Ultimate Avengers volume 3: Blade versus the Avengers


By Mark Millar, Steve Dillon & Andy Lanning (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-478-2

Marvel’s Ultimates sub-imprint began in 2000 with key characters and concepts retooled to bring them into line with the tastes of modern readers – a potentially discrete market from the baby-boomers and their descendents, who were apparently content to stick with the universe which had sprung from the fantastic founding talents of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee – or most likely –  one unable or unwilling to deal with the five decades (seven if you include the Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of continuity baggage that had accumulated around the originals.

Eventually this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 the cleansing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is still comics, after all) killed dozens of super-humans and millions of lesser mortals. Although a strong seller the saga was largely trashed by the fans who bought it and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line quietly back-pedalled on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this third post-tsunami collection (re-presenting Ultimate Comics Avengers 3, #1-6) focuses on a more or less dried out world with the diminished global populations adapted to the new status quo.

Before the Deluge Nick Fury ran an American Black Ops team of super-humans called the Avengers, but he was eventually toppled from his position for sundry rule-bending antics – and being caught doing them. Now he’s firmly re-established, running a black ops team doing stuff the officially sanctioned Ultimates wouldn’t dream of…

His secret army consists of  Hawkeye – the man who never misses, James Rhodes: a fanatical soldier wearing devastating War Machine battle armour; Gregory Stark, Iron Man’s smarter, utterly immoral older brother, Nerd Hulk, a cloned gamma-monster with all the original’s power but implanted with Banner’s brain and milksop character, size changing insect queen Red Wasp and ruthless super-spy Black Widow. Also popping in when nobody’s looking is resurrected WWII super soldier Captain America – part of the bright and shiny squad but always happy to slum it when necessary…

This time the dark-side heroes stumble into a secret war that has gone on uninterrupted by the end of the world, and kicks off with the half-human vampire-hunter Blade on the unaccustomed defensive. The Bloodsuckers he has generally picked off with ease are suddenly more organised, more effective and even more dangerous and as the story unfolds it transpires they have a new king with a new plan…

This mysterious mastermind is wearing Iron Man’s armour and ignoring ordinary mortals, preferring to turn super-heroes into a vampiric army. The situation starts bad and gets exponentially worse with metahuman heroes and guest-stars dropping like flies. With all possible saviours succumbing to the unstoppable plague, it looks hopeless when only Blade, Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye are left untainted and only the greatest miracle or boldest masterstroke can save humanity…

Which it does in spectacular fashion in this dark, moody and rocket-paced thriller by Mark Millar and Steve Dillon: wry, violent and powerfully scary, this grim-and-gritty fan-fest is engrossing and eminently readable

This spooky, cynical, sinister shocker is another breathtakingly effective yarn that could only be told outside the Marvel Universe, but one that will resonate with older fans who love the darkest side of superheroes and casual readers who know the company’s movies better than the comic-books.
™ & © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LLC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition published by Panini.

Ultimate Comics New Ultimates: Thor Reborn


By Jeph Loeb & Frank Cho (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-475-1

The stark, savage and nihilistically modern Utimates Comic universe is stocked with dark and gritty analogues of the shiny dynasty crafted by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but since its inception at the turn of this century has resolved into something which can easily stand on its own merits.

With the Norse hero Thor very much in the public eye at the moment a number of his Ultimately alternative adventures have quickly found themselves translated into graphic novels and Thor Reborn, although certainly not the easiest to begin your acquaintance with, is probably the most action-packed and definitely the best illustrated.

Written by Jeph Loeb and captivatingly depicted by Frank Cho the saga is actually a tale of the alternate Avengers (originally published as Ultimate Comics New Ultimates #1-5) which opens with the Thunderer trapped in the land of the dead, and mourned on Earth by his fellow heroes – especially his devoted lover Valkyrie; a mortal woman artificially empowered by clandestine means who now wields Thor’s hammer.

