Pop Culture Critics On Marvel Relaunches

Marvel Comics just hit the switch on their newest editorial refresh, which spins up new first issues for a bunch of their superhero series in the wake of the Avengers vs. X-Men event. Mainstay franchises like Iron Man, X-Men and Captain America are starting from number 1 all over again, while others get handed over to Sure, it's a blatant ploy to goose sales numbers again but these gimmicks also tend to hold creative surprises for readers too.

With that in mind, pop culture critics Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan join me to talk about a handful of Marvel Now relaunches. Read on to see what we thought of the new first issues for Iron Man, Thor: God of Thunder, Captain America, X-Men Legacy, Indestructible Hulk and Fantastic Four, as well as the change in direction for Journey into Mystery.

Douglas: So, I actually liked FF way better than Fantastic Four proper.

Graeme: And I disagree entirely on FF/FF.

Douglas: Yay, disagreement!

Graeme: Disagreement NOW! etc.

Douglas: So tell me your FF/FF argument.

Graeme: My FF/FF thing is that both books are relative failures, but at least Fantastic Four stands on its own as a story. FF needs you to have read Fantastic Four to properly work, which I found really frustrating - It was also a title that felt really incomplete if you weren't already familiar with Hickman's FF.

Even though it was, to all intents and purposes, an "introductory" issue

Douglas: I actually haven't read most of Hickman's FF/FF, but I also can't imagine that many people are going to be reading the Allred title if they're not also reading the Bagley title. The purpose of a second-tier book, maybe.

Graeme: I get that in one sense, but I would like to see it have somewhat more of its own purpose, I guess? Do second tier titles have to embrace their parent that much?

Douglas: And I did enjoy FF #1 a lot — I love it when Matt Fraction does formally tricky things, like the one-page blackouts that make up most of this issue, and the character writing seemed a lot tighter.

Graeme: I thought the character writing in Fantastic Four WAS tighter, and very in tune with the classical versions of the characters, too. Maybe a little TOO much? Like, the Thing segment was almost a parody of a Yancy Street scene.

Evan: Yeah, I felt that way too

Graeme: And I had real problems with the Sue Storm segment, if only because it seemed the other characters had more active roles, and then you cut to Sue and she's putting the kids to bed and being "the mum."

Douglas: Also, Fantastic Four seems to once again be taking the "family goes adventuring to strange places" angle, which is sort of done to death at this point. FF's high concept looks closer to "this is really not the gig they would have chosen, but they're stuck with it," which seems more interesting to me. (Just wish that Fraction and Allred had gotten around to explaining Miss Thing instead of just sticking her on the cover.)

Evan: I did like the YouTube thing in the Thing sequence, as a nod to the incongruity of Ben Grimm being old both in the series and as a character.

Graeme: I loved the "How do you delete things off the Internet?" joke, yes.

Evan: I haven't read FF yet so tell me if they address the fact that these are all already replacement/second-string characters except Medusa, I guess

Graeme: Douglas: Agreed re. the Fantastic Four concept feeling overdone, but I don't think FF has a core concept yet - I feel like it's ALMOST there, but not quite.

Graeme: Not really? She-Hulk points out that she's filled in for the Thing before, I don't think Medusa reminds Sue that she's previously filled in for her?

No Ant-Man shout-out, even though he gets the most facetime and character space (I must admit, I find Allred's approach to the tragic flashback to be jarring, and not necessarily in a good way; I hope that's leading somewhere.)

Evan: I have to say that I loved the Hickman era on Fantastic Four, because he focused on the love the characters have for each other. Now it seems like, in F4 anyway, that Fraction leaning more towards the frictions a family unit can have.

Douglas: More broadly, there's the question of why Reed thinks they're going to need fill-ins at all, let alone for four minutes. What's going to fall apart without them? Haven't they left Earth/this universe/whatever a zillion times before and everything's just fine when they get back?

Graeme: I found Hickman to be too emotionally distant for me, I admit. Fraction's version seems to ring more honestly.

Evan: yeah, Douglas, a little too cute

Evan: wow, really, Graeme?! Hickman's writing struck me like that at first, but I really feel he's grown in that department.

