Friday, June 28, 2013

Angels, Ant-Men, and World Eaters: The Shape Of Things To Come At Marvel Comics

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't read up through Age of Ultron #10 yet, turn back now. I'll be playing fast and loose with the spoilers and such in this article.
Look to the stars. The cosmic writing is on the walls. The threats of Civil Wars and Secret Invasions are long past, outdated in the now. Marvel Now that is. The massive renumbering and retitling initiative of 2012 sets the stage for threats of a more galactic, far-out variety. The focus shifts ever slightly from the Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxy as the Ultrons and Osborns of Marvel Then make way for the mad dieties and reality warping tyrants of Now. I admit, I didn't see it at first, but now it's plain to see that Marvel is marching toward a Crisis. The events of Age of Ultron have taken the concept of divergent timelines and molded it into something resembling a ...dare I say it...multiverse. Echoes of Crisis on Infinite Earths are to be heard; the angelic harbinger, the devourer, and countless versions of the Marvel pantheon banding together with much more than just a single universe at stake.

Just two weeks ago as of my writing this, Marvel released Age of Ultron issue ten, marking the end of the latest "event" cycle and also acting as a catalog of sorts for the next couple of series that Marvel has decided you must read or be left in the dust. The Age of Ultron series itself carried all the markings of your typical event book, right down to a shimmering cover enhancement. Brian Bendis was the scribe, and he led no less than five artists on a wild goose chase through time with a timey-wimey half-baked science fiction plot that grew out of a great dystopian set up in the first five or so issues. Ultron, a massively powerful and malicious artificial intelligence, had leveled the Earth and a ragtag group of super-heroic survivors were forced to resort to that old chestnut time travel to either go back or forward in time and set things right. Wolverine and Sue Storm of all people defied the majority of the heroes and traveled back through the constantly shifting sands of Marvel time to try and prevent scientist supreme Hank Pym from ever inventing Ultron in the first place. In short, Wolverine murdered Pym, they returned to the present to find everything even worse than when they left due to Hank's assassination, then went back again to prevent themselves from preventing Pym from building Ultron. Phew. My limited ability to structure sentences is already tested just discussing a single time travel event in a story, much less the paradox-y stuff that's present in Age of Ultron.
As an alternate timeline version of iron-dude Tony Stark warns Wolverine, "Time is a living organism. Each time we go back we tear it. We hurt it." His words ring all too true in the tenth issue of this series, when time isn't just torn, it goes kablooey. The comic explodes in your hands and alternate versions of many stalwarts from the Marvel stable spill over the pages. Please take a moment to consider pirate Ben Grimm. I don't have anything to say about that other than consider it. That totally happened once. Anyway, the end of this story bounces back and forth between showing how much of a bad thing the timestream breaking really is to full-page ads for shiny, new upcoming Marvel releases where eager readers can follow up on these ramifications. While the whole Ultron thing that was oh-so important just mere pages ago does get wrapped up pretty neatly (actually way too f***ing neatly), this issue seems like a real non-ending. I'm reminded of the last issue of Secret Invasion, where the lead focus was buried deep under the hype and speculation for the next event, with all the while Brevoort and Bendis assuring us that this was all part of the plan. The five year plan. The eight year plan. The however-long-it-needs-to-be plan. The big stories spilling out of the aftermath of Age of Ultron are the appearance of Galactus (not Gah Lak Tus or whatever) in the Ultimate universe, the proposed "solution" that Hank Pym has conceived in the issue's last sequence, and the debut of Neil Gaiman's cosmic angel character and former Spawn sparring partner Angela in the standard Marvel universe. Let's take a look at each of these reading options going forward and see if maybe this sub-par Age of Ultron fiasco might at least bear some interesting fruit.
The biggest and purplest cliffhanger coming out of Age Of Ultron for me is the classic (616, if you will) Galactus appearing above the New York skyline in front of Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man. While I'd like to see plucky young Miles just swing up and punch the world eater on the snout, it looks like the Hunger creative team of writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Leonard Kirk have more ambitious plans. Mr. Fialkov is a pretty great writer who more than deserves a shot at a nice attention-grabbing project like this. His run on I, Vampire at DC kept me thoroughly entertained and his independent graphic novel Elk's Run is a must-read for fans of Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, and the like. I haven't read any of Fialkov's Marvel work to date, but I understand his Morbius series is something I should be snapping up. As far as those pretty pictures that will accompany Mr. Fialkov's story, Leonard Kirk is an artist I'm quite fond of. His work on X-Factor was always energetic and well laid-out, a basis similar in style to Stuart Immonen. The figures are clean, the action is clear, and the characters and expressive when they need to be. The possibility of a world-eating threat has already been beaten back once in the Ultimate universe, in Warren Ellis's series of miniseries from a few years back. Back in that story, the threat of Galactus took the form of Gah Lak Tus, a swarm of cosmic, energy-devouring space bugs. When Ellis wrote that story, the notion of the big purple helmet guy was too ludicrous for the "realistic" approach that the Ultimate line of comics was looking for. I guess, now, with the Ultimate star not shining as brightly as it once had, all bets are off. My fever dreams of a Marvel Crisis (as in DC's Crisis) were made reality for a brief second when Miles looked up into the night sky and saw Galactus looming before him. I can't be alone in momentarily envisioning the Anti-Monitor, when he arrived to consume the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 in the opening pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The next big bullet point is Hank Pym's new vision quest. Of the three Age of Ultron spinoffs, this one is actually available and I've had the pleasure of reading it. Age of Ultron #10AU (AU being the numbering gimmick that allowed them to release more tie-ins to this series wihtout breaking up the flow of those other series' numbering) reads more like a pilot episode for a new Hank Pym series or mini with him looking into his own past trials and tribulations to help form a new plan going forward. With the genie-run-amok that was his "son" Ultron put soundly back into the bottle, Pym is now focused on restoring the Marvel timeline and finds himself in a Reed Richards role, hoping to redeem past mistakes by solving everything for everyone. This issue is an epilogue to Age of Ultron in that regard as well, but the sour taste that last event left in my mouth led to me approaching this issue as a new beginning rather than a house cleaning affair. Mark Waid is a writer I have much admiration for, and he turns in a perfectly serviceable comic book with his artistic collaborator Frank D'Armata. The character of Hank Pym is that of damaged goods, ala Matt Murdock or Bruce Banner, and those seem to be the personality types that Waid is working best with these days. Reinventing Pym and giving him a clear purpose and function in the Marvel universe is the most essential step toward making him relevant, and more importantly, fun to read again. It'll be nice to see if Pym can be known for more than creating Ultron and slapping his wife going forward. Plus, an Ant-Man series starring Pym would be a good move if Marvel is truly serious about a feature film starring the size-changing hero. The best move, naturally, is to have Mark Waid at the helm. Where this leaves the Scott Lang Ant-Man from Matt Fraction's wonderful FF series is yet to be determined.
While a space faring Angela showing up in the last double spread of Age of Ultron was given away by the comics media pretty much months in advance, the real treat here isn't that acquisition, but rather the news that comics writer and novelist Neil Gaiman would be co-writing the Guardians of the Galaxy series with regular writer Brian Bendis starting with issue five, where Angel will next appear in the Marvel line. I suspect he'll be the one putting words into Angela's mouth, seeing as she is his personal creation and the man just concluded a hard-fought battle with Todd McFarlane to win her custody. If not for Gaiman's invovlement in her portrayal, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that most critical fans would write her off. The scantily-clad warrior woman doesn't exactly scream "depth" at first glance. Just her design evokes the comics of the 1990's and the lesser natures of sweaty male comic geeks everywhere. Her current role as a heavenly warrior from another universe on a tear through space to find who is responsible for displacing her is kind of intriguing, but I admit I'd have zero interest in plunking down any cash to see where she goes and who she punishes if not for Gaiman's involvement. Bendis has been quick to denounce rumors that this is a future Jean Grey or any other redhead messiah, so my fears of a bait and switch have been quelled for the time being at least. My crystal ball is haziest on this one; I'd suggest picking up Guardians of the Galaxy number five at the very least and deciding if you give two hoots or not.

