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Friday, February 7, 2014

All-New Marvel NOW! Spotlight Review: Loki, Ms. Marvel & the Punisher

This week brings us three new Marvel books - The Punisher from Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads, Ms. Marvel from G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, and Loki: Agent of Asgard from Al Ewing and Lee Garbett.  How do they fare?  

Marvel's "All-New Marvel NOW!" recently began, another set of new titles and relaunches to slowly roll out.  Is this the new status quo?  A never-ending set of reboots and new launches after too-brief ru-- oh, wait, that sounds like a slightly more organized version of the way Marvel and DC have operated for years anyway.  Carry on.

The three books highlight the changing face of the industry in interesting ways.  Loki has become a magical pansexual spokesthing for Asgard.  First introduced showering and singing showtunes replacing the main character from Wicked with himself, Loki is vain, selfish, and in no way the typical comic book lead.  Nor, for that matter, is Kamala Khan, the Muslim teenager headlining Ms. Marvel, an outcast nerd in the Peter Parker mold who would have never even existed 10 years ago, let alone headlined her own book.  Even old school Marvel standby the Punisher is changing, albeit not - as I'll get into - necessarily for the better.

I suspect Loki: Agent of Asgard is going to win a very dedicated, very passionate fanbase, and it should please most fans who have been following Loki since Gillen's inventive revival of the character in 2010.  There are a few clumsy touches here and there - fans who groused at Gillen's frequent references to pop culture and tumblr-fanbases will probably find this issue, which doubles-down on such things, quite frustrating - but writer Al Ewing has found a way to make the same tropes feel fresh all over again.

More importantly, he's found a way to literalize the angsts that so dominated Gillen's run and turn them into fodder for story.  The drama of Kid Loki was also the fact that who he was conflicted deeply with who he had been and how he was viewed, an issue Ewing picks up and runs with.  Stories have power, you see, and no matter how much Kid Loki changed the narrative, there's still an awful lot of stories of Loki's misdeeds.  So Ewing's Loki is dedicated to erasing that record - literally.  By erasing the stories of Loki's misdeeds from the public consciousness, he makes himself more adaptable to forging his own path, and for someone like Loki, that freedom is to be prized above all else.  

Loki: Agent of Asgard #1 was, fittingly, a good introductory issues with small problems that could haunt its long-term success.  The thing I'm most torn on is probably the way it hops freely between timelines.  For the most part, it largely seems to do little but manufacture false drama - that opening page is ripped straight from Thor: The Dark World's playbook, and it plays out the exact same way - but is that Ewing merely trying (and largely failing) to be clever in a way that all too many comic writers do, or do those misdirections hide the set-up for the last-page twist?  Only time will tell.  Despite some small issues with the book, it still charmed me in the end, particularly on re-read. 

G. Willow Wilson's excellent Ms. Marvel #1, on the other hand, won me over in about three pages.  In just a single issue, Wilson turns Kamala Khan into an immensely relatable young heroine, a Peter Parker for the 21st century.   A nerdy Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, Kamala seems like a character who could only appeal to a fairly niche market, but Wilson smartly makes Kamala's problems as universal as possible - she's a girl stuck between what her family wants for her and the person she wants to become.  While many of the conflicts introduced in this issue could become fairly rote down the line, here, they're introduced with tact and grounded in character, which makes Kamala's struggle - and eventual transformation - all the more earned.

G. Willow Wilson side-step the typical problems with superhero origin stories by making strong characterization front-and-center in this issue.  Characters are distinctive, realistic, and thoroughly well designed by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring, who lend their characters an immensely appealing physicality, showing us who they are before Wilson has a chance to tell us.  Which is good!  Ms. Marvel's greatest strength in its debut issue is in the immensely charming Kamala Khan and her well-realized supporting cast.  It typically only takes one or two well-placed lines for Wilson to set up the basic relationships between characters, and while she doesn't go too far beyond that in this issue, she does set up a world I'm interested in exploring further.

Of the three, only one isn't quite at the point where I'm interested in reading more: Nathan Edmondson's The Punisher.  The Punisher is a difficult character to write, largely because, well, he's barely a character at all.  The best Punisher stories typically treat him as a force of nature, creating a delicate situation with a colorful supporting cast and then dropping Frank in as a lumbering monster happy to destroy anything and everything to reach his goal.  Greg Rucka's recent run took that to an even greater extreme in the book's opening arc, positing Frank as a slasher in a horror movie.

Perhaps Edmondson feels like there's nothing more to explore in that direction, but he doesn't really set forth a particularly coherent vision in its place.  His Punisher has the beginnings of a supporting cast, and he smiles freely, but that just serves to make him more bland, and to make the consequence-free ultraviolence even more trite and meaningless.  Changing the setting from one massive coastal city to a different one was, it turns out, not enough to differentiate.

But even The Punisher #1 is a reasonably solid issue of comics, only slightly weaker than Edmondson's debut on Black Widow last month.  While Mitch Gerads isn't as stylistically strong as Widow's Phil Noto, he still manages a few striking images, particularly in the book's earlier pages.  And Edmondson has set up a couple different situations that could grow into fun situations given a few more issues, but it is by-and-large nothing we haven't seen before.  If you already liked reading The Punisher every month, you will probably find this mostly enjoyable, but it doesn't do anything new or interesting with the character.

And that, ultimately, is the failure of The Punisher #1.  Loki: Agent of Asgard and Ms. Marvel are both the creations of teams with clear visions of what they're trying to do and say; The Punisher is just trying to tell another bog-standard Punisher story, but without all that messy, complicated distance.  I have a hard time imagining anyone but G. Willow Wilson bringing Kamala Khan to life quite so vividly, but I can easily picture any novice writer bringing us The Punisher #1.

Still, all three books show a Marvel that is continually dedicated to putting creators together and then letting them create - tellingly, the Marvel NOW! slogan appears to be "The Biggest Creators. The Best Characters."  It's a philosophy that has sparked a creative renaissance for the company and brought out great work in veterans and newcomers alike.  It has given us new ways to look at old characters and brought back old approaches to use them on new characters.  It also gave us The Punisher.

Two outta three ain't bad.

I give The Punisher #1 a C

I give Loki: Agent of Asgard #1 a B+

I give Ms. Marvel #1 an A+
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