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Is It Wednesday Yet?

14 September 2010 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always, the reviews are free of spoilers, so read on without fear of having your experience ruined!

Our grading scale is simple:

Buy: An excellent comic book.
Borrow: A good comic, but save yourself some money by reading a friend's copy.
Flip Through: Give it a once-over at the comic shop.
Skip: This doesn't need to be explained.

Heroic Age: One Month to Live #1
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 01 September 2010
Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Andrea Mutti
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Michael Del Mundo
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
The city streets of Marvel's major metropolitan areas are getting a bit crowded. Particularly in New York City where the vast majority of the publisher's superhero population has set up shop, it's seriously out of hand. I suspect the superheroes must outnumber the regular folks by now, so it's hardly surprising that more stories aren't told from the common man's perspective. Usually Marvel is good for one or two a year, though, and One Month to Live fits that mold.

We have our designated everyman in Dennis Sykes, a banker who hates his job but lacks the gumption to do anything about it. After delivering a particularly tough loan rejection, the impetus to change his life finds Sykes instead. Playing the good Samaritan, he interrupts a heist only to take a beating and swallow a force-fed mouthful of bio waste. In keeping with the "hero on every corner" motif, Ben Grimm happens to be close enough to save our man from a more fatal situation, but the damage had already been done; Sykes has developed a mutated form of cancer that's going to finish the job within a month, but there is some good news: he's been blessed with a few superpowers to enjoy his last days.

Rick Remender's tale of the little man who's finally taken too much crap and goes over the brink is straightforward and matter-of-fact, even when the plot is completely outlandish and ridiculous. The lead's origin is right in line with radioactive spiders, out-of-control dump trucks filled with toxic waste, and waves of gamma radiation, which is to say it's utterly insane upon close inspection. Where those excesses were easy to swallow in the Silver Age, when gaudy outfits and a tendency to state the obvious made a fine match for the lunacy of each hero's origin, One Month to Live's story seems even crazier paired with a quiet, pedestrian home life and a cabinet full of bottled frustrations. It's a story of halves: half passerby and half center of attention, half hero and half villain, half cheeseball origin and half downtrodden realism.

Andrea Mutti provides serviceable, if not spectacular visuals for this chapter. His somewhat grounded style is out of place on the few pages featuring big-name cameos (his rendition of Grimm, in particular, is genuinely terrible) but it's much more fitting in the issue's subdued civilian scenes. Sykes never dons a spandex wardrobe — not in the first issue, anyway — and pairing that with Mutti's nondescript, everyday style makes for a good fit with the mood and message of this story. I wouldn't expect to see him working on Amazing Spider-Man soon, but maybe the next edition of Front Line isn't totally out of the question.

Sometimes looks can be deceiving, but other times they're right on the money. This is a pretty good representation of the latter. What seems like a fairly nondescript miniseries with fleeting ties to the rest of the Marvel Universe on the cover is, in action, pretty much precisely that. Its heart is in the right place and it asks a few pressing questions about morality and the very slight differences between a man and a monster, but at the end of the day it's not exactly forging new territory. A solid enough read, but not something I'll be back to pore over in the future. Flip through it.

Scarlet #2
Publisher: Marvel / Icon
Released: 01 September 2010
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover: Alex Maleev
Cover price: $3.95

Review: Sean Lemberg
As evidence of one of Marvel's most prolific ongoing partnerships, the release of a new project from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev is quickly becoming something of an event. With a landmark run on Daredevil and subsequent pairings on Spider-Woman, Mighty Avengers, and Halo: Uprising already on their joint résumé, the duo has recently branched out with a fully creator-owned series: Scarlet.

This series marks a noticeable departure from the relatively comfortable terrain of the duo's previous partnerships. Casting aside the security blanket offered by superheroics — no matter how far from the norm their take may have been — with Scarlet these two are investigating terrain that's much more in line with some of Bendis' earlier works: Goldfish, Fire, and Jinx. It's filthy and grimy, street-level justice achieved by asking guilty people the questions they don't want to hear, and discerning the truth from the meat of their lies. Rather than painting the enemy as a dark-souled oppressor that can be punched, thwarted, or intimidated, Scarlet's outlook is much more bleak: everyone's responsible, and you don't know the first thing about getting even.

