This week: Dark Horse Comics delivered perhaps the most exciting issue in Whedon’s most recent Buffy volume with Angel & Faith Season 10 #20 where we see another side to Nadira and the power she represents in Magic Town; Darkseid War takes center stage at DC with Justice League: Darkseid War: Superman #1 and Justice League: Darkseid War: The Flash #1; Image Comics gives us a double-shot of bridge issues with Paper Girls #2 and We Stand on Guard #5; and Marvel Comics presents a pair of winners from the architects of the last four years of X-Men comics, Jason Aaron’s Doctor Strange #2 and Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men #600, which also happened to be my favorite comics of the week.
1. Doctor Strange #2 (Marvel Comics), Unspoiled Edition
In what could only be described as a mystical open house, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo expertly introduce audiences new and old to Dr. Strange, Wong, and the Sanctum Sanctorum through the eyes of a woman named Zelma Stanton who has an other-dimensional parasite growing out of her head. Aaron has hit his stride with a clever balance of comedy, intrigue, discomfort, and terror (though Bachalo’s cartoonish art often sacrifices the latter for the former, and we’re OK with it because is is Chris Bachalo) and establishes Doctor Strange as a must read.
2. Uncanny X-men #600 (Marvel Comics), Unspoiled Edition
It could be argued that this book not only concludes Brian Michael Bendis’s tenure with the X-Men but also ties together the thematic threads set up for the X-verse during Jason Aaron’s schism (schism starts with the cancellation of Uncanny X-Men; ends with the return to the original numbering). Despite all of this, Uncanny X-Men #600 feels like less of an ending than a beginning. Each tied up loose end creates another path for readers to traverse in a post-Bendis X-verse. This may not be the wraparound foil cover milestone issue you are used to, but if you’re concerned with a good story this is just what the doctor ordered.
1. Doctor Strange #2 (Marvel Comics), Spoiled Edition
Doctor Strange #2 plays into the strengths of both writer Jason Aaron and penciller Chris Bachalo. In a chaos of moving parts, Aaron is able to duck away from traditional, often boring, linear storytelling and instead embrace rapid anecdotal character development. In the process, Aaron’s native humor is liberated, resulting in interactions with flirtatious serpents and pornographic insinuations regarding the good doctor’s mustache, just to name a few of the short comedic asides.
The same flux gives Bachalo a sandbox of impossibilities to draw, enabling him to essentially turn in a sketchbook of misfit shapes and figures and call it a finished product, Hunter S. Thompson-style. I am reminded of Aaron and Bachalo’s vision of the Jean Grey School in Wolverine and the X-Men #1 with its floating Shi’Ar buildings, its ice tower, and its very own living landmass, though Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum might take the cake for weird locales.
It is possible that the myriad meanderings of Aaron and Bachalo’s Doctor Strange #2 have set up for every story line Aaron intends to tell during the span of this volume, or maybe he just wanted to have some fun in one of Marvel’s more interesting hot spots. Either way, there were five moments in this issue that I want to give a second look.
Guys, Where Are We?
The splash page that starts this issue features a quaint picture of a residence on Bleecker Street with a brief history of arcane significance (briefly written, that is; this haunted house has been around for a long time). The residence in question is the Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange, and I would argue that this building is actually the main character of this second issue. Re-reading this issue, I noticed two interesting factoids about Strange’s spooktacular home — 1) that it is unclear who or what first built the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Sorcerer Supreme, and 2) that the building has actually regrown itself in the past after its assumed total destruction. It would be easy to skip over the significance of this page, but it is highly likely that we were just educated about a main theme (if not the main theme) of Aaron’s unfolding story, namely, the nature and purpose of the Sanctum Sanctorum.
Velma, I mean Zelma
By the end of this issue, Zelma the librarian is established as a regular character and Aaron sets up a new normal in which Zelma will return weekly to the Sanctum Sanctorum in order to organize Doctor Strange’s disheveled (UNDERSTATEMENT!) library. However, it is immediately revealed to the reader that Strange has ulterior motives for Miss Stanton. While the Doctor (and Aaron is clearly playing with the word “doctor”) here is clearly going to be giving Zelma a weekly checkup to make sure she is rid of her inter-dimensional parasite, I’m actually rooting for our gateway character to experience a transformation of Cronenberg proportions (Altered States, The Fly).
That said, if we skip over the symbiosis between Zelma and the beasties from beyond only to have a trained librarian discover undiscovered country (possibly literally) amidst Strange’s various tomes and grimoires, I would be equally happy.