Graeme: Yeah, I have problems with Hickman's writing in terms of emotional sincerity. It feels very well-structured, very well-considered, but it never, ever FEELS right for me.

Evan: I had a lot of choked-up, teary-eyed moments during his run.

Graeme: I haven't ever really emotionally responded to a Hickman script, but I've had lots of "Oh, THAT's clever." More often, I have "This is the part where I'm supposed to feel something, but I'm feeling too manipulated..."

Douglas: One other odd thing — Mark Bagley's version of Fantastic Four seems to look almost exactly like Alan Davis's from a few years ago. Solid and everything, and tighter than a lot of what Bagley's been doing lately, but I'd like to see Bagley find a new direction to push the series visually, at least as much as Allred is doing with FF.

Graeme: The art in both books felt a little off from the tone. I almost wished the two artists were switched; I'd like to see Allred do cosmic adventure and Bagley try dark family dynamic shit.

Douglas: Me too, actually!

Evan: Bagley doesn't thrill me here either. I feel like his recent work on team books may not do it for me because I didn't like his JLA either but I did like him on New Warriors back in the day.

Graeme: Bagley's JLA was kind of horrible. And terrible inking, too. I suspect Bagley really depends on his inkers more than many artists these days.

Douglas: Bagley's really good at character interactions — that was what made his Ultimate Spider-Man work.

Evan: I did like the core hook Fraction laid out in F4, though.

Graeme: Evan, The "Reed is sick and looking for a cure without telling anyone"? I have REAL problems with that.

Evan: I vaguely remember the FF losing powers plot from years past but I don't remember Reed and Sue ever not being honest with each other.

Douglas: "Oh, hi, Tony Stark? Maybe you could help me with this problem... OK, great! Thanks!"

Graeme: Maybe because it's TOO in character? I feel like Reed has learned from keeping stuff from Sue too many times in the past for this to make sense.

Douglas: I have SOME faith in Fraction to be pulling off some broader switcheroo down the line, but yeah.

Graeme: Actually, that's a common Marvel NOW! flaw for me: Concepts that don't work in terms of character continuity unless you just accept that the writers are telling you that they work.

Douglas: (Which would make a good segue into...)

Evan: Like Tony Stark shaving his facial hair in Iron Man #1?

Graeme: Hahahahahahah. Not exactly, but sure, let's go with that. How'd you like Iron Man, people?

Evan: I liked that I didn't need to know where the Farction/Larocca run ended up because I'm way behind on those.

Douglas: Haven't read the second one yet, but the first one was a lot more straightforward than I was hoping it'd be — more or less a recapitulation of Fraction's first Iron Man premise, in some ways.

Graeme: Douglas: YES! I thought it was amazingly close to Fraction's first issue.

Evan: Yeah, it was in the same notional space as Five Nightmares for sure

Graeme: The second issue is a lot, lot better for me, but has similar flaws (Namely, Greg Land).

Douglas: Let's think for a sec about our favourite Marvel relaunchings/recastings in the past few years. Mark Waid's Daredevil, for sure. Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye, which is probably my favourite Marvel ongoing right now.

Graeme: Yeah, agreed on both, Douglas.

Douglas: Arguably Brubaker's Captain America, most of which I have to read still (but am looking forward to).

Evan: I loved the Defenders book.

Graeme: I think Slott's Amazing Spider-Man is something that deserves a lot of attention, though it's not in the same range as Hawkeye or Daredevil.

Douglas: That too! But in every case, what was going on was not "back to basics" so much as "what's a really cool possibility for this character that's in line with its past but has never really been done before?"

Evan: and with Cap, there was a narrative pivot with the Winter Soldier stuff that worked, too

Graeme: I think that Waid's new Hulk takes a similar tack, but Iron Man, F4, and even All-New X-Men to an extent don't, they seem very much like "This worked and so let's do it."

Captain America and Thor too.

Douglas: Slott's ASM was nicely done but didn't really seem as fresh as the other examples.

