Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

Comic book creator Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. He was only 53 years old.  Cooke was an amazing artist, and his death at such a young age is a tragedy.

The first time I ever noticed Cooke’s name was in 1999 for the credits of the animated series Batman Beyond. He designed the stunning title sequence for the show.

Cooke’s work with writer Ed Brubaker on the first four issues of the revamped Catwoman series for DC Comics in 2001 was amazing. Cooke both wrote and illustrated the epic, beautiful DC: The New Frontier miniseries published in 2004.

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

There was a quality to Cooke’s work that stood out for me. He successfully took the colorful, upbeat qualities of DC Comics in the Silver Age and blended them with a hardboiled, noir sensibility, resulting in a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Cooke’s art was both atmospheric and fun.

Cooke also rendered incredibly beautiful women. I love how he depicted both Catwoman and Wonder Woman.  His drawings of Selina and Diana were sexy, confident, strong and graceful.

For all of their titles cover-dated February 2015, DC Comics published variant covers illustrated by Cooke. He created some incredible images for these.

To me, the timing of these covers was so weird. DC’s New 52 reboot was entering its third year.  Most of their titles were grim and downbeat, bereft of joy, featuring busy, hyper-detailed artwork.  The variant covers by Cooke for these issues were a complete 180 degrees apart.  They were colorful and exciting and fun… yes, I used the “fun” word again.  I remember looking at these covers by Cooke, then looking at the interiors, which paled by comparison.  I found myself wishing that DC would ask Cooke to work on an ongoing series for them.

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

One of my favorite of these Cooke variants was Supergirl #37. It was such a cute depiction of the Maid of Steel and the Super-Pets.  I especially loved Cooke’s adorable Streaky the Supercat.

Another one of these variants that stood out for me was Batman / Superman #17. For the past three decades, ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the relationship between Batman and Superman has been characterized as adversarial and tense.  Numerous stories have seen the two of them butting heads over ideologies and methodologies.  It would be fair to say that they fought each other more often than they actually worked together to save the world.

In contrast, on his cover for this issue Cooke shows the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel as close friends, allies in the war on crime who, in spite of their differences, like and respect one another. In that one image Cooke perfectly encapsulates how the relationship between Batman and Superman should be.  I’m not saying they should agree with each other all the time, but neither should they be at each other’s throats the instant they both enter the same room.

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

Last year Cooke illustrated The Twilight Children, a four issue miniseries from DC / Vertigo. It was written by Gilbert Hernandez, with coloring by Dave Stewart.  As he had done in the past on Love and Rockets, Hernandez blended elements of sci-fi and magical realism for this story.  Cooke’s artwork was excellent, very much suiting Hernandez’s sensibilities.

Recently talking to Comic Book Resources about their collaboration, Hernandez had this to say…

Working on “The Twilight Children” with Darwyn Cooke was perfect timing because they asked me to do it and I took a look at Darwyn’s work — I know his work, but I looked at it closer and I go, “This guy knows how to make a comic.” He doesn’t need me, but let’s do this. Let me write this story, but I was gonna write it as simple as possible, As directly as possible, mostly dialogue, not a lot of description of what’s going on, just letting him know it’s a little fishing village, it’ll move along at a certain pace and this and that. And he just ran with it, beautifully, he just knew what to do. So the synergy was there, and he hooked up with his friend and colorist, Dave Stewart, who just made the beautiful colors. It was just an ideal situation because we let it happen. A lot of times when people collaborate who have their own careers separately collaborate there’s a lot of head butting. We were head-less. [Laughs] We basically just let it happen. Let it happen the script, let the art happen, he just let himself do it. That worked really well. We’d like to do another project together later on where he writes and I draw, so we’ll see about that.

The Twlight Children 1 pg 13

Cooke’s artwork on The Twilight Children featured very powerful layouts and storytelling.  He invested the characters with real, palpable emotions.

I was fortunate enough to meet Cooke last October. He was in town for New York Comic Con to promote the upcoming release of The Twilight Children.  Cooke and Hernandez did a signing at St. Mark’s Comics.  Cooke was definitely very friendly, laid-back, and possessed a really good sense of humor.  He made us fans feel welcome.