When her old team the Defenders attacks Ultimates HQ, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Captain America, Valkyrie and mystery goddess Zarda are easily defeated and the attackers steal the mystic mallet, setting off a disastrous chain of deadly events…

Meanwhile the lost Thor has been granted a chance to escape his dolorous prison: all he has to do is impregnate his captor: Hela, Queen of Death…

Ka-Zar, Shanna the She-Devil and Black Panther are just strolling through the park when Loki, god of Madness and Mischief, with Amora the Enchantress in tow, leads an invasion of trolls and monsters to Earth. In his hand is Thor’s dimension-traversing hammer…

Before the assembled champions can muster a defence Amora mesmerises all the female Ultimates including S.H.I.E.L.D. Commander Carol Danvers, and inevitably the indomitable, hard-pressed heroes fall…

But at the moment of triumph a secret weapon turns the tide and the Ultimates escape to fight another day, whilst in Valhalla, bargain fully carried out, Thor readies himself to return, only to discover that one small detail has been neglected. For him to return to life once more, somebody on the other side must die…

Tense, compelling and explosively cathartic, the saga of the Thunderer’s return is pure comics hokum of the very highest quality: unassuming but wildly satisfying.

™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All rights reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Avengers: Death Trap, the Vault – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Danny Fingeroth, Ron Lim, Jim Sanders & Fred Fredericks (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-810-3

Marvel don’t generally publish original material graphic novel these days but once they were a market leader in the field with a range of “big stories” told on larger pages emulating the long-established European Album (285 x 220 mm rather than the standard 258 x 168 mm of today’s books) featuring not only proprietary characters in out-of-the-ordinary adventures but also licensed assets like Conan, creator-owned properties like Alien Legion and new character debuts.

However the company’s extended experiment with big ticket storytelling in the 1980s and 1990s produced some exciting (and if I’m scrupulously honest, appalling) results that the company has never come close to repeating in since. Many of the stories still stand out today – or would if they were still in print.

Released in 1991, Death Trap, the Vault is a conventional but enjoyable Fights ‘n’ Tights thriller in the Summer Blockbuster vein that fits solidly into the strictly-policed continuity of the mainstream Marvel Universe. Scripted by Danny Fingeroth and illustrated by Ron Lim with inking by Jim Sanders & Fred Fredericks, this yarn is potentially impenetrable to occasional fans but nevertheless delivers the tension, action and character byplay to the faithful readership that made Marvel the premier US comics publisher for such a long time.

The plot itself is simple and effective: with so many super-powered menaces on the loose the Federal Government constructed a specialised penitentiary to incarcerate villains once they’re captured. Some felons, deemed too dangerous for normal courts, are even tried there. Perhaps the authorities could have picked a better warden though: Truman Marsh might be a fine administrator but his parents were collateral casualties in a super-powered clash and he spends far too much time thinking about the Doomsday bomb hidden in the Vault in case of a mass breakout…

One day the inevitable finally occurs and a power outage enables a few convicts to bust free. Already on the scene Captain America and size-changing savant Doctor Pym fight a holding action against Venom, Mentallo, Orca, Bullet and a dozen other lethal adversaries, but with more being released every minute things look pretty grim and Marsh starts getting an itch in his trigger – or rather, button-pushing – finger…

With the super-creeps killing hostages and the entire complex in lockdown a team of Avengers and Government penal battalion Freedom Force have no choice but to break into the ultimate prison, unaware that the deadly clock is already counting down…

Moreover, since Freedom Force is composed of the kind of criminals the Vault was built to contain, can Earth’s mightiest Heroes risk trusting them whilst the rampaging escapees run riot?

Intense and visceral, this old-school, all-out action romp will delight the traditionally-minded reader and still holds a happy surprise or two for we older, ostensibly wiser, jaded, grumpy geezers…


The book was resized and repackaged in 1993 as Venom: Death Trap the Vault and if you don’t mind seeing your action on a slightly smaller scale this edition might be a little easier to find.
© 1991 Marvel Entertainment Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Emperor Doom starring the Mighty Avengers – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Dave Michelinie, Bob Hall & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-256-9

I can’t recall the last time Marvel published an all-original graphic novel as opposed to a collection of previously printed material, but once they were a market leader in the field with an entire range of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220 mm rather than the generally standard 258 x 168 mm of today’s books) featuring not only proprietary characters in out-of-the-ordinary adventures but also licensed assets like Conan, creator-owned properties like Alien Legion and new character debuts.

Nonetheless, Marvel’s ambitious dalliance with graphic novel publishing in the 1980s and 1990s produced some classy results that the company has never come close to repeating in the intervening years. Both original concepts and their own properties were represented in that initial run and many of the stories still stand out today – or would if they were still in print.

Released in 1987 Emperor Doom was conceived by Mark Gruenwald, David Michelinie and Jim Shooter, scripted by Michelinie and illustrated by Bob Hall with some additional inking by Keith Williams, and fits comfortably into the tightly policed continuity of the mainstream Marvel Universe.