Graeme: Douglas - Yes. I think Slott may like Spider-Man too much as a fan to be able to really approach the characters fresh.

Evan: agreed on that

Douglas: Captain America is definitely trying something different, but I don't know that there's anything about it that demands Captain America as a central character. You could just about as easily put, say, She-Hulk in his place. Or Batman.

Evan: See, the thing I like about Jason Aaron's Thor book is the perspective shift.

Graeme: There's a lot in ASM that's fannish (Hobgoblin Vs. Hobgoblin! The Avengers need Spider-Man to save the world!). Well, Captain America is just Kirby's Cap again, but grim and wish a horrible abused mother retcon. (But with John Romita Jr. firing on all cylinders for the first time since the first Kick-Ass mini! Maybe because he doesn't have three books a month to draw!)

Douglas: Tell me more about that, Evan!

Evan: There are parts in the first issue where Thor's investigating the deaths of other pantheons and it has a bit of a police-procedural feel to it, which is counter to the brooding, big lug Thor we see so much.

Douglas: (Graeme, I'm going to get back to your comment on Waid's Hulk in a sec — )

Evan: Here's a guy who fights a lot — for centuries, really — and would know about the forensics of getting beat the hell up.

Graeme: I was surprised to see Thor actually answering a prayer. Was that the first time that's happened? It gave me a sense of him as mythical figure that I usually don't get. I really liked that.

Douglas: I liked that too!

Evan: Think there was some of that in the Roy Thomas days

Graeme: I didn't see the forensics thing until you pointed it out, Evan, but you're right; I like that, too.

Douglas: And I did appreciate the combination of police-procedural with grand-crazy-cosmic. I just want to have my mind blown on every single page when I read a Thor comic. I don't care about believability or any of that. Just give me someone sitting on a cosmic throne talking fake Old English and I'm happy.

Evan: I'm enjoying that this book feels more concerned with Thor's personality than other ones have

Graeme: Actually, the lack of "traditional Thor" was appreciated by me. There was a scale here that felt miles away from the "Hey, Gods in Middle America!" thing from Fraction/JMS over the last few years, which I was SO HAPPY TO SEE.

Evan - More concerned with the character as a character, as opposed to a story arc, you mean? That's a hallmark of Aaron's work but he also writes action well

Douglas: Which brings me to my problem with Journey Into Mystery: I really don't think Thor needs a B-title, as such. I absolutely loved Kieron Gillen's Journey Into Mystery, and I like Kathryn Immonen's writing enough that I kind of want to see where the current incarnation goes, but I can't see any big reason for there to be a Sif comic at the moment — or for there to be a J.I.M. post-Gillen/Loki.

Graeme: I agree. I think there's definitely a "And this is the story!" feeling about most of the Marvel NOW launches so far. They don't feel like continuing series, just... stories.

Evan: Yeah, while I can appreciate this idea that Sif is maybe more driven a warrior than other Asgardians, it feels more like a vignette.

Douglas: I agree on the stories vs. series premises thing for a lot of Marvel NOW, especially All-New X-Men, which seems to be "the story about the time the Lee/Kirby-era X-Men got brought to the present for a little while," not something I can see continuing even a year down the line

Graeme: Douglas, yes to there being no real reason to have a Sif comic, but I admit that I actually liked it a lot. I'm usually a sucker for Immonen's writing, however, so I have a bias. One other thing that struck me about Journey into Mystery… did either of you read Red She-Hulk, too? Both books have a theme of "There's this powerful woman - AND SHE CAN'T BE TRUSTED!" which is... odd, I guess? Like, I don't like the trope of "Women can't be as powerful as men or they go nuts."

Graeme: To follow up on the stories-vs-series thing, All-New X-Men really, REALLY feels like a story ARC, not a series. And the way it's being dragged out over the first two issues is not giving me much hope for it, especially knowing that Current Cyclops is being spun out into his own book in a couple months.

Evan: It's a question that New 52 has really brought to the forefront for me. "Sure, you've got the first trade plotted out but what about after that?"

