Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Personal Connections and Alien Invaders: X-men: Gold Annual #1

The following is my review of X-men: Gold Annual #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.

The greatness of a character is often proportional to the amount of connections they make over the course of their history. No character ever becomes great just by hanging out with a handful of people and never really interacting with anyone else. Even The Three Stooges make an effort to connect with others in between slap-stick humor and casual violence. In the Marvel universe, connections are hard to keep up with, but some find ways to create their own elaborate web of friends, enemies, and frenemies over the course of their narrative.

While some, namely Wolverine and Spider-Man, end up sleeping with too large a portion of their connections, others manage to expand their web in a variety of ways. With respect to the X-men, few characters network better than Kitty Pryde. Even though she isn't among the original five X-men and had a lot of catching up to do after her debut during Chris Claremont's iconic run, she somehow finds a way to establish herself in every superhero social circle she's in.

Some of it comes from her natural charisma. Some of it comes from her tough, yet likable attitude. Having a pet dragon probably doesn't hurt either. Since taking on a leadership role in X-men: Gold, Kitty Pryde is often in a position to reconnect with old friends and forge new ones. It has already helped her rekindle things with Colossus, a relationship that is still a developing part of the narrative in X-men: Gold. It also gives her more opportunities to reach out to older connections, which she does in X-men: Gold Annual #1.

Marc Guggenheim and Leah Williams work together in an singular, extra-sized story that puts Kitty and her gold team back in touch with the likes of Captain Britain and the Braddock family. It's a connection that she hasn't explored in quite some time, but the story makes clear that the connection remains as strong as ever. Like old friends getting together after life gets in the way, the reunion feels real and genuine. The only difference with the X-men is that life getting in the way often takes the form of superhero civil wars.

The circumstances surrounding the reunion aren't elaborate or contrived. In fact, it adds to the overall realness of the reunion because it involves Brian and Meggan announcing that they've had a baby. Even though the circumstances with such major life events take on some twisted quirks, which is all too common with the X-men, it's still one of those unique moments that feels personal. It only becomes more fanciful when aliens attack.

While that may seem contrived in most other narratives, it's downright inane in an X-men comic. The only way to make it seem meaningful is to give an alien attack some context and that's what Guggenheim and Williams attempt to do in X-men: Gold Annual #1. The attack isn't entirely random, nor is it impersonal either. It actually involves the D'Bari, an alien race with strong, albeit antagonistic, personal connection with Rachel Grey and the entire Grey bloodline. Those familiar with the events of the original Phoenix Saga don't need much context as to why that animosity exists.

Even those unfamiliar with such classic moments in X-men lore won't be too lost because the story makes it a point to establish some emotional stakes, alongside the connections. The angry D'Bari involved, Starhammer, has a valid reason and an understandable motivation for dropping in on Rachel, the X-men, and the Braddock family. That motivation gives the conflict that unfolds some dramatic weight. It's not overly elaborate, but there are personal undertones, which is critical in making any generic alien attack more interesting.

While the connections and the context are there, the depth is somewhat lacking. There's actually more story built into Kitty Pryde, Rachel, and Nightcrawler catching up with Meggan and Brian than there is with the fight against Starhammer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because those moments make for some of the most meaningful interactions in the story. They're cute, they're heartfelt, and they're even pretty funny at times, which is entirely appropriate when adults gush over a new baby.

However, those moments aren't necessarily balanced or complemented by the conflict that unfolds with Starhammer. If anything, it comes off as detached. It just interrupts Kitty, Rachel, and Nightcrawler's efforts to catch up with old friends and nothing more than that. Even with the personal connections there, the narrative does little to expand or enhance on them. It doesn't undermine them either, but that still results in a great deal of untapped potential.

Some of that lost potential is a byproduct of the pace. While there is plenty of time allotted to exploring the newly-expanded Braddock family, the battle against Starhammer comes off as rushed or condensed. It never gets a chance to be dramatic or epic. For conflict built around a very personal moment that spun out of a very iconic X-men story, it feels like a missed opportunity.