I had brought along my convention sketchbook with me, just in case Cooke was willing to do sketches. I asked him and he said okay.  I handed my sketchbook to him and asked him to draw whoever he wanted.  He did a nice head sketch of Catwoman in my book.  I really appreciated his generosity.

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

From what I have heard, this was typical of Cooke. Everyone regarded him as a genuinely nice guy.  Reading the online reactions to his untimely death, it is apparent that his passing at such a young age is all the more tragic because not only was he an immensely talented artist but also a good friend to many people.  He will definitely be missed.

Comic book reviews: Velvet #1-2

I’ve been looking forward to the new Image Comics series Velvet since it was first announced.  The team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting did really great work on Captain America, and I was excited to see what they would do on a creator-owned project.

Velvet is an espionage / adventure series set in 1973.  The main character, Velvet Templeton, was once a field operative for the ultra top secret covert agency known as ARC-7, participating in numerous operations between 1949 and 1956.  After leaving the field under circumstances as yet unrevealed to the reader, Templeton became the secretary to ARC-7’s director.  Think of her as Emma Peel crossed with Miss Moneypenny.

Velvet 1 pg 4 and 5

The opening arc of Velvet, titled “Before the Living End” (Ian Fleming would have loved that), begins as one of ARC-7’s top operatives, Jefferson Keller, successfully completes an assassination in Paris.  But en route out of the city, he is ambushed & murdered.  When news reaches ARC-7 headquarters in London, it is immediately suspected that the killer was acting on inside information, meaning that the organization has a leak.  Templeton takes part in the investigation, poring through Keller’s field reports & paperwork.  Before she can make much headway, evidence emerges that one of ARC-7’s former agents, Frank Lancaster, is the traitor.

Despite this, Templeton, who once carried a torch for Lancaster, believes he must be innocent.  She heads over to one of his off-the-record safe houses, hoping to find him and talk to him.  However, when Templeton arrives, she finds Lancaster has been killed, brutally stabbed to death.  And before Templeton can make sense of what is happening, the investigative unit of ARC-7 bursts into the room, accusing her of treason.  Not knowing about her field experience, and thinking her a mere secretary, they are quickly caught off-guard when Templeton goes on the offense, attacking them and fleeing the scene.

Now on the run, Templeton realizes that, in the course of her examinations of Keller’s paperwork, she unknowingly must have come across something that would have eventually led to the real traitor in ARC-7, and so was framed by the true culprit before she could connect the dots.  She quickly decides that the only way she will ever be able to clear her name is to immediately get out of the country and conduct her own investigation.

Brubaker does excellent work setting up the scenario for Velvet.  The protagonist of Velvet Templeton is definitely an interesting one.  While it is quite obvious that she is reluctant to have to wade back into the danger & violence of field work to prove her name, at the same time she has to acknowledge that being in action once again gives her a genuine adrenaline rush.  I’m looking forward to seeing her character and back story developed further in upcoming issues.

Velvet 1 pg 21

Another thing I like about Velvet Templeton is that she is an older woman, but she’s still depicted as capable, dangerous, and beautiful.  Most of the times in Western pop culture & fiction, male protagonists are able to age gracefully, but women are considered over-the-hill when they get to be 40.  We haven’t yet been given Templeton’s exact age, but we can do some guesswork.  Let’s say she was in her early 20s when she got started with ARC-7 in 1949.  That means she would be in her mid 40s in 1973.  It’s shown that, despite her years sitting behind a desk, she still works out and is in good shape, so I have no problem believing that she’s capable of some serious ass-kicking.

At the same time, Brubaker does not make her some sort of unstoppable killing machine.  I always had a problem with action heroes who seem invulnerable, taking out dozens of bad guys without breaking a sweat, rather than ending up all black & blue.  That’s one of the main reasons why I really appreciated the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, as well as the very first Die Hard movie.  Yes, the literary version of Bond was a dangerous professional, but he often took quite a beating in the course of thwarting the bad guys.  The same goes for John McClane in his debut cinematic outing.  Such is the case with Velvet Templeton who, despite her abilities & experience, is out of practice & outnumbered, and consequently makes her escape from ARC-7 somewhat the worse for wear.  That makes her a much more human, believable character.

