Top of the Pile: Messiah Complex, Penance, End League, Gunslinger Born

Last week was a light one for Marvel (or at least the Marvel titles I read) so I let Tony at Phantom of the Attic talk me into trying out a couple of other titles. In addition to my X-Universe standby – this week it was “New X-Men”, Part 12 of the Messiah Complex – I picked up Penance: Relentless #5 and Dark Horse Comics’ The End League.

Finally there’s Marvel’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, one of the four graphic novels I got for Christmas.

Messiah Complex Part 12: New X-Men 46

The Messiah Complex rolls along solidly if not thrillingly. Over the last four issues we’ve learned that Cable has found the mutant baby that’s inspired brutal fighting between three factions: The X-Men, the Mr. Sinister-led Mauraders, and the mutant-hating Purifiers. Against all reason, Cyclops assumes that Cable has gone rogue and means to do something terrible with/to the baby, and unleashes the reconstituted X-Force (a mutant strike team lead by Wolverine that doesn’t have to play by the regular X-Men rules). Meanwhile, Multiple Man Jamie Maddrox has been sent to an alternative future where mutant kind still lives, but has been imprisoned in relocation camps. He discovers, much to his horror, that this future exists because of a holocaust caused by the mutant baby and is home to a child who will become the mutant policeman Bishop.

The child Bishop reveals he’d do anything to kill that baby and prevent his own history from happening. As fate would have it, Bishop does travel back in time, and his adult self is just as obsessed with killing the baby.  Maddrox dies in the alternative timeline to return to the main Marvel timeline, merge back with the original Multiple Man, and reveal the traitor in the X-Men’s midst.

It’s too late though – Bishop ambushes Cable at the mutant inventor Forge’s offices, but before he can kill the baby, the Marauders show up and whisk the child away to the former X-Men safe haven of Muir Island.

New X-Men #46 picks up with the action with X-Force having just arrived on the island and engaging in an all out battle with the Marauders. Previously in Part 11, we’d learned that Mystique had killed Mr. Sinister so that she and Gambit could steal the baby.

Got all that?

The Messiah Complex had a fairly straightforward storyline until about Part 10, when they started springing plot twists that the series really didn’t need. The bit with Bishop justifies the alternative timeline story, and returns us to a future we’ve only glimpsed a few times before, but the payoff wasn’t strong enough and doesn’t ring true to Bishop’s character as we’ve known him to date. While I suppose it comes down to the whole “would you kill Hitler if you had the chance?” question, I just have a hard time buying law-and-order Bishop as a traitor. Something else I had trouble with was Mr. Sinister’s anti-climactic death at the hands of Mystique; Mr. Sinister is always a dozen steps ahead of everyone else, and for him to get suckered by Mystique just doesn’t ring true. For now, I assume that the corpse lying on the floor of a Muir Island laboratory is a clone or construct, and not the real Sinister.

Penance: Relentless #5

Back in the day I used to read New Warriors, which was a twentysomething team of superheroes including Nova, Night Thrasher and a hyperkinetic, spastic bouncing teenager known as Speedball. I lost track of Speedball over the years, and was only tangentially aware a new version of the New Warriors that inadvertently sparked Marvel’s Civil War megaseries by confronting the human bomb known as Nitro. Nitro detonated during his fight with the Thunderbolts, killing hundreds.

Imagine my surprise to discover that the bouncing joke Speedball has been transformed into the self-loathing Penance, who wears a spiked metal costume with the spikes on the inside. In the Relentless mini-series, Penance has taken it upon himself to hunt down Nitro and bringing him to justice (though exactly what that justice will be isn’t clear). In Issue #5, he’s learned that Nitro is being held in a Lativa prison. He’s flown there in a stolen a super-secret military jet packed with nukes to confront the country’s leader, Dr. Doom, and demand Nitro be released to him. There’s a short battle, which Penance loses, but nonetheless wins by outsmarting Dr. Doom.

Yes, the former Speedball outsmarted Dr. Doom. Clearly there have been big changes to this character while I was away.

Perhaps the best part of this book was how it depicted the confident ruthlessness of Tony Stark, aka Ironman, who has no qualms about using a truth serum on Penace’s former shrink to learn every thing he can about the renegade’s motivations. His character is becoming the perfect bureaucratic uber villain. As for Penance, it’s an interesting concept, and certainly an unexpected one, but I found Penace’s relatively easy victory over Dr. Doom to be too much of a stretch (though perhaps it wouldn’t be if I’d kept up with Speedball’s latter-day adventures).

The End League

Imagine a world in which the arrayed supervillains of the DC Universe won, defeating every hero save a handful of Justice Leaguers who are forced to hide out in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and you’ll get Rick Remender’s The End League. Issue #1 of the Dark Horse comic came out last week, and in the opening pages, Remender makes it obvious that this is exactly the sort of comparison he’s try to make. The main character, Astonishman, is Superman with the serial numbers filed off … and a hell of a guilt complex for accidentally bringing about an environmental catastrophe that grants 1 in 1000 people mutant powers.

And they don’t use those powers for good.

Within a few years after the Day of Annihilation (in which all the supervillains banded together to defeat the heroes) tyranny is the order of the day across the world as various supervillains establish their own private fiefdoms. The few surviving good guys – the End League – try to fight the good fight, but by Issue #1 are reduced to launching food raids against their enemies just to survive.

It’s a dark, dismal future. In his author’s notes at the end of the issue Remender makes it clear that his faith in humanity’s better instincts is all but none existent; he assumes that if large numbers of people did get superpowers, most of them would use them for evil. Personally, I’m more up beat than that; people have the ability to cause mass mayhem every day and the vast majority do not. Remender supposes that selfish greed will cause people to turn on one another the moment they got their powers; I’d be more worried about them banding together to form some uber-state. After all, the greatest horrors humanity have ever known were inflicted upon them by people who’d deluded themselves into thinking they were the good guys.

Still, it’s a good setup for a comic book, and it finally does what D.C.’s been teasing us about for years: namely setting up the villains as the definitive winners. It’d also be a great setup for a role-playing game – I could easily see doing a limited series Mutants & Masterminds game set in this world.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s Dark Tower book series. It was ultimately flawed – the final three books had only a fraction of the power, drama and romance of the first four – but was still an epic worth reading.

With The Gunslinger Born,  Marvel revisited the origins of King’s iconic gunslinger, Roland Deschain, last of the line of Eld in comic book form. The book’s out in hardcover novel format, and it arrived under the Geek Tree this Christmas. It features beautiful, haunting artwork by Jae Lee, and a Peter David script adapted from King’s Dark Tower IV: Wizards and Glass. It’s true to the spirit of Wizard and Glass, a tragic romance that manages to work in a goodly amount of suspense and gunplay, and is a significantly faster read than the 781 page novel. My only complaint about the book is that it doesn’t include much of the bonus material – essays on the history of Gilead and its surrounding territories – that appeared in some of the comics; as a Dark Tower fan I was hoping for something more comprehensive.

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