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This Week In Marvel 02/20/08
brought to you by Illusive Comics and Games of Santa Clara

Just when I thought I was out, Marvel keeps pulling me back in. Oh, hey, look, I'm as confused as the next guy about who knows what in the aftermath of House of M, Civil War and One More Day, especially when Spider-Man makes a flippant remark about the first one. Hey, Marvel editors - if anybody else in the Avengers remembers House of M, they know who Spider-Man is….

See? Confusing.

But then Marvel lets creators carve out their own little piece of continuity to apply to just their own title. Forget that Daniel Rand has been working with the New Avengers, even though a couple of members have helped him out in The Immortal Iron Fist. Ignore the rest of the Marvel Universe, and Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker have been teaming with a variety of artists to turn out some of the quietly best comics Marvel produces.

Actually, Marvel must recognize this, because they keep letting them dilly-dally in one-shots that hearken back to the previously unknown previous Iron Fist, Orson Randall. This week, hands down, the best book Marvel has out is Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death.

A decades-spanning adventure obliquely referenced in a recent issue of Iron Fist, this book gives an affectionate look at pulp adventures of the past, while feeling absolutely modern as a comic book. Facing the Prince of Orphans in adventure after adventure, Orson Randall could easily and believably have stood alongside Doc Savage or The Shadow in his world-spanning adventurer mode. Fraction's cleverness, though, also leaves plenty of room for more adventures having nothing to do with the current Iron Fist storyline. It doesn't matter that we know things don't end well for Randall; getting there must have been a heck of a great time.

Even if you're not a pulp fan, this is just top-notch storytelling, with art contributed by the Allreds, Nick Dragotta, Russ Heath and many more. The different artists serve to mark the passage of time, and maybe that conceit doesn't work perfectly. But it's an almost invisible flaw in the face of a great book that deserves far more attention.

One that got attention but is worth keeping a spotlight on it is Greg Pak's The Incredible Hercules #114. Again, ignoring the rest of the Marvel Universe but using its characters, Pak throws curve after curve and has no compunction about undermining what we believe issue after issue.

Thanks to Hydra Blood (the mythological creature, not the villainous army), Hercules hallucinates episodes from throughout his lifetime. You might think this an excuse for Pak to just throw around a lot of fancy mythological references, but it all ties together and reminds some people that until a couple of years ago, Ares was a villain. Of course, it may turn out that Amadeus will turn villainous, too, especially now that the name Mastermind Excello is getting reclaimed over in The Twelve.

It's a story that feels like it will have repercussions for itself, and who cares what it does to overall continuity? And you know what? That makes it interesting. Plus Hercules beats the living snot out of everything that moves.

All the surprises, all the twists and neat storytelling techniques that Pak uses, they all seem to be happening in Hulk #2. Almost everything set up in the first issue, though, doesn't really matter much here.

When last we left the Hulkbusters, they had approached the imprisoned Bruce Banner for advice. This issue, it doesn't matter what happened last issue, because everybody's too busy wetting themselves over the Red Hulk's seeming ability to be anywhere and everywhere it wants to be. At least Ed McGuinness' art has never been stronger, though Jeph Loeb may indulge McGuinness in two-page spreads a little too often. (But then, he did write a lot for Rob Liefeld.) My interest has been just piqued enough by one last twist to give it another chance with issue #3, but overall, Hulk feels like all sizzle, no steak.

Of course, I've changed my mind about books many times, especially when they've blindsided me with that quality storytelling and great artwork. Thus Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. #26 continues making me care about a character I don't like. Writers Daniel and Charles Knauf have neatly brought the Mandarin into modern spy movie villainy, and it's completely believable.

Hate Extremis? The Brothers Knauf took care of that little problem, too. Artist Roberto De La Torre has a style close to Butch Guice, and that may be part of why I respond so well to this book. It's beautiful, it's riveting, and if it were a novel, I'd still read it.

Let me go back to praising Matt Fraction, though. The Order #8 looks to be bringing things to a close with this series; rumor has it that the tenth issue will be its last. That's too bad, because this has been a great series from the get-go.

Again, it spun out of an event I didn't like, but Fraction has made that almost negligible. Instead, with this issue, he takes the book's basic premise and asks the question, why didn't anybody in the Marvel Universe try this before?

Fraction's writing just gets better and better; thirty years from now people will be talking about him the way people talk about guys like Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber, producers of quirky writing that just may be shaping the tone of a company around it.

Then there's artist Barry Kitson, always solid and good before, but never quite this free. If he and Mark Waid ever get around to Empire 2, it's going to be amazing.

Doing what should be stellar work, Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan turn out Runaways #29 this week, but it's a perfect example of how a delay can really hurt a book. Whedon built up a complex cast of characters, a 19th Century Marvel Universe on the streets of New York. And after so long between issues, who can remember who they are?

It just takes too long to get back into the story. Sure, it will read fine in the trade. Sure, Astonishing X-Men has had similar delays, but there we know most of the characters after years of adoration. When writing a "monthly" book, the focus can't be on the trade; it has to be on the issue after issue. Without that, you're not going to get that paperback.

Okay, so Whedon will, because his run on Runaways will sell on the strength of his name. It's also a great storyline and a great concept. The team has gone back in time to a point when Arsenic's time traveling parents were alive and ruling the criminal gangs of New York. But it ends with a free-for-all that's confusing for the characters and confusing for the readers. Put this one on a stack and read it when the next issue comes out.

As much as I've been enjoying The Incredible Hercules, Greg Pak's other attempt to stretch the World War Hulk storyline - which you may notice has had no repercussions in any other titles - has not fared so well. The first issue worked for me, but now Warbound #3 has just stalled out.

I often have that trouble when three issues seem to cover less than an hour of time, and we learn no more about the nobility of these characters than we did when Pak introduced them, brilliantly, in Planet Hulk. This book just kills time and fills shelf space, because it's doubtful that even the presence of the Leader will mean much in the long run. Get the Warbound off-planet and…well, see, there's really nowhere to go, and that's the problem.

Yet running in circles serves Wolverine Origins #22 pretty well. Throwing all the impetus for the series aside, writer Daniel Way reveals that Logan spent a long period of his life as Yosemite Sam. Everybody's favorite Merc with a Mouth indulges his Bugs Bunny identity and makes life hell for Logan. There's really not much point to it; it's a series of sight gags that serve to remind that thought Steve Dillon has only a few different faces he can draw, he's an excellent cartoonist.

See you this week at WonderCon!

Derek McCaw


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