With Age of Ultron issue ten bagged and boarded, at least three new story paths await, so it's up to you and your budget to decide where to go next. If none of those three flavors tickles your fancy, Marvel has been generous enough to provide even more alternatives for your summer superhero reading, choosing to take their usual method of flooding the marketplace to new and frightening extremes. There are yet more Avengers rosters to fill out, more crossovers to be had between titles, and another "event" book so hot on the heels of Age of Ultron that they practically overlap. Because you demanded it, or even because you didn't, two more Avengers teams lie on the horizon, one of which is scheduled to spin out of Infinity, an event miniseries that hasn't even started yet! The Robo-Avengers of Avengers A.I. and the ethnically-apologetic team called the Mighty Avengers will be hogging the space on your local spinner rack sooner than you think. Remember, at Marvel, A is the new X. I can't speak to either of these new team titles that much, but I'm sure at least one of them will get the proverbial axe by the time the next event cycle rolls around. Avengers A.I. seems to have the most obviously limited lifespan, and yet Mighty Avengers could go the way of the dodo even with the strong ties to the Infinity series and promotional blitz behind it.
And howabout that Infinity? Described by writer Jonathan Hickman as the first major crescendo of his tenure with the Avengers line, the series looks to put Thanos back into position as the big baddie of the Marvel universe, at least for the time being. Aside from his bit in the opening arc of Avengers Assemble, Marvel really didn't do much with him after the initial hype surrounding the character following his brief cameo in the Avengers movie. Thanos is a personal fave as far as cosmic-level big bads go. The introspective lover of death is known to leave poetry and pontification in his wake as well as destruction. The artistic flourish of his destructive tendencies, especially when weilding the Infinity Gauntlet, have always made him just a little more endearing than his planet conquering contemporaries. Hopefully, the trio of artist extraordinaires joining Hickman on this series will see to it that Thanos is presented in all the grandeur the character derserves. Artists Jim Cheung, Jerome Opena, and Dustin Weaver all bring something different and equally potent to the table. Don't leave behind the acid-powered influence that Starlin bred into the character all those years ago, Mr. Hickman.

Is it too far fetched to assume that a bigger shake-up than we suspect is coming soon from the House of Ideas? Maybe something a liittle heavier than the usual event cycle leads to. Even with Marvel Now still super fresh in our minds, could yet another restructuring of the Marvel line be on its way? With cosmic do-badders and divergent timelines scattered about and the recent announcement of Marvel's Your Universe app, will the possiblities explode or implode? Smaller publisher Valiant is encouraging and even endorsing fan fiction from their readers, hoping to create a farm territori for new IPs and story beats. Could Marvel have something similar in the works. Like the weathered and defeated heroes gathered at Nick Fury's hideout in Age of Ultron issue six, we as fans must look to both the future as well as the past to see what Marvel has up its sleeve. And no matter what product is born of this era, just remember the company line, "it's all part of the plan."

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