If you’re wondering, despite coming out nearly two years after the launch of regular comicbook series West Coast Avengers, this saga is set just before that auspicious fresh start for Iron Man, Tigra, Wonder Man , Hawkeye and Mockingbird…

The plot itself is delightfully sly and simple: for once eschewing rash attacks against assembled superheroes, deadly dictator Doctor Doom has devised a scheme to dominate humanity through subtler means. Inviting Sub-Mariner to act as his agent the master villain uses the sub-sea anti-hero to neutralise mechanical heroes and rivals prior to using a pheromone-based bio-weapon to make all organic beings utterly compliant to his will. Naturally Doom then once-more betrayed his aquatic ally…

Meanwhile living energy being Wonder Man is undergoing a month-long isolation experiment to determine the nature of his abilities. When he exits the chamber 30 days later he discovers the entire planet has willingly, joyously accepted Doom as their natural and beloved ruler. Alone and desperate the last Avenger must devise a method of saving the world from its contented subjugation…

Of course there’s another side to this story. Doom, ultimately utterly successful, has turned the planet into an orderly, antiseptic paradise: no war, no want, no sickness and no conflict, just happy productive citizens doing what they’re told. In this perfect totalitarian triumph all the trains run on time and nobody is discontented. All Doom has to do is accept heartfelt cheers and do the daily paperwork.

With the entire world an idealised clone of Switzerland, the Iron Despot is bored out of his mind…

So it’s with mixed emotion that Doom realises Wonder Man and a select band of newly liberated Avengers are coming for him, determined to free the world or die…

Tense and compelling this intriguingly low-key tale abandoned the traditional all-out action for a far more reasoned and sinisterly realistic solution – disappointing and baffling a large number of fans at the time – but the clever premise and solution, underplayed art and wicked, tongue-in-cheek attitude remove this yarn from the ordinary Fights ‘n’ Tights milieu and elevate it to one of the most chillingly mature Avengers epics ever produced.

A cut above the average and well worth an open-eyed reappraisal, this is an Avengers adventure for every jaded superhero fan.
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Avengers 2: Crime and Punishment


By Mark Millar, Lenil Francis Yu & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-465-2

Marvel Ultimates began in 2000 as a reconfiguration of key characters and concepts to bring them into line with the tastes of modern readers – perceived as a potentially separate buying public from the baby-boomers and their descendents, who were content to stick with the various efforts that had sprung from the fantastic originating talents of Kirby, Ditko and Lee – and one unable or unwilling to deal with the decades of continuity baggage that had accumulated around the originals.

Eventually this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 the cleansing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is still comics, after all) killed three dozen odd heroes and villains plus millions of lesser mortals. Although a good seller (in contemporary terms, at least) the saga was largely trashed by the fans who bought it, and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line quietly back-pedalled on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this second post-tidal wave collection (assembling issues #7-12 of Ultimate Avengers 2) finds the survivors fully adapted to their dried-out world and back in business.

Before the Deluge Nick Fury ran an American Black Ops team of superhumans called the Avengers, but he was eventually toppled from his position for sundry rule-bending antics – and being caught doing them. Now he’s back, running another black ops team doing stuff real heroes wouldn’t dream of…

His far from happy band of brothers consists of Hawkeye – the man who never misses, James Rhodes: a fanatical soldier wearing devastating War Machine battle armour; Gregory Stark, Iron Man’s smarter, utterly immoral older brother, Nerd Hulk, a cloned gamma-monster with all the original’s power but implanted with Banner’s brain and milksop character and ruthless super-spy Black Widow. You can never have enough super-stooges though, and Fury is actively recruiting…

First on his wish-list is the Punisher, a vengeance-crazed vigilante carving his way through the underworld of three continents. It’s hard to imagine an even colder stone-killer than the standard Marvel Universe Frank Castle but creators Mark Millar, Lenil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan & Laura Martin just about manage. However, his campaign of retribution is promptly stopped cold by Captain America.

Imprisoned by Federal authorities, the Punisher never makes it to prison, and soon after a new masked hero with loads of guns and a big skull on his chest reluctantly joins Fury’s death-squad…

The other newbie is super-gangsta Tyrone Cash, whose recruitment causes a lot more collateral damage. Before being blackmailed onto the team the violence-addicted, invulnerable superhuman had another life: a college professor who researched how to maximise human physical potential. One day he just vanished, leaving a pile of rubble and some very instructive data that his student Bruce Banner developed to its ultimate end… much to the world’s eternal regret.