Actually, aside from Templeton’s “stealth suit” that looks very much like something from the Steranko issues of Nick Fury, so far this series has been very low-tech.  I think that’s one of the advantages of the story taking place in the early Seventies, before the computer revolution and miniaturization.   It looks like Templeton is going to have to conduct some old-fashioned sleuthing in order to clear her name, rather than spying on the bad guys with some kind of “nano-bugs” or getting a misfit hacker genius to magically uncover the evidence she needs.

I guess the only reservation I have is that, based on Brubaker’s past writing on both Captain America and Gotham Central, he does tend towards a decompressed style.  Looking at the pacing of these first two issues of Velvet, it is probably going to take a while for events to unfold.  Perhaps this is going to be one of those series that reads better as a trade paperback.  Well, I’ve already purchased the first two issues.  I can always just wait for a few more to come out and then read them all in one sitting.

Moving along to the art, it is exquisite.  I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Steve Epting’s work.  When I first saw it about two decades ago on Avengers, it was quite good, full of potential, although perhaps somewhat overwhelmed by Tom Palmer’s inking.  On each subsequent series that Epting worked on (X-Factor, the three part Invaders storyline in Marvel Universe, Aquaman, Crux, Captain America, Fantastic Four) you can witness the steady growth & improvement in his abilities.  His art on Velvet is some of the best he has ever done.  The covers for these first two issues are just superb.

By the way, when I first saw the cover to Velvet #1 previewed online several months ago, I immediately thought to myself “That’s Claudia Black!”  Yes, really, I think that Velvet Templeton looks just like Claudia Black of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame.  I actually asked Epting about this on Facebook several weeks ago.  He indicated that he had never seen either of those shows and was unfamiliar with Claudia Black.  But Epting did admit “She does look the part though!”  So there you have it.  If this ever gets adapted into a movie or TV series, Brubaker & Epting have the perfect suggestion for who should portray Velvet Templeton.  (And now I’m probably once again going to get some more grief from my girlfriend about having a thing for hot older British women.  I’ll just have to inform her that Claudia Black is actually from Australia!)

Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!
Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!

Okay, enough with the fantasy casting.  One other contributor whose work I must give credit to is colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser.  She did great work in the past on Captain America and other titles, coloring such diverse artists as Butch Guice, Chris Samnee and her husband Mitch Breitweiser.  It’s really nice to see her paired up with Epting, who she previously did not have an opportunity to work with.  They really make an excellent team here.  Breitweiser utilizes a very effective, vivid palette that conveys a palpable atmosphere, while never overwhelming Epting’s line work.  It’s a really delicate balancing act achieving that.  The importance of colorists, like inkers and letterers, are often underestimated.  Breitweiser’s coloring on Velvet has the quality of almost looking painted.  It’s brilliantly done.

As I find myself drifting more and more away from the Big Two, most of the comic books I read nowadays are from the smaller publishers.  I’m really glad to see two immensely talented individuals such as Brubaker and Epting on a creator-owned title.  Here’s hoping Velvet is a big success.  So far it’s off to an impressive start.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #15-19

I’ve been following the ongoing Captain America title pretty religiously since 1989.  That’s, what, 23 years?  The series has seen a lot of ups and downs in that time.  On the whole, I think that Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the book has been more positive than negative, although I never did prefer his tendency for decompressed storytelling.  I also have to admit, as I’ve said in a previous blog, I never warmed up to the current volume of Captain America.  But, a few months ago I learned Brubaker would be concluding his mammoth stint with issue #19, and I decided to stick around for the finale.

The current series of Captain America (volume six, for those keeping count… I really wish Marvel would stop renumbering all their series) has seen Steve Rogers cross swords with one-time ally Codename Bravo, who had now allied himself with a faction of the subversive terrorist organization Hydra.  Bravo looked upon the political corruption & social decay of contemporary America, and believed that Cap had failed to lead the nation to a better place.  Bravo also held a long-standing grudge against Steve for, in his mind, stealing away Peggy Carter from him back in World War II.  Bravo joined forces with the Hydra Queen and Baron Zemo to create, as he saw it, a better world.  Unfortunately, like most terrorists, Bravo and his allies felt that if they had to shed innocent blood and tear the country apart to start afresh, then so be it, because the ends justified the means.

