever conceived. Though one could argue, his absence was a storytelling choice, or he had another superhero mindin’ his own damn business to run down and toss cuffs on, but the effectiveness of this highly trained military squad is thrown into immediate question. Along with the upper limits of Logan’s healing factor, which I thought needed at least a working brain to knit him back together. Dude is seriously napalmed down to his shiny skeleton in this book, but like any good invincible superhero, he comes right back, even if the suspension of disbelief is stretched to dangerous points.

It’s all very pretty again, Ramos taking advantage of the script’s many opportunities to turn things up, and providing an extremely well orchestrated opening round in what’ll likely be an escalating series of Logan/Nitro fights. But the chase has moved quickly thus far, with a mysterious sub-plot building in the background, that I’m sure will propel the second half of the arc. Again, Guggenheim is looking pretty capable at this point, and with Chaykin announced as his collaborator, that new Blade series is lookin’ better and better…

New Avengers #21 (Brian Michael Bendis/Howard Chaykin)

Now, this one I’m extremely torn on. My often unconditional Bendis-love litters my index, and I’m only a few days from sittin’ down and re-reading his entire run on Daredevil, but almost two years in, his Avengers stuff continues to feel a bit unfocused. Still think he excels creatively when his main cast is kept relatively small, or somehow contained, which does bode well for this New Avengers Disassembled arc. Shining an individual spotlight on members of the crumbling group provides a very natural storytelling goal, and should play into the writer’s well-established strengths. Here, we begin with my new favorite character Captain America, as rendered by legendary creator Howard Chaykin, which gives us some dope art, but the story is what loses me. Where that last issue of All-Star Supes drew me in with each successive page, this one does the same for a few pages at a time, before repelling me with the next set.

Most of it stems from characterization ticks, the biggest problems on the very first pages, where Cap sounds bitchy, of all things. Believe the point is to elaborate on his sense of frustration and confusion, at why so many of his people are willing to throw caution to the wind, and just sign their lives over the government, but it strikes a weird note, and launches the book on a slightly odd tone. And is the alleged justification for how a battalion of soldiers manages to not only sneak up on him, but to surround him in seconds. Cool idea, but don’t know if I buy that an established tactical genius like Cap could be caught unawares so easily. The resulting fight is okay, as is the brief confrontation with Dugan, but things really pick up when the Falcon shows, and the two of them begin their little recruitment drive. First guy they go after is Hank Pym, who’s surprised Cap would even think of him, but not so much that he doesn’t betray them almost immediately. Nice to see Rogers split his nose with his shield, before he and Sam Wilson easily escape their would-be captors, and head off to the next potential on their list, which looks to be my man Luke Cage.

Rough start, but the middle and ending prop it up well enough to serve as a decent intro to the arc, which should be fun, if only for all the different artists contributing pages.

Amazing Spider-Man #533 (J. Michael Straczynski/Ron Garney)

The direct aftermath. JMS covers every single base, in the wake of Peter’s announcement, and as expected, everybody has their own unique take on the situation. Jameson’s sense of betrayal feels real, which is incredibly weird, considering the source, but then things later go back to normal, when Peter is served with a lawsuit from the Bugle, seeking financial damages. Sure it’ll be cool though, Tony Stark probably has very good lawyers, and speaking of him, he and Peter have a couple of great scenes together, including one that sees Pete make an extremely serious threat to his “boss.” Promising that if anything happens to May or MJ, the two of them are gonna have major problems, which between me and you, probably will, forcing Spider-Man to ultimately switch sides, at which point, it’ll be too late to make much of a difference. But that’s the purest of speculation there, so don’t quote me, unless it turns out I’m right.

But it’s all here, the angry, hateful mobs, the ruthless reporters and paparazzi, the congratulatory calls from Reed and Sue Richards, the stunned reactions of former friends and current enemies, and Tony Stark being a true punk-ass again. This guy calls a press conference, promises to “out” every hero he’s got a secret identity on, and hunt down and jail anyone that gets in his way. “Without exception,” he claims, before naming Spider-Man as one of his personal enforcers, even though he hasn’t even talked to Pete about it yet. Which is beyond unacceptable, and again, cements his growing reputation as corporate super-villain. At the beginning of this article, Stark was an innocent “futurist” trapped in the crosshairs of a really bad situation, but as things evolve, his behavior is forcing that suspicious eyebrow up, and it’s obvious he’s up to something. And whatever it is, bet it ain’t for the good of the future, or whatever he’s claiming.

Again though, JMS makes the most of another great opportunity to fill in the blanks, because I’m sure by the time Millar reaches issue 3, he won’t have time for most of this. Probably be too busy with that first big Cap/Iron Man fight, which should be quite cool.

All right people, that’s more than enough outta me for a couple weeks. Will probably post up a quick deal in two weeks, before heading off for another potentially fun-filled San Diego trip, which I’m thinking of chronicling by way of photo journal. Always wanted to try that, but might lose my nerve at the very last minute, so we’ll see…

Last thing involves my contribution to this week’s Sunday Slugfest, which features a bunch of SBC reviewers taking aim at Superman Returns. It didn’t fit into this column, but I really wanted to say something about it, and it’s only a click away. Thanks for listening, ya’ll be cool. Peace.

B

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