Top of the Pile: Messiah Complex, Ultimates 3, Uncanny X-Men, 52

After spending the month of November writing fiction, I’m finally getting back into reading it. While the Fall of Hyperion waits on my bookshelf, I’ve decided to ease back into things with my comic books … and the truly mammoth stack of graphic novels lent to me by long-time friend and Nuketown commenter Evil Genius.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the fact that my local comic book shop, The Phantom of the Attic, has moved to Third Street in downtown Easton, which is far more convenient then tracking over the old location at the 25th Street shopping center.

Messiah Complex

Easily rising to the top o the pile the last few weeks has been Marvel’s Messiah Complex storyline, which runs through the Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, New X-Men and X-Factor titles. In it they’re finally correcting the mistake that was “M Day”, in which all but 199 mutants lost their powers after a crazed Scarlet Witch uttered a spell that erased the mutant gene from the human genome.

This event had run its creative course three months after it happened, but has lingered on, lobotomizing Marvel’s mutant titles for the last two years. The X-Titles, which used to lead the Marvel universe, were sidelined during the recent Civil War epic (despite the fact that the Superhero Registration Act latter-day version of the Mutant Registration Act that’s been discussed and battled over in the pages of the X-Men for years).

Now Messiah Complex looks to restore the mutants to something resembling their proper place in the Marvel hierarchy. The story revolves around the astounding birth of a mutant baby in Alaska. Three factions – Mr. Sinister and his murderous Marauders, the mutant-hating, fanatical Purifiers, and the X-Men.

Sinister and his Marauders are great villains for this series – they’ve got a lot of history with the X-Men, giving the comics an old school feel for long-time fans like me. They could have done a little more exposition to explain to new readers who Sinister is, and how he fits into the X-Men universe, but I get the feeling that that’s not the point of the series. It’s less about getting new readers then bringing back – or at least retaining – old ones. Build enough of a buzz among the old guard, and you might return the entire X-Universe to the forefront of comic readers minds.

Uncanny X-Men #493

So I’m pleased with the Messiah Complex. They’re hitting the right notes, bringing back the right villains, and mixing in just enough alternative timeline/future war stuff to keep people guessing. My only real complaint so far is Uncanny X-Men #493, which has a fantastic cover of Cable cradling the mutant baby. It’s beautiful work, but it’s ruined inside by a panel of Cable running through the wilderness, baby strapped to his chest, complaining because it’s crying is going to bring down “predators” on them. I know this is the geek dad in me, but it’s ridiculous to think someone would run through the woods with an unsupported newborn strapped to his chest, hands, legs and head flailing madly about. I know, these are comic books – realism isn’t something I should expect a lot of. But in my opinion, getting the little details right help you suspend your disbelief when dealing with the big stuff.

The whole Cable-as-renegade strikes me as being the start of one of those annoying, convoluted storylines that would resolve itself in about two minutes if everyone would just sit down and talk. Moreover, Cyclops – who at the start of the series is still shaken by the apparent death of his son Cable – shows almost no emotion at Cable’s apparent escape from death. He shows no remorse or the slightest bit of regret as he orders Wolverine to assemble an X-Force strike force to hunt Cable down and do whatever it takes to get the baby back.

Ultimates 3

I’m not a huge fan of Marvel’s Ultimates universe – I’ve picked up a few books here and there but they never really captured my imagination. I decided to give the universe another try with The Ultimates 3, which is written by Jeff Loeb and has been building a pretty good buzz among the comics sites I read.

The book opens with the Ultimates watching a Tony Stark/Black Widow sex tape that’s been leaked to the Internet. As they debate how to deal with the unfolding public relations disaster, Venom suddenly appears, demanding to know where “she” is, without ever explaining who the heck he’s talking about. A titanic battle ensues in which we’re introduced to the major players of the Ultimates, including team leader Wasp, team psychopath Hawkeye, the god Thor and his 19-year-old girlfriend Valkyrie and Black Panther (whom Venom promptly launches into the next county).

The story is haphazardly scattered through pages of the book, and anyone reading this has to proceed on the assumption that what they’re reading here will make sense later on. What ultimately threw me was the art: this is a dark, muddy book. Christian Lichtner’s colors are subdued and murky and seem to bleed from one page to the next. They might have been shooting for gritty; what they got was a swamp begging to be drained. One issue of this was enough for me; I’ll pass on the rest of the series.

52, Vol. 4

At the top of the immense pile of graphic novels that Evil Genius lent me were the four volumes comprising DC Comics’ impressive 52 project. I heard a lot about 52 when the project first launched: it would feature a number of DC’s second string (and occasionally third string) heroes as they dealt with a world in which Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman have taken a year off to recover from the reality-splintering effects of Infinity Crisis. The series was published on a weekly schedule, with the comic’s storyline moving ahead in real-time. It was an impressive undertaking, and all the more so because they nailed it: delivering every book on time, and telling a compelling story in the process.

Marvel could learn a lot from this series, starting with how to ship books on deadline.

I skipped the series when it was published in comic book form because I’m not a huge DC fan and the prospect of adding four more books to my monthly pull would have put a hefty strain on my wallet. But since it concluded I’ve heard nothing but good things about the title, and having just read it, I have to agree.

The series tells five intertwining stories. The Elongated Man’s searches for a way to reunite with his dead wife. Superhero investigator The Question’s battles with a crime syndicate trying to take over the world. The benevolent superpowered dictator Black Adam quests for a stable family. Scientist-turned-Superman replacement-turned parental surrogate Steel’s struggles to deal with a headstrong niece who wants to be a hero, but doesn’t wan to do the work. And then there’s the trials of Booster Gold, the hero from the future who just wants to save the world … and get paid handsomely for it.

That’s a hell of a lot to cover in one series, but DC does it amazingly well. My favorite storylines involve the Question (a no brainer, given his Objectivist roots with Steve Ditko) and his fight against Intergang, which is trying to bring about a apocalypse. This storyline focuses on the Question’s relationship with Renee Montoya, a former Gotham City cop who resigns from the force after a fatal shooting. She’s wracked with guilt by that shooting, and the Question arrives to start forcing her to confront her own guilt … and her own questions. Montoya’s sexual orientation plays a role in the story – she’s a lesbian who previously had a fling with the woman who becomes Batwoman – but it’s done remarkably well. When the books were published, some people made a lot of hay over Batwoman’s sexual orientation, but its far less gimmicky then the headlines would have you think.

The second best storyline involves Booster Gold’s quest for fame and fortune, and how that quest gets foiled time and again by the far more heroic Supernova, a new hero who arrives on the scene apparently just to show up Booster. This storyline has some of the series best twists as well as the greatest payoff.

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