Though not as strong as the Hulk, Cash is homicidally violent and aggressive, and enjoys breaking stuff and hurting people. Only the greatest threat imaginable could force Fury to keep such a dangerous tool around…

And that happens to be a flaming-skulled mutant biker called Ghost Rider who is relentlessly hunting and killing the Vice President’s oldest buddies and has now set his eyeless sights on the Veep himself… Carving a swathe of fiery destruction that leads to the White House itself, the Ghost Rider is utterly unstoppable. No mutant has ever been as powerful. If the press-ganged team didn’t know better, it would seem that the blazing biker is a real ghost… but there’s no such thing, right?

Trenchant, sardonic and incredibly violent, the traditional super-science scenario takes a big, bold step into the realm of satanic, supernatural horror and, as always, the grim-and-gritty heroes are almost indistinguishable from the genuine bad-guys in this stunningly engrossing, anti-heroic epic. No shining knights here, but plenty of dark ones…

Given some distance and far removed from market hype and the frantic, relentless immediacy of the sales arena there’s a far better chance to honestly assess these tales on merit alone, and given such an opportunity you’d be daft not to take a long hard look at this spectacular, beautifully cynical thriller: another breathtaking, sinisterly effective yarn that could only be told outside the Marvel Universe, but it’s also one that should solidly resonate with older fans who love the darkest side of superheroes and especially those casual readers who know the company’s movies better than the comic-books.

™& © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LLC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition published by Panini.

New Avengers: The Reunion


By Jim McCann, David López & Alvaro López (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3855-6

The Marvel publishing event Secret Invasion revoked a number of hasty decisions made by writers and editors in the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth hurly-burly of periodical publication, among them a couple of “deaths”. The Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens, had been infiltrating all corners of the Marvel Universe for years, even abducting and replacing certain heroes. Thus when Bobbi Morse-Barton, Mockingbird, ex-super-spy, West Coast Avenger and wife of Hawkeye was killed, it wasn’t her…

Freed and returned to Earth Mockingbird is having trouble readjusting. The world is a far darker place, and terrorists have overtaken super-villains as the greatest threat, Hawkeye is now the enigmatic warrior Ronin – and wants to pick up where they left off. When Bobbi “died” the couple were going through a divorce, but he has since convinced himself that that was the Skrull impostor playing mind-games…

This is a rare thing for a Marvel graphic novel; a love story/Romcom with genuine sentiment and quite a few laughs riding shotgun on the traditional moody adventure the company generally specialises in. Collecting pertinent portions of Dark Reign: New Nation and the miniseries New Avengers: The Reunion #1-4, the saga opens with ‘Supicion’ as Clint Barton violently forces himself back into Mockingbird’s life and realises that his one-and-only is still carrying a secret trauma from her time as a Skrull prisoner. She wants nothing to do with him and has her own cure for what’s ailing her…

‘The Lady Vanishes’ finds the persistent Ace Archer making a pest of himself until she lets him join her new endeavour. Not prepared to rejoin the Avengers Mockingbird has returned to her old profession and working with a group of other returned Skrull captives has created her own spy network. The World has gone to hell in a hand-basket and if the superheroes can’t fix it her World Counterterrorism Agency will – by whatever means necessary.

Against her better judgement Bobbi allows her once-hubby to come along on a mission and ‘Double Indemnity’ finds them matching wits with the terrifying Monica Rappaccini, new leader of evil think-tank Advanced Idea Mechanics and the world’s most ruthlessly ambitious poisons specialist…

How the odd couple reconnect, save the world and come to terms with the horrors Bobbi experienced on Skrullworld makes for a rollicking, complications-free action-romp that is bright, breezy and just the tonic for romantic fans of modern lovers.

Saving civilisation, punching each other out and gradually redefining the term “True Love” this snappy little package is everything Mr. & Mrs. Smith should have been and writer Jim McCann and artists David López & Alvaro López have my fervent support for a sequel any time they’re in the mood…

© 2009, 2010 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

New Avengers: Secret Invasion volume 1


By Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, David Mack, Jim Cheung, Billy Tan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2947-9

The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who’ve bedevilled Earth since Fantastic Four #2, and they have long been a pernicious cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse the insidious invaders were made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas.