Captain America #s 15-18, “New World Orders,” is co-written by Brubaker and Cullen Bunn.  Hydra has successfully taken control of a popular Fox News-type network, and is broadcasting a 24 hour cycle of character assassination against Cap, the Avengers, and the U.S. government.  To bolster the effectiveness of their mass media manipulation, they are utilizing hypnotic Madbomb technology.  Hydra has also dispatched robot shock troops, the Discordians, across the globe to cause chaos & destruction, in order to make it appear that the Avengers are ineffective and unable to preserve peace & order.  Through their propaganda, mind control, and inducing of fear & panic, Bravo and his confederates hope to turn the general public totally against the government and the American political process, presumably to pave the way for a coup.

I think Brubaker & Bunn do a pretty good job of wrapping up the overall Codename Bravo storyline.  To be honest, though, I think “New World Orders” could have used another issue, because it felt rushed in places, especially the final chapter.  That probably seems a strange critique, considering I was previously complaining about Brubaker’s decompression.  However, I think his earlier arcs on this volume were all a bit too long.  It’s a shame that one of the issues from those earlier installments of the ongoing major story was not allocated to “New World Orders” instead.  Still, it’s a decent enough wrap-up.

I was surprised that Brubaker did not do anything to address the apocalyptic future vision that Steve Rogers glimpsed at the end of Captain America: Reborn, the one with the War of the Worlds type alien tripods devastating the Earth.  For a few years now, I had assumed that Brubaker was going to build up to some sort of major storyline involving that.  It looks, instead, that Bunn will be utilizing Steve’s look at the future in the current Captain America & Black Widow comics, although I’m not one hundred percent certain, since I just glanced through those issues in the comic shop.

Captain America vol 6 #16
Captain America vol 6 #16

The artwork on “New World Orders” is of a very high quality.  Scott Eaton & Rick Magyar do great work.  Likewise, the covers by Steve Epting are magnificent.  I was especially impressed with the cover to issue #16.

For his finale on Captain America #19, Brubaker once again assumes to solo writing duties, and Epting, who was there at the beginning of his run, returns to draw the entire issue.  This untitled tale is an insightful and introspective conclusion to Brubaker’s time writing the character.  The writer once again brings back the insane 1950s Cap, the twisted mirror image of Steve Rogers.  Brubaker also addresses something that, truthfully, had never occurred to me until he touched upon it earlier in his run: Steve never set out to be Cap, to become a symbol of heroism & patriotism, to represent an entire nation.  The truth is young Steve only wanted to serve his country by enrolling in the military.  When finally offered the opportunity to do so by participating in Operation Rebirth, he believed he would become the first of an army of super-soldiers.  It was only after Professor Erskine was assassinated that Steve was thrust into the role of Cap, that he was asked by his government to adopt the identity of a red, white & blue super hero, a living propaganda symbol.

What I think Brubaker is getting at is that part of the reason why the 1950s Cap (and by extension some of the other men to briefly adopt the role) failed is because he deliberately set out to assume this enormous responsibility.  He looked upon it as a blessing, and was unable to live up to the tremendous burden that it truly was.  Steve Rogers, in comparison, never wanted to be Captain America.  He took it on only because he felt it was the right thing to do, the best way he could serve his country.  It was his humility, and recognition of the tremendous responsibilities that being Cap would bring, which enabled him to succeed where others failed.  It is an interesting line of though on Brubaker’s part.

Issue #19 has, once again, some superb artwork from Epting.  He is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see how much he has grown as an illustrator, not just over the course of the eight years from when he first worked on Cap, but throughout his entire career.  If you look at his work back in the mid-1990s on Avengers and X-Factor, it was decent, and had potential.  Over the two decades since then, he has continually grown & developed, becoming an amazing illustrator.  I really became a fan when he was over at CrossGen, and my admiration for his work absolutely went through the roof due to his run on Captain America.  I’m glad he was able to come back for Brubaker’s finale.

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover
Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Epting contributed a great cover for issue #19, as did Butch Guice on the variant edition.  I really had a hard time choosing which one to get (wish I had the funds to pick up both) but I finally went with the one by Guice.  He’s another excellent artist who has consistently developed through the years.