That doesn't stop the resolution from being fitting. Rushed or not, the way in which the X-men and the Braddock family resolve the conflict is very much in keeping with the traditions of both the X-men and Excalibur. The story doesn't try to reinvent or subvert these themes. It just doesn't provide enough depth to make the resolution more memorable.

Despite this, X-men: Gold Annual #1 never feels like an incomplete or empty story. True to the tradition of annuals, it offers a simple, self-contained narrative that leaves no loose ends or unanswered questions. It doesn't attempt to be bigger than it needs to be. It just offers a simple narrative built around strong personal connections. The fact that it somehow manages to squeeze in an alien attack is almost secondary.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Friday, January 12, 2018

Jokes And Harsh Truths: Batman: White Knight #4

The following is my review of Batman: White Knight #4, which was posted on PopMatters.com.

If any competent therapist were to sit down with most superheroes not named Superman, then it's very likely they would diagnose them with some form of mental illness, be it a chemical imbalance or personality disorder. It says something about the persona of superheroes that part of what makes them who they are requires some sort of psychological aberration that drives them to do what they do.

While some heroes carry themselves better than others, it's hard to argue that Batman is the picture of mental health. So much of what he does and why he does it is built around the trauma he experiences as a child. In a sense, Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears in that it hides just how tortured he is by that trauma. Batman is his true persona and no licensed therapist would dare call that healthy. It's one of those unspoken truths that often hides within the Batman narrative. Part of what makes the Joker his greatest enemy is his efforts to expose why pretending he's sane is the greatest joke of all.

That's exactly what makes the premise of Batman: White Knight so intriguing. Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth skip the part where they try to find a novel way for the Joker to poke Batman beyond the strict limits he imposes upon himself. Instead, they remove the limits that hold the Joker back, treating his insanity as a barrier similar to the ones on Batman. Absent those barriers, he becomes something far more menacing than a clown armed with exploding whoopee cushions.

Without his insanity, the Joker becomes a threat unlike anything Batman has ever faced before. He's no longer out to just expose his efforts as one elaborate joke. He's out to subvert the entire concept of Batman. Batman: White Knight #4 acts as an indictment of how both Batman and the Gotham City Police operate. In a sense, by being sane, the Joker makes it abundantly obvious just how much of a joke those operations are in practice.

Joke or not, nobody is laughing and that's exactly what makes the narrative so compelling. The Joker, now operating as a public advocate in Jack Napier, uses the same charisma that gets henchmen to wear clown makeup to rally support from the media and the population. What he does is devious, but not in the sense of pumping laughing gas into a crowded warehouse. Rather than make people laugh with hard truths, Jack Napier shoves the truth in everyone's face in a way they can't ignore.

It's haunting in its effectiveness. It comes off as something that could very well play out in the real world, minus the costumed villains and exploding pies. Conceptually, Gotham City has always been a metaphor for a troubled city plagued by crime and corruption, but the only method for confronting those troubles comes from Batman. Jack Napier dares to offer an alternative, one that brings to light the inherent flaws in Batman's approach.

It doesn't help that Batman ends up playing into Napier's hands throughout the course of Batman: White Knight #4. His reactions come off as self-destructive at times, which is understandable given the complications Bruce Wayne is dealing with outside the mask. There's a sense that the trauma that drives Batman is finally catching up with him. Jack Napier is just accelerating the process by putting him in the worst possible situation and without even cracking an insidious smile.

Napier doesn't just go after Batman's principles and sanity. He even goes after his support structure within the Batman family. He does what few have dared to do and offer an alternative to simply letting Batman operate freely with no accountability or oversight. He actually makes an offer to Nightwing and Batgirl that's both intriguing and practical. He doesn't just try to undermine Batman. He tries to one-up him by doing what he's trying to do, but more effectively. That ends up making any effort on Batman's part to cling to his old approach an even bigger joke.

That, in many ways, is the most brilliant part of Jack Napier's plan. He's still doing what the Joker has been attempting to do for years, but without the clown makeup and insane plans that involve exploding novelty gags. He's trying to expose Batman and the injustice around him as a joke and it's working with terrifying efficiency. Nobody is laughing, but there's still plenty of intrigue.