The premise of Secret Invasion is simple: the would-be alien conquerors have only just survived a devastating catastrophe which destroyed much of their empire; subsequently leading to a mass religious conversion. They are now utterly resolved and dedicated to make Earth their new homeworld. To this end they have gradually replaced a number of key Earth denizens – most notably superheroes and other metahumans. When the plot is discovered no defender of the Earth truly knows who is on their side…

Moreover the Skrulls have also unravelled the secrets of Earth magic and genetic superpowers, creating amped-up counterparts to Earth’s mightiest. They are now primed and able to destroy the world’s heroic champions in head to head confrontations.

Rather than give to much away let me just say that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love it, and a detailed familiarity is not completely vital to your understanding. However, for a complete experience, you will need to see the other 22 “Secret Invasion” volumes that accompany this on, although you could get by with only the key collection Secret Invasion – which contains all eight issues of the core miniseries, a one-shot spin-off “Who Do You Trust?” plus an illustrated textbook “Skrulls” which claims to provide a listing and biography for every shape-shifter yet encountered in the Marvel Universe (but if they left any who could tell?).

Collecting issues #38-42 of New Avengers, the saga contained in the book under review here is only the first part of the team’s response to the Invasion, focussing on individual character pieces to propel the narrative rather than vast battles. There is a second Avengers volume, so naturally this one ends on another thrice-accursed cliffhanger…

Scripted throughout by Brian Michael Bendis, the first chapter is illustrated by Michael Gaydos and deals with the aftermath of the superhero Civil War, as Luke Cage and his wife Jessica find themselves on different sides as she leaves a team of outlaw Avengers for the stability of the State-sanctioned alternative, whilst the second chapter (art by David Mack) sees that illegal team – Wolverine, Ronin, Iron Fist, Spider-Man and martial artist Maya – encounter the alien first strike when they narrowly escape death from a multi-powered doppelganger of Daredevil.

The scene then switches to the recent past and the devastated Skrull homeworld, detailing the rise of the new religious faction and the opening days of the Invasion (stunningly pictured by Jim Cheung & John Dell) before segueing to the Savage Land (illustrated by Billy Tan) and a confrontation between Earth’s costumed defenders and a Skrull ship full of what appears to be old friends – some of whom have been or dead for years. Are they escaped humans – or another batch of the new undetectable super-Skrulls?

That particular confrontation resolves itself in the aforementioned Secret Invasion – that’s why I said it was key – but this chronicle closes with another informative reminiscence drawn by Cheung & Dell as the new Skrull Queen recalls how she took lead strategic role in the campaign by replacing Spider-Woman in the Government-Approved Avengers.

As the book closes she readies her team for action, preparing to betray and destroy them all…

You will also definitely benefit by checking out the collections Secret Invasion: the Infiltration, Secret War (2004), Avengers Disassembled, and Annihilation volumes 1-3, as well as the rather pivotal New Avengers: Illuminati graphic novel.

Despite that copious homework list I’ve provided this book is still is solid action-adventure read, with plenty of human drama to balance the paranoia and power-plays. Reading it might be confusing and will be expensive, but for dedicated Marvelites and keen followers of Fights ‘n’ Tights action it is pure guilty pleasure.

© 2010 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Avengers: The Next Generation


By Mark Millar, Carlos Pacheco & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-442-3

The Marvel Ultimates project began in 2000 with a thoroughly modernizing refit of key characters and concepts to bring them into line with contemporary “ki-dults” – perceived to be a potentially separate buying public to we baby-boomers and our declining descendents, who seemed content to stick with the various efforts that devolved from the fantastic originating talents of Kirby, Ditko and Lee. Eventually this streamlined new universe became as crowded and continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 the cleansing publishing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is comics, after all) killed three dozen odd heroes and villains and millions of lesser mortals.

Although a good seller (in contemporary terms, at least) the saga was largely trashed by the fans who bought it, and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line is quietly back-pedalling on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this post-tidal wave collection (assembling issues #1-6 of Ultimate Comics Avengers: The Next Generation) picks up the story of the survivors as well as the new world readjusting to their altered state. In this dangerous new world global order has yet to be fully re-established and, just like after World War II, Princes and Powers are constantly jostling for position.

Before the Deluge Nick Fury ran an American Black Ops team of super-humans called the Avengers, but he was eventually toppled from his position for sundry rule-bending liberties – and being caught doing them. Now, in the aftermath of the disaster he’s back:  attempting to put another team together – and get his old job back.