Bendis catches a lot of flack for his dialog, particularly in his mainstream work. Without a pressing directive at the front of his mind, he'll often opt for character-building small talk that's whimsical if not always pertinent. Admittedly, he does frequently overdo it in that regard; it's just not as exciting to watch the Avengers stand around their HQ and talk about their pet peeves as it is to join them in staring down Doctor Doom. When he's going somewhere significant with it, however, there's really nobody in the industry who can script dialog like him. A decade's worth of disregard hasn't dulled that axe one bit. Diving into a seedy underworld like the one at the center of Scarlet, Bendis slips back into his old form like a comfortable sweater, rescued from the closet on the first cold day of winter. That isn't to say this is packed with wall-to-wall word balloons; it's actually a remarkable show of restraint. The words are thick and character-soaked when applicable, but completely absent when they aren't essential. It's an astoundingly mature work, leaping from a lengthy monologue to page after page of stark, tense silence. Bendis has struck a careful balance in that respect, and the results are magnificently successful. It's a far cry from Ultimate Spider-Man, and the change is entirely welcome.

But while Bendis' storytelling is a departure from his recent work, it's really Maleev who displays the biggest change in character. Free from the restraints of a sharp deadline and a set of rules and guidelines dictating what is and isn't acceptable in a mainstream comic, Alex's artwork is an explosion of creativity, experimentation, and personal exploration. He ventures from David Mack-influenced sketchbook watercolors to richly layered noir-inspired shadow paintings to full-on pop art, all while maintaining a deep, rewarding connection to the central narrative. Despite these dalliances into uncharted territory, Maleev never loses sight of himself. Each panel might be trying something different, reaching and stretching in unexpected new ways, but at its heart there's never any question who's behind the pencil. He maintains his identity without question through every transformation. If this is a sign of what's on the horizon, Maleev may be on the cusp of something gigantic. It's breathtaking.

Listen, this series is not for everyone. I get that. If you don't have a soft spot for grime and grit, for revenge drenched with blood, this will not be your cup of tea. It's not for grandparents, nor for your children. It's also too bold for Marvel's core line, which makes its relationship with their creator-owned subsidiary, Icon, a sensible one. But if you're looking for a smart series, spoiled characters making bad decisions in stressful environments, and dealing with the repercussions when (and if) they should arise, if you're after amazing artwork, tremendous dialog, and a twisting plot, then by all means buy it. You won't be alone.

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Smoke and Blood
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 01 September 2010
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover: Clayton Crain
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Hannah Krueger
So, as you probably know, there's this whole manufactured vampire virus thing that's being unleashed on San Francisco. Said virus turns humans into the vampires' willing prey and essentially their slaves, giving their army more strength. And now that Jubilee's been infected, the Science Team (consisting of Dr. Nemesis, Dr. Katrina Rao, and Madison Jeffries) have bought in a live vampire specimen along with several infected test subjects to try and fight the virus.

Yeah, who wants to bet that this will not end well?

I expected the standard vampire fare and associated clichés going into this. Instead I found myself pleasantly surprised. Most of the book takes place in the dark corridors of Utopia, with our characters being stalked by an incredibly powerful and dangerous vampire, while the infected are slowly being turned against the others. The whole situation is setup incredibly well, and there's a definite sense of claustrophobia and a ticking clock throughout the piece.

And I honestly have to give major credit to Simon Spurrier, because this could've quickly sunk into cliché. However, there's a very strong sense of a major send-up of just about every genre convention in this. Some of the more amusing turns of phrase used in reference to the vampires include the following: glittering smoke, unwillingly Lestatified, subservience nocturnalism, and dreadful purple prose. Doctors Rao and Nemesis science-cuss using trigger wit, in something I swear could be right out of the Evil Dead films. Horror rules are recited like litanies by one of the infected. And the infected's words about the vampires are straight out of a goth-vamp wannabe's text book — and are just as ridiculous.

The book as a whole is helped along by Gabriel Hernandez Walta's art and coloring. The sketchiness of the art might've been annoying elsewhere, but here — and especially in the scenes underneath Utopia — this fits wonderfully and only enhances the moodiness of the book. The coloring throughout is also incredibly well done, which has a watercolor feel to it. Some of my favorites are the blues and blacks used in the underground scenes, and the spectacular sunset colors he paints at the end.

All in all, I'm gonna have to say borrow this. The price point makes it a touch too high for an automatic buy, but it's an unexpectedly amusing and well-written, well-drawn horror story that you should at least take a look at. And if the rest of the storyline is like this, who knows, it might be worth picking up in trade.

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