That's not to say everything Jack Napier does in Batman: White Knight #4 goes flawlessly. He does encounter complications, as anyone operating in Gotham City would expect. There are still deranged criminals running around and not all of them wear clown makeup. With or without Batman, these are problems that nobody can ignore for too long, even a reformed Joker. However, the way he handles it is a testament to just how charismatic he can be, even without the makeup.

With every issue of Batman: White Knight, Batman's credibility crumbles and Jack Napier's efforts make more and more sense. Batman: White Knight #4 makes clear that these two personalities cannot coexist, regardless of how sane or insane one of them is. At some point, one of them has to fall and every conceivable force is now working against Batman.

The conclusion of Batman: White Knight #4 opens the door even more distressing truths that will strike Batman to his core. With every truth, what Bruce Wayne does and why he does it becomes less a joke and more a tragedy. The extent of that tragedy, of which much of Batman's motivation is built from, is entering new and distressing territory with Batman: White Knight.

However distressing it may be, the implications are both compelling and revealing. If a superhero's greatest villain can expose the serious flaws in their approach for seeking justice, then what does that say about superheroes in general? It's not an easy question to ask in the first place, but Batman: White Knight's attempt at answering it offers some dark possibilities.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Sexy Side Project Update: Next Story To Be Released In THREE Weeks

I know it's been a while since I announced anything regarding a sexy side-project. Since "The Red Queen Chronicle: The Holidays," I haven't had much to update and there's a good reason for that. It's not just because things tend to get hectic around the holidays. I had the added complication of going through a very tedious move to a new place. It's only within the past week, or so, that I've gotten back to some semblance of normalcy.

As a result, my ability and opportunities to work on sexy side-projects suffered. I actually did have a story in mind that I hoped to post after New Years. I ended up falling behind significantly during my move. As a result, this latest project won't be ready for three weeks. Beyond the time and energy necessary to ensure that this story is up to the same sexy quality as those that came before it, I also had to work overtime just to ensure that X-men Supreme was updated on time.

Now, I hate delays as much as the next guy who'd hoped that Half-Life 3 would be out already. However, I make it a point to ensure that extra time goes to good use. I intend to take next several weeks to complete and refine this next sexy side-project to ensure it's worth waiting for. I won't continue hiding the details either.

This next side-project is actually one I thought about posting last month, but opted for a more holiday-themed story. It still takes place in the world of "The Red Queen." However, it takes a step back to revisit the original catalyst for this whole series that began way back with "Spider-Man and the Prostitute." More specifically, it's going to flesh out the evolving relationship between Spider-Man and Mary Jane in the overtly sexy way that many have come to expect from this series.
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I feel as though this is necessary for the continued progression of the story. A lot of what has happened in the world of "The Red Queen" is because of how Spider-Man and Mary Jane have affected one another in this series. I've spent more time lately on developing some of the other corners of this sexy world, but I can't forget about those who helped create it.

The name of the story will be entitled "The Red Queen Chronicles: The Promise." If you're a Spider-Man/Mary Jane fan in any capacity, this is a story that should keep you warm for the rest of the winter. Even if you're not, it'll cater to others with more kinky tastes in sexy side-projects.

I don't want to give away too much more. I'll just say that this is a story I believe Spider-Man/Mary Jane fans will really appreciate while maximizing their sex appeal. I'll also make clear that I do have other side-projects in mind as well so there are more coming. Rather than risk turning that into a very dirty, albeit fitting joke, I'll just urge everyone to be patient with this latest sexy side-project.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reborn and Revitalized: Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1

The following is my review of Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.

A lot can change in the span of a year, especially in a world full of cosmic cubes, infinity gems, and deals with Mephisto. One year, Wolverine is an Avenger, Spider-Man is married, and the Fantastic Four are still relevant. The next, Captain America is a Hydra agent, Thor is Jane Foster, and Spider-Man is sleeping on his Aunt May's couch again. Things change very fast, very quickly in the Marvel universe, often within the span of a single year. Go back even farther, say 14 years ago, and it may as well be a different multiverse.