Captain America was one of America’s first super-soldiers – a key factor in the Allies beating Hitler and one of the deadliest men alive. Just as in the Marvel Universe Proper, he survived into our era. Whilst fighting terrorists in the sky over Chicago he is soundly thrashed by a man with no face: an incredible assassin with a red skull, who easily overwhelms him and throws him to what would have been certain death, if not for the intervention of master marksman Hawkeye.

All through his second career secrets have been kept from Captain America by his superiors. He had no idea that when he was “lost in action” his girlfriend was already pregnant with his son and that whilst he was dormant the American government confiscated the child to train as another human weapon. On awakening in a new era Cap could not be told how warped and malevolent that boy became or how, on reaching maturity, the lad had murdered everyone who had trained him, embarking on a decades-wide path of horrendous nihilistic slaughter in all the world’s most troubled hotspots: Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, Chechnya, Dallas…

Now Cap knows the truth and goes rogue just as the Red Skull allies with the intellectual terrorist sect Advanced Idea Mechanics to build a Cosmic Cube, capable of restructuring reality itself. Only Fury and his new team of Avengers have any chance to stop them, but his motley crew of heroes all have their own plans…

As well as Hawkeye, this next generation includes James Rhodes: an angry soldier wearing devastating War Machine battle armour; Gregory Stark, Iron Man’s smarter, utterly immoral older brother, Nerd Hulk, a cloned gamma-monster with all the original’s power but implanted with Banner’s brain and milksop character; ruthless super-spy Black Widow and paroled assassin Red Wasp, who has history of her own with the Skull…

As the catastrophe-clock ticks down, Fury inexplicably sets his dogs to capture Captain America rather than tackle the Skull, but in this deep, dark, and superbly compelling thriller there are games within games and everybody is working to their own agendas…

Once removed from the market hype and frantic, relentless immediacy of the sales arena there’s a far better chance to honestly assess these tales on merit alone, and given such an opportunity you’d be foolish not to take a good hard look at this spectacular, beautifully cynical and engrossing thriller from Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco, ably assisted by inkers Dexter Vimes, Danny Miki, Thomas Palmer, Allen Martiniez, Victor Olazaba & Crime Lab Studios.

This is a breathtaking, sinisterly effective yarn that could only be told outside the Marvel Universe, but it’s also one that should solidly resonate with older fans and especially casual readers who love the darker side of superheroes.

™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Siege


By Brian Michael Bendis, Olivier Coipel, Michael Lark & others (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-452-2

The things that superhero comic-books do best are Spectacle and Cosmic Retribution: the cathartic comeuppance of someone who truly deserves it. So this collection, reprinting the Siege: Cabal one-shot and the four-issue Siege miniseries it led to (selected portions of the vast 2010 publishing event that partially re-set and restored the traditional “Stan & Jack” Marvel Universe) is an effective and welcome hint of a new dawn in the recently bleak and unfriendly world of Captain America and his costumed cohorts…

Norman Osborn, one-time Green Goblin, has through various machinations become America’s Security Czar: the “top-cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. Under his meteoric rise the Superhuman Registration Act led to the Civil War, Captain America was arrested, murdered and resurrected (see Captain America Reborn), and numerous horrific assaults on mankind occurred: including the Secret Invasion and the “Dark Reign” which led up to the graphic novel under review here

As well as commanding all the covert and military resources of the USA, Osborn now has his own suit of Iron Man armour and as Iron Patriot leads a hand-picked team of ersatz Avengers. The country should by rights be beyond any possibility of threat or harm. However as the events of Siege: The Cabal (Bendis, Lark & Stefano Gaudiano) graphically depict, Osborn is playing a deadly double game. The Cabal is a Star Chamber of super-villains comprising Osborn, Asgardian God Loki, gang-boss The Hood, mutant telepath Emma Frost, Taskmaster, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom.

But cracks are beginning to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself. When Iron Patriot promises to conquer Asgard for Loki, Doom secedes from the group, prompting a disastrous battle between the Masters of Evil…

Asgard is currently displaced and floating scant metres above the soil of Oklahoma. Using his position as Chief of Homeland Security Osborn manufactures an “Asgardian incident” and launches an all-out invasion on the Gleaming City, overruling the new American President to do so.

And so begins Siege (by Bendis, Coipel & Mark Morales) a knock-down, drag-out fight pitting all the long-cultivated metahuman resources of Osborn – paramilitary strike force H.A.M.ME.R., the Dark Avengers and the villainous penal battalion of The Initiative – against the sorely pressed and time-lost Asgardians…

However Osborn has gone too far and the President fires him.