For the most part, I trust Jason Aaron in this sense. Perhaps she might stumble across a certain history of the Sanctum Sanctorum in one of these piles, and perhaps we might get to learn more about this charnel (I’m digging into the Lovecraftian lingo for this one; maybe next issue will give me a chance to use the word “cyclopean” or “bas-relief”) residence that keeps “popping up.”
I’ve Lost My Mojo!
Early in the battle against other-worldly infestation, Doc attempts to cast the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak spell, but it does not work. There is a hint that Strange believes that Zelma is connected to this supreme lack of mojo, but it is unclear if she is seen as a direct cause or just an element entangled in the same situation. The big cliffhanger ties into this plot point when a green-tinted portal-jumping sorcerer enters the Sanctum Sanctorum looking to warn Strange about a trans-dimensional threat called the Empiriken which is characterized as a dangerous force looking to eradicate sorcery from the macroverse.
It sounds like Jason Aaron may be rebranding The Purifiers of X-Men fame as some sort of psychedelic Harry Potter Haters. However, if Strange’s powers were already failing, there might be something much more insidious at work than the force that gobbled up Gandalf the Green at the end of this book.
Strange and Wong are not exactly subtle in suggesting that there is something truly disturbing in the cellar of the Sanctum Sanctorum. At this point I’m not sure we have enough information to even guess what it might be, but knowing Jason Aaron it could be something huge and earth shattering, or it could be Doop.
I guess only time will tell.
W. T. F.
2. Uncanny X-Men #600 (Marvel Comics), Spoiled Edition
Through a series of flashbacks, Brian Michael Bendis expertly (if a little awkwardly near the end) tied together five separate short stories that represent major themes in the post-Schism Bendis X-Men world. While I haven’t read anything about the future Uncanny X-Men creative team, judging by the initial direction set by Bendis, the future may be quite bright.
The Trial of Henry McCoy, Part I
The central part of this milestone issue is the idea that Henry McCoy (the Beast) needs to be confronted regarding his reckless disregard for the laws of physics, the space-time continuum, and genetics, and this intervention / trial was lead by Jean Grey School headmistress Ororo Munroe (Storm).
As an X-Men classicist, I was initially alienated by how Schism turned the rivalry for leadership into a battle between Cyclops and Wolverine while the traditional rivalry in terms of leadership (the rivalry between Cyclops and Wolverine is over love for Jean Grey and masculine ego) was between Cyclops and Storm. I’m not sure if I can put the responsibility for the mishandling of Storm since Schism squarely on Jason Aaron’s shoulders, but except for Chris Yost’s volume of Uncanny X-Force Storm has been underutilized for four or five years now. Whether or not Uncanny X-Men #600 signals a return to prominence for Storm is unclear — Storm was a vocal critic of Cyclops when she was on Team Utopia and she even began the headmistress when she returned to the school and yet she still didn’t get any significant character development — but a guy can hope.
White Wolf in the Fold
When I came back to reading X-Men comics in the early 2010s, it was difficult to see Piotr Rasputin (Colossus) transformed into this evil, anger-driven prisoner of Cyttorak, and it was nearly as difficult to see him fall completely off the map. However, as he is reunited with Kitty Pryde and his little sister Illyana, it is easy to remember the young Russian who would exclaim “By the white wolf!” in surprise, spend hours sketching butterflies and panoramas, and who pulled his punch against the Dark Phoenix because he knew his friend Jean Grey was in there somewhere. It was sweet when Colossus (former demon of anger) responded to Kitty’s (his long-time true love) engagement to Peter Quill / Star-Lord by saying that he only wants her to be happy. That story will no doubt get further developed under Bendis in Guardians of the Galaxy. It was also touching when Illyana wanted to make right with Piotr but her big brother demanded neither an explanation nor an apology from her.
Illyana explained that she would be training to become a responsible magic user under the tutelage of Doctor Strange. I would love to see her in the pages of Jason Aaron’s Doctor Strange: it was a whole lot of fun when she showed up in Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men, after all, and Aaron seems to be one of the few writers who can pen convincing dialogue for a woman who is both young and Russian-born. As for Colossus, I think he needs some time at the Jean Grey school among friends (Storm and Nightcrawler would do just fine!) so he can sort through his life and gain some degree of peace.