Douglas: I mean, it's pretty! It's fun! But it seems a lot like Bendis applying his Avengers writing strategies to a different group of characters, rather than stretching the way he stretched to do Avengers in the first place (or Alias, or Ultimate Spider-Man).

Graeme: Douglas - Agreed on the pretty, but I don't see ANY real long-term plan here at all. Just padding out a simple idea. I said this elsewhere, but the use of time-travel to bring dead characters to the present in both ANXM and Uncanny Avengers is striking, too. Coincidence, or is there something else going on here? Because Bendis is breaking existing continuity in ANXM fairly clearly, and I am wondering if THAT is the long term plan: To rewrite/rebuild continuity.

Douglas: I also just kind of don't _get_ the new incarnation of X-Men: Legacy. After enjoying "The Simping Detective" enormously over the past couple of months, I was eager to see what Simon Spurrier would do with what seems like a weird little side current of the Marvel mutant-verse, but... I suspect that being largely contemporary-X-Men-illiterate may have left me completely unprepared to understand what was going on in the first issue.

Evan: like, I don't care about what young Jean Grey does because time travel and none of it will stick anyway. Douglas, I'm in the same boat continuity-wise but I loved X-Men Legacy. The thing about time travel is that it's so easy to have readers care less about causality.

Graeme: Evan - Isn't that the case with superhero comics anyway? Deaths don't stick, status quo changes don't stick. Why should we care about any of it?

Evan: Not disagreeing, Graeme, but those cracks widen a lot more with time travel, I think.

Douglas: It'd be nice to be able to care for a little while, though — to at least have the sense that the ground might shift a little, or for long enough to get some interesting stories in.

Graeme: I was left utterly cold by X-Men Legacy, right in the middle of you and Douglas.

Douglas: So, Evan: please make the case for Legacy! What am I missing?

Evan: Spurrier captured a lot of the weirdo vibe Claremont and Sienkwicz were throwing in mid-80s New Mutants. Granted, a lot of that is owed to the art.

Douglas: (Big hair!)

Evan: Mostly, I liked being on unfamiliar ground and the internal struggle of David's multiple personalities being an actual struggle was a nice conceit.

Graeme: I would have liked the unfamiliar ground and vibe if I knew what was happening, if that makes sense. It felt too short a chunk of story for me to care about any of it, because I spent too long being all "Wait, so this is... who? And that's inside his head?" I suspect I may appreciate it more if/when I read the second issue.

Douglas: I also wish the art had been more out-there, along the lines of Sienkiewicz's New Mutants — there's more to the psychological uncanny than an occasional fisheye effect...

Evan: teh possibilities for friction between the worlds inside and outside Legions's head is definitely something that will keep me reading

Graeme: The art was surprisingly... normal, giving Tan Eng Huat's previous work - Remember his (awesome) Doom Patrol?

Douglas: I do! I liked that a lot.

Evan: Agreed, here's hoping Huat gets to stretch more.

Graeme: If I return, it'll be because, like Douglas, I've liked Spurrier's 2000AD work, not because I was blown away by this first issue sadly.

Douglas: But I am enough of an X-illiterate that I hadn't actually met Legion before, so there was nothing to ground me in this one or make me care about him.

Evan: I also hope we see this idea of Legion living in Xavier's shadow played out more.

Douglas: The one of the books we looked at that I'm still trying to suss out how I feel about is the Waid/Yu Indestructible Hulk.

Evan: Onto the next multiple personality hero, then

Douglas: Can one of you stake out a position so I can argue against it, please? (only half-kidding)

Graeme: Douglas: Agreed, kind of, on finding it hard to care for Legion. I have to say: Lenil Yu is ENTIRELY the wrong artist for this book.

Evan: It felt too safe for me

Graeme: It felt too similar to Waid's Daredevil. "I used to be crazy, but now I'm not. Wait for things to go wrong!"

Douglas: It actually felt, to me, like a case of "You know that thing you did with Daredevil? That was great! Now can you do it for the Hulk?"

Graeme: YES. Exactly. And he took it too literally.