So What?

Well, now the scattered and fugitive “real” superheroes such as Captain America, Nick Fury, the original Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Vision and all the other underground and Secret Avengers are safe to act, but they had better hurry because Thor’s hard pressed people cannot stand against Osborn’s god-killing ultimate weapon…

Despite feeling a little rushed in places, this is a grand, old-fashioned Fights ‘n’ Tights cataclysmic clash of good guys and bad guys, magnificently illustrated and astonishingly compelling. After years of dark and dangerous anti-heroics it’s a splendid palate-cleanser for what Marvel promises to be a new Heroic Age
© 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Essential Defenders volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1547-2

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

For Marvel, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it. Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil all their heroes regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages, and in the wake of the Defenders’ success even more super-teams comprised of pre-existing characters were mustered – such as the Champions, Invaders, New Warriors and so on but never with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, but before all that later inventive approbation this cheap and cheerful black and white volume (collecting Dr. Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22, 33-35, Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Feature #1-3, Avengers #115-118 and Defenders #1-14) re-presents three linked tales that would impact on later issues of the title. Confused yet? You will be…

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a simply primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

The first tale in this volume comes from Dr. Strange #183 (November 1969). In ‘They Walk by Night!’ Roy Thomas, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer introduced a deadly threat in the Undying Ones, an elder race of demons hungry to reconquer the Earth, but as the series unexpectedly ended with that issue the story went nowhere until the February 1970 Sub-Mariner (#22) ‘The Monarch and the Mystic!’ brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix, as Thomas, Marie Severin & Johnny Craig told a sterling tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts seemingly died holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them.

The extended saga concluded on an upbeat note with The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) with ‘…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!’ by Thomas and Herb Trimpe wherein a New England cult dispatched helpless Bruce Banner to the nether realms in an attempt to undo Strange’s sacrifice. Luckily cultist Barbara Norris had last minute second thoughts and her own dire fate freed the mystic, seemingly ending the threat of the Undying Ones forever.

At the end of that issue Strange retired, forsaking magic, although he was back before too long as the fates – and changing reading tastes – called him back to duty. Meanwhile Sub-Mariner had become an early advocate of the ecology movement, and in issues #34-35 of his own title (February and March 1971) he took the next step in the evolution of the Defenders when he recruited Hulk and Silver Surfer to help him destroy an American Nuclear Weather-Control station.

In ‘Titans Three’ and the concluding ‘Confrontation’ (by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) the always misunderstood trio battled a despotic dictator’s forces, the US Army and the Mighty Avengers to prevent the malfunctioning station from accidentally vaporising half the planet…

With that debacle smoothed over life resumed its usual frenetic pace for the Hulk and Namor until giant sized try-out comic Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) presented ‘The Day of the Defenders!’ as a mysteriously returned Dr. Strange recruited the Avenging Son and the Jade Giant to help him stop the deathbed doom of crazed super-mind Yandroth.

Determined to not go gently into the dark the Scientist Supreme had built an Omegatron weapon programmed to obliterate the Earth as soon as Yandroth’s heart stopped beating and only the brute strength of the misunderstood misanthropes could possibly stop it…

Naturally the fiend hadn’t told the whole truth but the day was saved – or at least postponed – in a canny classic from Thomas, Ross Andru and Bill Everett. That comic also revealed how Strange regained his mojo in ‘The Return’ by Thomas, Don Heck and Frank Giacoia: a heady ten-page thriller which proved that not all good things come in large packages.

Clearly destined for great things the Defenders returned in Marvel Feature #2 (March 1972) with Sal Buscema replacing Everett as inker for a Halloween treat ‘Nightmare on Bald Mountain!’ Capturing his arch-foe Dr. Strange, extra-dimensional dark lord Dormammu invaded our realm through a portal in Vermont only to be beaten back by the mage’s surly sometimes comrades, whilst in #3 (June 1972) Thomas, Andru and Everett reunited to revive an old Lee/Kirby “furry underpants” monster in ‘A Titan Walks Among Us!’

Xemnu the Titan was an alien super-telepath who wanted to repopulate his desolate homeworld by stealing America’s children until thrashed by the Defenders, but older fans recognised him as the cover-hogging star of Journey into Mystery #62 (November 1960) where he acted as a road-test for a later Marvel star in a short tale entitled I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!