Anyway, that’s that for Ed Brubaker on Captain America.  I think that, despite some rough, uneven patches, on the whole he did a very good job on this series.  He certainly leaves the book in much, much better shape than it was when he first came onboard it.

So, what’s next?  Rick Remender is taking over as writer on Captain America, with art by John Romita Jr.  I’m certainly tempted to continue reading the series, since I’m a fan of Remender’s work.  At the same time, the $3.99 price tag and the promise of a lengthy opening story arc leave me unsure.  Especially the price.  Why oh why does Marvel need to charge four bucks for a 22 page comic book?!?  I’m rather more inclined to try Uncanny Avengers by Remender.  Yeah, it’s also four dollars, but I enjoyed the first issue of that, and I like the idea of Cap leading a mutant team of Avengers against the Red Skull and other major threats.  I’ve wanted to see something like that for years.  Well, maybe I’ll just wait for the trade paperback collections of the Remender’s new Captain America series.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #11-14

Back to talking about mainstream comic books for a bit.  I previously decided that, after over two decades of following it regularly, I was going to drop Captain America from my reading list.  Since then, I found out that current writer Ed Brubaker will be ending his nearly eight year long run on the series in a few issues, with Captain America volume six issue #19.  So I made the decision to stick it out and see how he wraps things up.

Brubaker’s penultimate story arc, “Shock to the System,” continues his ongoing subplots concerning Codename Bravo and the Hydra Queen, who have systematically been taking a wrecking ball to Steve Rogers’ life while simultaneously undermining the public’s already shaken faith in the government.  Bravo and the Queen are relegated to behind-the-scenes players in this arc.  Truthfully, I don’t mind, since I haven’t warmed to either character.  Instead, taking center stage is government agent Henry Peter Gyrich and a new vigilante Scourge, assassinating supervillains who have been placed in a witness protection program.  And the mysterious Scourge turns out to have ties to Captain America.

I might have been more impressed with this arc if it wasn’t for the fact that the central conceit, namely “Hydra brainwashes Gyrich to recruit a new Scourge who happens to be an old friend of Cap” hadn’t already been done before a number of years ago by Fabian Nicieza in the pages of Thunderbolts.  Consequently, some of “Shock to the System” felt like a retread.

Captain America vol 6 #14
Captain America vol 6 #14

I was also, once again, underwhelmed by Brubaker’s decompressed writing style.  So much of the time, Brubaker has done quality work on the Captain America series, but at the end of each arc I couldn’t help saying “That was really nice, but maybe it could have been told in one or two fewer issues.”  Well, I had the same reaction to “Shock to the System,” which felt like a nice three part story padded out to four issues.

I don’t know, perhaps I am being too critical of Brubaker in this respect.  The entire trend of decompressed storytelling, of writing for the “trade paperback,” has become so much of a house style at both Marvel and DC.  Pretty much every writer utilizes it.  For me this is frustrating, because Brubaker is generally a very good writer, but that practice of decompression serves as something of a liability to his stories.

On the plus side, “Shock to the System” did see the return of two long-time supporting characters from the Mark Gruenwald years, one of whom I am a big fan of.  It was nice to see both of them back, and Brubaker uses each of them very well.  Okay, true, one of them does end up dying.  But it was well-done and dramatic.  Brubaker really made it a tragic event, rather than merely a throw-away death.

The strongest aspect of Captain America #s 11-14 was actually the artwork by Patrick Zircher, or, as he seems to be calling himself now, Patch Zircher.  I’ve written before that he started out penciling New Warriors back in the 1990s, doing good, solid work.  Well, he’s definitely improved & grown as an artist, becoming even better over the years.  His artwork on “Shock to the System” was extremely well done.

So, five more issues of Captain America remain until Ed Brubaker’s departure from the title.  I don’t know how he is going to bring closure to all of his plotlines in that remaining amount of time.  I’m hopeful that he doesn’t have to rush things and/or leave some of his subplots unresolved.  It’s true, I’ve been underwhelmed by Cap volume six.  But on the whole, Brubaker’s work on this series has been very good, and I would love to see him go out on a high note.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.