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Is It Wednesday Yet?

03 May 2011 — 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.

Malignant Man #1
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Released: 20 April 2011
Plot: James Wan
Writer: Michael Alan Nelson
Artist: Piotr Kowalski
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover: Trevor Hairsine
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
When your day-to-day life involves a hospital gown, waiting room music, clusters of whirring medical equipment, and a series of stern but sympathetic looks from the doctor, it can be tough to find something worth living for. Such is the case for Alan Gates, a cancer patient who's just been told he has less than a month to live. So it shouldn't come as a total shock that, when confronted with an armed robbery in progress, Alan takes it upon himself to intervene, carelessly throwing his life to the wind in exchange for the chance to feel something — anything — again. What Alan (and, by proxy, the reader) couldn't have predicted is the chain reaction instigated by that one selfless, split-second decision.

Weighing in at just 22 pages, this introductory chapter successfully manages to cover a lot of ground at a breakneck pace without sacrificing clarity along the way. A simple enough concept is partly to thank for that. James Wan's plot, adapted for the page by Michael Alan Nelson, wastes little time on characterization. Instead, it chooses to spend its time asking a series of increasingly brow-furrowing questions, then jerking the wheel in sudden, surprising new directions. It thrives on that lengthy string of unexpected leaps of faith, asking more questions than it has pages to answer them in similar fashion to the opening act of The Matrix, albeit much less eloquently.

Despite its aura of mystery, though, Wan and Nelson's storyline can be quite blunt and generic at times. Its excessive use of slang during a tense scene in the operating room seems forced and unrealistic, not to mention unnecessary. Later scenes involving a gun-slinging escape from the hospital feel too calm and casual, robbing the moment of its inherent drama. In fact, most of the dialog comes off as clunky, and even tougher to visualize in a conversational setting. The nameless, faceless enemy that stands revealed at the issue's climax appears to have arrived directly from the book of comic book clichés circa the late 1990s. It's a story that's furiously treading in foamy water, taking two steps forward with its gumption and adventurous timing, then two backward with stilted dialog and empty characterization.

Piotr Kowalski's visuals keep up fairly well with the aggressive pace, but fail to deliver a true signature style at any point. His layouts perform very well, slickly moving the action from one panel to the next and pausing at all the right moments. He works a clean action scene, sculpts a few well-designed original characters, and maintains a steady beat throughout the issue. Kowalski is just lacking that certain touch of panache which simply can't be taught. His pages don't feel entirely alive, nor are they something I could pick out of a sketchbook lineup. They're fundamentally strong, but ultimately bland and soulless. With a bit more polish and character, his work could easily turn that corner and become something to behold.

Malignant Man has promise, but seems to be missing a real hook in both its artwork and its storytelling. Alan is a painfully dull lead character thus far, really just groggily reacting to the series of crazed events around him. And while that's a flaw that could be rectified in future issues, it's also something that could keep readers from bothering to tune in for them. Flip through it; the first issue certainly isn't a bad one, it's just quite vanilla.

PunisherMAX #12
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 13 April 2011
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Steve Dillon
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Dave Johnson
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
I'm a little puzzled by the MAX line. Big events are packed with ultra-violent fights where limbs are being ripped off and heroes torn in half like they have the physical consistency of warm bread. Without going into Cenobite-style flesh-manipulation or hardcore sex and nudity, there's not a lot more they can do. Oh wait, I forgot, there's swearing. I'm not one of those people who think that words exist without context; if you're going to say something, you have to mean it, and you can't complain if it's taken differently than you intended. That being said, literally the worst thing you'll see in this book is repeated use of mothercanucker (sans Canadian affect). That's all that's lumping this into the MAX line; it's not there because it's especially for mature readers. Compared with the rest of Marvel's comics, it's there as a marketing gimmick. That's a shame, too, because I wouldn't want to limit the audience for this comic by implying that you're going to get wall-to-wall gore, sex, and / or language.

Jason Aaron has a great deal of experience writing the more violent side of the Marvel Universe, with Ghost Rider and Wolverine under his belt. Assisting him on this book is Steve Dillon, an extremely recognizable artist whose work is synonymous with various Garth Ennis books, including Preacher and The Punisher. Aaron, not being a fool by any stretch, realizes what a big deal it is to share this link with Ennis through an artist, and has written something that is explicitly a direct continuation of his work. And what better way to draw that connection than by utilizing one of Ennis' most famous co-creators?

If you've read Born, then a big chunk of this is the next chapter: Frank remembering his return home from Vietnam and his moral crisis, realizing that what he's become isn't capable of reacclimatizing to the civilized world. The other half is Frank lying in a prison hospital in the present day, waiting for the inevitable gang assaults that he can't defend himself from. So how is it?

It's bloody marvelous. The worries that Frank has about returning dovetail so neatly into his current situation, we once again see the real birth of The Punisher exists not in the death of his family, but in the war that preceded it. We see the conflict between the man and the myth. We once again get to the heart of why he's taken on this crusade against criminals; he literally doesn't know any other way to live than through violence. If there were no more psychos to take on, Frank would very clearly be a danger to himself and others; it's only his war that keeps him under a measure of control. Aaron completely and utterly gets what Frank is.

Of course, what holds this all together is the quality work of Steve Dillon. His art is so reliable and recognizable that this feels like a direct extension of his old partnership with Ennis. As much as I like Ennis, he tends to lean towards writing stuff that's utterly sick under the pretense of it being funny, and I just don't like that being mixed with The Punisher. PunisherMAX is a serious book with a very troubled protagonist, and that's the way it should be. Buy it.

Soldier Zero #7
Publisher: Boom! Studios / Pow! Entertainment
Released: 20 April 2011
Creator: Stan Lee
Writers: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Artist: Javier Pina
Colorist: Archie Van Duren
Letterer: Ed Dukeshire
Cover: Trevor Hairsine
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Hannah Krueger
Stewart Trautmann, a decorated war veteran and paraplegic, has bonded with an alien parasite, thus creating Soldier Zero. He's been fighting against other alien biotechnology sent to silence him and the parasite, but up until this issue, he has not known why. Now he must deal with that revelation while trying to save the girl he loves and his brother from an alien enemy and the CIA.

Stan is back in comics, and I have to say, just from the brief bit I've gotten here, I might go out and find the back issues. I like the concept of this. Yes, an alien parasite that gives superpowers does reek of Venom, but attaching it to a wheelchair-bound war veteran gives this story a whole new dimension. (And yes, Marvel is currently doing this exact thing with Flash Thompson and Venom, but Boom! introduced the concept months ago.) By bonding with the parasite, Trautmann has the ability to do things he hasn't been able to for years, and on top of that, he can protect people like he did when he was a soldier. I have to say, this is a well-done and thought-out premise. And the way the parasite's backstory is expanded adds even more intrigue to the plot.

I was a little lost at first — this issue pretty much tosses you right into the thick of things — but a quick look at the recap page brought me up to speed. There was also some terminology that I wasn't quite clear on, but again, this is what happens when you come into a book in the middle of a run.

The art on this is nice, too. There's great juxtaposition between the epic happenings out in space and the events on Earth, which still have a hint of sci-fi action about them. People and aliens are drawn well and with clear expressions, backgrounds are rendered nicely, and the inking is wonderful. I literally have no complaints.

Borrow this. The price point is a bit too high for a straight buy, as a significant part of this issue contains a preview for another Boom! comic, but this will give you a good sense of what reading a Stan Lee comic is like.

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