There are a couple of reasons I think Bobby Drake / Iceman’s coming out scene was probably the best in comic book history. First of all, it not only fills a 40-something gap in significant character development, but it explains that gap, casting his incessant joking as a diversion and his history of short-lasting male-female relationships as a cover. In fact, Bendis makes it feel like Stan Lee conceived of Bobby Drake as a young gay man back in 1963. Second, the coming out storyline was organic and well-founded. The seeds for this scene were planted in All-New X-Men #1, which came out in 2012 after all. This method made Bobby’s transformation feel less like an executive decision to arbitrarily make an important gay and more like good, old-fashioned story-telling. Third, the amount of sci fi that was required to bring Bobby out — transporting young X-Men from the past, travelling across the Universe for a Shi’Ar Trial of Jean Grey, encountering future X-Men who are trying to change the past, Jean Grey’s ESP-assisted thought-snooping — was really fun. Finally, Bobby’s explanation that he would just wait until life was easier as an “outed” mutant before coming out as gay was the bit of honesty and reality that put a bow on this significant moment in Bobby Drake’s history. What breaks my heart is the fact that Bobby’s father passed before he could see what he thinks. Perhaps this is a theme that will be explored in the future of Uncanny X-Men.
The fact that Scott Summers concluded the mutant revolution by bringing every single mutant on the face of the planet to the steps of the White House and then nothing happened feels odd. There are international terrorists like Mystique and the Blob who I’m not convinced are completely against exploiting not only their kind (like they did when they kidnapped and harvested Dazzler’s mutant growth hormone) as well as the humans (too many examples to list). There are mass murderers (Magneto, et. al.) whose powers amount to deadly weapons and whose presence outside the White House would be enough in anyone’s eyes, human and mutant alike, for them to be arrested. And where are all the people? Is Bendis suggesting that this gathering wouldn’t draw a crowd of humans or that the secret service or other Washington authorities wouldn’t intervene? My hope is that this is just a teaser of a much larger story that explains Cyclops’ motives (and how he transported the entire mutant race) and that concludes with more than just — here’s the mutant race all together, your biggest fear, and nothing bad has happened.
The Trial of Henry McCoy, Part II
Ultimately, Henry McCoy leaves the X-Men. Where he plans on going is anyone’s guess. I believe that he might be secretly harboring a desire to find Jean Grey once again. After all, young Henry McCoy and Jean Grey admit their love for one another in this issue and the outing of Bobby Drake proves that what holds true for the youth is also true for the adults.
When Avengers vs. X-Men originally concluded and Cyclops was imprisoned, I had imagined that a crazy Scott Summers would kidnap his old buddy Hank and they would travel the universe as new Star Jammers looking for relics of Phoenix cults throughout the universe. This plot would work fantastically for a Henry McCoy who no longer feels like he belongs with the X-Men. Logically, he knows that Jean is tied to a universal force of rebirth and that there is a history of interactions with the Phoenix as old as the universe itself — why wouldn’t he use the universe as his laboratory in order to find his friend and potential lover? Of course, Marvel probably has something else in store — likely a return to the Avengers — for Beast, but like I said in Part I, a guy can hope.
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Is it just me or have the recent events in Amazing Spider-man and Uncanny X-Men set a new path for Marvel Comics marketing? Each issue of the former has concluded with the set-up for a potentially huge story-line, while each flashback in the latter screams killer character development on the horizon. When you tie this together with the feeling that Secret Wars is the event comic to end all event comics — it literally made a mini-series out of nearly every event comic published since the original Secret Wars in 1984/85 and then concluded those mini-series — I wonder if Marvel has run a risk assessment on shaking the foundation of the entire universe/multiverse every summer and found their current modus operandi lacking. What I would like to see more of is a Marvel Comics with big events that are limited to a specific portion of Marvel-616 like either X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, or Spider-man Diaspora (Dan Slott’s “Spider-verse” is a good example) or smaller crossovers that intersect the four corners of Marvel (Bendis’s crossovers between the Guardians and the X-Men in “The Trial of Jean Grey” and “Black Vortex” come to mind). I’ve done a lot of wishing in this post, but this should be seen as a plea for the sake of good stories. I’ve seen too many fantastic runs get cut short or forcibly prolonged to align with the timeline of an event comic, and that really needs to stop.
Steps off soap box. I don’t read every single comic book that is out there, though for the major publishers I at least attempt to read the first issue of every comic. I read more comic books than most people you know, but I have already run into two pretty fantastic comics that I have overlooked in the past. If you think I’ve missed a good issue, series, or mini-series, either because it started slow or is by an independent publisher that I don’t pay enough attention to, let me know. I plan to get around to all of these suggestions, and as you saw last week — some of these suggestions are great to delve into on those off weeks where nothing is really inspiring me.
Because it took a while to piece together this post, next week starts tomorrow. See you then.