That's because 14 years is how long Jean Grey, the non-time displaced version of her, has been dead. In December of 2003, during the tail end of Grant Morrison's famous run on New X-men, she dies at the ends of Xorn, who is actually Magneto, but is also an imposter. At that time, land lines are still common, YouTube doesn't exist, and people are actually excited about the release of a new Fantastic Four movie.

So much changes within the real world that it's impossible to overstate how different things are in the comics. The fact that Bucky Barnes comes back to life before Jean Grey in that span says a lot about the impact of her death. However, her being Jean Grey, the same character who attracts cosmic forces with a propensity for resurrection, it was only a matter of when and not if she returned.

After 14 years, multiple crossover events, multiple relaunches, and a takeover by Disney, the wait is over. Jean Grey is finally set to return in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1. After so much time and so many complications along the way, Matthew Rosenberg has both a privileged and responsibility in crafting this narrative. He gets to bring Jean Grey back, but he faces a challenge in doing it in a way that doesn't feel predictable or contrived, which is no easy feat for a character associated with a cosmic force.

His approach is one that relies heavily on mystery elements while also bringing every major X-men team into the picture. From a situational standpoint, that makes sense. Jean Grey coming back, and likely bringing a cosmic force with her, is bound to require more than a few veteran X-men. However, Rosenberg doesn't throw everything into the story all at once. That may work for the Cables, Deadpools, and Wolverine knock-offs of the Marvel universe, but Jean's story requires a different kind of nuance.

A big part of Jean's appeal, both as a character and as a catalyst for a major story, is how her stories are built around significant emotional undertones. The original Phoenix Saga itself is an emotionally-driven story, one that has a major impact because it makes the losses and emotions feel genuine. Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 already sets Jean up for a similar impact. While the situation is very different compared to previous stories, but when a character has been dead for over a decade, that's understandable and somewhat necessary.

This is where the mystery elements of Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 really shine. In the same way it avoids putting the X-men at ground zero of another Phoenix-powered clash, it establishes a series of unknowns that puts Jean and the X-men in a volatile situation. It doesn't start off with a cosmic bird, but it doesn't take long to hint at one. Even with those unknown, it makes clear that the X-men's path is eventually going to find its way to Jean.

Like going up the first steep hill of a roller coaster, it's fairly obvious what Jean and the X-men are about to face. Anyone who knows anything about the stories surrounding Jean and the X-men can sense it, but the subtleties of the story still find a way to make it enticing. Rosenberg doesn't try to use old formulas that involve cocoons, time travel, or evil clones. His approach is different, even if the themes are similar. That big drop at the top of the hill is still coming and it promises to be every bit as thrilling and dramatic as other Jean Grey stories before it.

Beyond just setting the stage for the X-men's reunion with their beloved friend, Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 also takes the time to acknowledge classic elements of Jean's story. There are references to the original Phoenix Saga, End of Greys, and even some of the lesser-known aspects of Jean's history. There's a sense that both the past and the present matter, which is difficult to do when it's just so much easier to use time machines, clones, and Skrull agents.

In a sense, the outcome of the story is already established. Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 makes clear that this isn't going to be a tease like Phoenix Endsong. Jean Grey is, indeed, coming back. It's just a matter of how volatile, dramatic, and impactful that return will be. Any story involving Jean Grey is bound to be emotional to some extent and Rosenberg puts everything in place for those emotions to shine.

The final page, alone, effectively guarantees that hearts will be broken and spirits will be wounded. The presence of Jean's loved ones, of which she has many, also guarantees that the drama will be intense. The narrative sets all these important themes up without utilizing a single clone or cocoon, which counts as an accomplishment.

While these nuances work beautifully for anyone familiar with Jean Grey's history and the dramatic undertones that her stories inspire, there are times when her prolonged absence hinders some of the impact. When a character is dead for so long and the world changes so much, it's hard to fit them into the bigger picture. In a sense, Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 is starting behind the curve in terms of creating impact on the larger Marvel universe. After multiple civil wars, a Skrull invasion, and a take-over by Hydra, Jean's return almost feels out of place.