Evan: With Daredevil, Waid hangs the book on a radical left-turn premise: throwing out all the emotional torture that's been a hallmark since Frank Miller. And, in Indestructible Hulk, there's not as much a sense of a radical break. Banner working with people meant to keep Hulk in line? Seen that before.

Graeme: With Hulk... Well, it's also a left-turn premise considering where Aaron was with Banner, but the Hulk has been ALL left-turn premises in the last few years. With DD, there's something to react against, the Hulk is a fairly broken down concept these days.

Graeme: As far as it went - Not far enough - I liked Waid's script, but Yu's art was horrible. It had none of the character acting the script demanded, and a lot of weird pacing and lay-out that made the story difficult to decypher. You don't like the idea of making the Hulk a WMD a literal thing? (He says, agreeing that it's a little too on the nose)

Douglas: Memo to L.F. Yu: having characters pop out of panel borders is a trick you can do every once in a while to get across EXTREME action. Having it happen in nearly every panel just makes everything look weird, as on that early page where the dude hits Banner's back and his hand appears to be sitting on Maria Hill's gigantic forehead.

Evan: Yeah, it's just clunky

Douglas: Also, "No. No. No... This can't be... your strength, it's..." [next panel] "...it's INCALCULABLE." Oh please.

Graeme: A constant problem with the Marvel NOW! books for me has been the art. It's all been very exciting and bold and everything, but I can't really think of a book outside of ANXM where it feels as if the art is actually serving the overall story. Is that just me?

Evan: I do like the "Banner Hate Tony Stark" thing. But, as for the art, it's very "names with names!", Graeme.

Douglas: Here's a question: how long has it been since there has been a mainline, in-continuity Marvel Hulk title in which Banner turns into the stupid green Hulk who talks in pidgin and smashes things? I mean, it's been a while!

Graeme: Avengers Assemble, the first arc. And names with names, sure, but the books are ALL suffering.

Douglas: Not a team book, a Hulk book!

Graeme: A Hulk book...? Jeez. Hrm. Loeb/McGuinness?

Evan: Man, I can't remember

Douglas: THAT is the essence of the character. You can pull a lot of variations on it, but it's been a really, really long time.

Graeme: Even there, he was with Red Hulk. Is that what we want from Marvel NOW, then? A return to the essence? Or something new?

Douglas: As for the art serving the overall story... huh, I guess Hawkeye doesn't count as Marvel NOW, does it? Because that is beautifully drawn in a way that serves the story really well too.

Graeme: I admit, reading all of the books so far, I have no idea what Marvel NOW! is, and that's kind of a problem for me. "Generic Branding GO!" isn't exciting.

Evan: Part of what bothers me most about the post AvX stuff is how retrograde the mutant stuff feels. It's a backwards shift in terms of metaphor.

Graeme: The New 52 books were uneven at best, but at least they were all "HERE'S WHERE YOU START OVER."

Graeme: Douglas - Agreed on Hawkeye, but not Marvel NOW. Evan - Agreed on X-Books going backwards.

Douglas: I would love it if somebody could explain the new round of X-titles to me in a sentence apiece without making reference to previous continuity.

Evan: it reminds me of Brand New Day: "We can't write married Peter Parker so… reset button"

Graeme: "Political infighting about the future of an evolutionary strain that mainstream humanity is seemingly determined to destroy out of fear"?

Graeme: The X-Books kind of exemplify the problem with Marvel NOW! overall: What's the point? Just new #1s and trade dress? I get no real impetus to pick up these books, no dynamic unifying them or giving me something I haven't seen before.

Evan: Ultimately, I'm going to be more cautious about which of these titles to follow because that's the vibe they're throwing off. With New 52, at least there was, "hey, let's go see what's different"

Graeme: Yeah... And sadly, there's not been one hands-down winner in the bunch yet, and most of the big guns are already out. Marvel NOW!: Just like Marvel then, but with more $US3.99 books.

Evan: You know what that means...

Graeme: ...?

Evan: cue the crossover!

Graeme: You know it's coming in March, right? Hahahaha

Evan: Oh yeah, the Ultron thing.

Graeme: 10 issues in four months!

Evan: le sigh


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