An assured hit now The Defenders leapt swiftly into their own title (cover-dated August 1972), to begin a bold and offbeat run of reluctant adventures scripted by super-team wunderkind Steve Englehart. As a group of eclectic associates occasionally called together to save the world (albeit on a miraculously monotonous monthly basis) they were billed as a “non-team” – whatever that is – but that didn’t affect the quality of their super-heroic shenanigans.

With Sal Buscema as regular penciller an epic adventure ensued with ‘I Slay by the Stars!’ (inked by Giacoia) as sorcerer Necrodamus attempted to sacrifice Namor and free The Undying Ones, a mission that led to conflict with an old ally in ‘The Secret of the Silver Surfer!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) and the concluding, Jim Mooney inked ‘Four Against the Gods!’ as the Defenders took the war to the dimensional dungeon of the Undying Ones and rescued the long imprisoned and now totally insane Barbara Norris.

Clearly a fan of large casts and extended epics Englehart added a fighting female to the non-team with ‘The New Defender!’ (inks by new regular Frank McLaughlin) as the Asgardians Enchantress and Executioner embroiled the anti-heroes in their long-running love-spat, bringing the Black Knight briefly into the mix, and turning Barbara into the latest incarnation of Feminist Fury (these were far less enlightened days) The Valkyrie.

Issue #5 began a long running plot thread that would have major repercussions for the Marvel Universe. The denouement of the previous tale had left the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue, and as Strange and Co. searched for a cure the long defused Omegatron resumed its countdown to global annihilation in ‘World Without End?’

The Surfer “rejoined” in #6’s ‘The Dreams of Death!’ as new lightweight magic menace Cyrus Black attacked, and, after a spiffy pin-up, issue #7 saw  Len Wein co-script ‘War Below the Waves!’ (inked by Frank Bolle) as tempestuous ex-Avenger Hawkeye climbed aboard to help defeat the undersea threat of Attuma and the soviet renegade Red Ghost; a bombastic battle-tale concluded in ‘…If Atlantis Should Fall!’

Since issue #4 Englehart had been putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head, and in a little prologue taken from the end of Avengers #115 he finally set the ball rolling here. Drawn by Bob Brown and Mike Esposito, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ saw Dormammu and the Asgardian god of Evil Loki unite to search for an ultimate weapon that would give them final victory against their foes. They would trick the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could restore the petrified Black Knight, a plan that began at the end of Defenders #8…

The first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ was ‘Deception!’ as a message from the spirit of the Black Knight was intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ wherein the Avengers, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” that their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone. This and the third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ comprise the contents of Avengers #116, illustrated by Brown & Esposito, wherein the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (Buscema & McLaughlin) began with the tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ shed more suspicion and doubt on the mystical villain’s subtle master-plan. Avengers #117 ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and the turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ by Brown and Esposito, led to the penultimate clash in Defenders #10 (Buscema & Bolle) ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’, but sadly too late as Dormammu seized the reconstructed Evil Eye using its power to merge his monstrous realm with ours.

Avengers #118 provided the cathartic climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Giacoia) as all the heroes of the Marvel Universe battled the demonic invasion whilst the Avengers and Defenders plunged deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end the threat of the evil gods forever (or at least for the moment…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempted to use the Eye to cure their stony comrade only to find that his spirit had found a new home in the 12th century. In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (inked by Frank Bolle), the group battled black magic during the Crusades, failed to retrieve the Knight and went their separate ways – as did departing scripter Englehart.

With issue #12 Len Wein assumed the writer’s role and Sal Buscema & Jack Abel illustrated the return of the mind-bending Xemnu in ‘The Titan Strikes Back!’ as the pared down cast of Strange, Valkyrie and the Hulk began a run of slightly more traditional fights ‘n’ tights capers.

The first of these and the last storyline in this volume was a Saves-the-World struggle against the villainous Squadron Sinister that began with ‘For Sale: One Planet… Slightly Used!’ (with an early inking job from Klaus Janson) and concluded in the Dan Green embellished ‘And Who Shall Inherit the Earth?’ as the Batman-analogue Nighthawk joined the Defenders to defeat his murderous ex-team-mates and the aquatic alien marauder Nebulon, the Celestial Man.

With the next volume the Defenders would become one of the best and weirdest superhero comics in the business, but to get there you really need to observe this unruly, uncomfortable selection of misfit heroes in their salad days here. So the fact that their widespread and far-reaching origins are still so eminently entertaining is both a relief and delight.

Go on, Enjoy, Pilgrim…
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