However, even though the Marvel universe has gotten used to functioning without her, Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1 does plenty to generate excitement for her overdue return. Her being dead for so long may have limited her impact, but it does little to diminish her place in the X-men and the Marvel pantheon of heroes. She still is, even after 14 years, the heart of the X-men. The team just isn't the same without her. No amount of time travelers or alternate universe versions can change that.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Friday, January 5, 2018

X-men Supreme Issue 162: Crimes Against Inhumanity Part 1 is LIVE!

I hope everyone had a supremely awesome New Year. I certainly did and I’m looking forward to making 2018 another awesome leap for the X-men Supreme fanfiction series. Every year, I’ve tried to raise the bar in terms of quality and vision. Given that this fanfiction series has been going on since 2010, that gets more challenging year after year. I think I’m up for it in 2018 and I’m ready to hit the ground running with the biggest arc since the big split that occurred in X-men Supreme Issue 148: New Divide.

I keep referencing that issue for a reason. It’s not just because that’s the issue when Charles Xavier and Cyclops began the bitter dispute that fractured the team between the X-men and X-Force. It’s not just over the fundamental issues that have emerged with Xavier’s effort in pursuing the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, which is still at the heart of the divide. This split is important because by dividing the X-men, the entire world of X-men Supreme is more vulnerable. It really was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of it.

Throughout this fanfiction series, the X-men have struggled to deal with powerful foes, even while at full strength. They barely overcame the Mutant Liberation Front in the Natural Disorder arc and struggled just as much against the ancient Cambrian within the Cambrian Explosion. Now, they’re up against a threat that has been operating behind the scenes since the events of X-men Supreme Volume 5: Dark Truths and even a little bit before that. I’ve been dropping hints, many of which involve Wolverine and Mystique’s mysterious past, and the events of Drug War offered the first major strike.

Most seasoned X-men fans, especially the Wolverine fans, recognized Daken when he showed up in the battle against Sebastian Shaw. As the colorful, albeit devious son of Wolverine, his history in the X-men comics is a complicated, fluid one and not just because of his flexible sexual preferences. Daken is not like his father in that he is willing to cross lines that Wolverine won’t. While I intend to tweak some elements of Daken’s origins in the X-men Supreme fanfiction series, I intend to preserve those critical elements, much of which will reveal themselves in the next arc.

This arc will shake the foundations of the entire mission for the X-men and X-Force. Both Cyclops and Charles Xavier will find their visions tested in ways they never expected. They’ll also learn the hard way that a divided X-men makes for a dangerous world. It’s a hard lesson that the X-men seem to learn every other month in the X-men comics. The X-men Supreme fanfiction series will be no different. Both the nature of the threat and the impact it’ll incur will strike Xavier, the dream, and everything in between.

The arc is entitled Crimes Against Inhumanity. It’s one of those core arcs that will help mark an important turning point in X-men Supreme. Those arcs are a challenge to craft, but make for some of the most satisfying moments in this fanfiction series. From the Phoenix Saga to Overlord to Outer Limits, I put extra effort into making these arcs more awesome and I hope it shows. It starts with this issue and it’s one that I hope X-men fans, especially Wolverine fans, really appreciate.

X-men Supreme Issue 162: Crimes Against Inhumanity Part 1

As always, arcs like this especially important in terms of maintaining the quality of X-men Supreme. In my effort to make 2018 another step forward for this fanfiction series, I want to make Crimes Against Inhumanity an important milestone. This year is already set to be a big year for the X-men with the return of Jean Grey and Wolverine in the comics, as well as the release of three X-men movies. I know X-men Supreme will never have that kind of profile, but I still want to match the effort.

In order to do that, I need to keep getting regular feedback from the wonderful people who have supported X-men Supreme since its inception in 2010. You guys are wonderful and I can’t thank you enough for all your support. I know it has been a long, arduous road for this fanfiction series and it’s only going to get trickier in 2018. I want those challenges to make X-men Supreme more awesome. That’s why it’s vital that I continue to get regular feedback. Either post your comments directly in the issue or contact me directly. Either way is fine and I’m always happy to chat. Until next time, take care and best wishes. Xcelsior!