Variant Coverage – February 26, 2014

Reader, have you ever had one of those weeks? The kind where, as it starts, you think you know how it’s going to play out, but the deeper you get in, the less it’s what you expected? What you end up with instead is a series of ups and downs so extreme that by the end your teeth are sore and you have no sense of balance.

Well, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll soon learn. This week’s book all feature beginnings, but the differences in subjects and quality are so vast I’m a bit surprised my head hasn’t exploded. Maybe it has, and as you’re studying this screen, my grey matter is slowly making its way into the spaces between the buttons on my keyboard. Read on!

Fantastic Four 1 (Robinson/ Kirk): The Richards (and Uncle Ben Grimm) are back on Earth, hale, hearty, and ready to relax after their race to find a cure in a dimensional pocket for their shared affliction. Now that things are more or less back to normal for them, something comes out to push them to the brink of madness and despair. Which is, again, back to normal. [7/10]
This issue jumps back and forth between two time periods. One, the present, hosts the standard FF scenes. Giant monster that needs a science beam shot at it, Johnny trying to pad his bankroll, Ben reaching out for some human contact, and the Richards worrying about their kids. The other, set in the not-too-distant future, is when Reed is an antisocial recluse and failure, Ben is in jail for murder, and the Storms are running – Johnny into the club scene, and Susan across the ocean. What connects these two settings? Whatever it is, it’s behind Door #1.

This is not a bad story. It’s got everything you’d expect from a Fantastic Four issue – action and family drama in equal measures, a few nods to the recently-completed FF series. It’s got an enigmatic adversary with an explosive opening volley. It has bickering, teasing, tenderness. There’s absolutely nothing missing here.

That sort of works against itself here. Because it has everything we’ve come to know and love, it’s what we expect. With nothing out of place, nothing stands out as unique. The narrative sets up a storyline that will lead to the Fantastic Four breaking up, self-destructing. This is a heavy concept, but one that’s played out before. There have been creative runs that went years without any of the original members, and they worked great. As a reader that’s followed the series for an understated while now, there’s not much to catch my eye (aside from a new costume color scheme).

New readers are going to enjoy an intense story that’ll quickly catch them up with readers that’re familiar with the franchise. Those familiar readers won’t find much.

•The Wake 6 (Snyder/ Murphy): I’ve reviewed The Wake before, but while technically the same story, volume, and creative team, the story has shifted in so many ways and so suddenly that it reads like a completely different book. That’s worth another look to me, and perhaps to you as well. [8/10]
Wake 6
200 years from now, a sardonic she-swimmer named Leeward and her dolphin partner Dash (no relation to Rainbow) are some of the best Mer-hunters around. Not much else for someone like her to do after Mers, the apparent fish-human hybrids of ancient myth, have flooded most of the planet and are systematically destroying humanity. To relax, Leeward tinkers with forbidden technology in the hopes of finding the legendary broadcast of the secret to eradicating the Mers once and for all. The tech’s forbidden because ARM, built out of the bones of the USA, needs every available resource just to maintain their fresh water supply against the ever-developing Mers. Just having a working circuit board is enough to get arrest over, or worse.

The Mers as they’re portrayed in this book are pretty damn frightening. Most horror stories work on the principle that we’re most scared of something that reminds us of ourselves, and that certainly plays here. The Mers grow and adapt, they alter the planet to suit their own ends, and they have wickedly expressive faces. Against this force, humanity has found ways to overcome certain hardships of their own, and even find new vices, but it’s clearly a losing battle. The most action-packed scenes are shown in flashback, hitting the point even more that the human race is already dead, it’s only twitching in a life-like manner.

Scott Snyder can write. He’s proved it in Batman, he’s proved it in American Vampire, he’s proving it here. Leeward has a style of speech and attitude that sets her apart from the other characters, who in turn have their own qualities that set them apart from everyone else. there’s a lot of diversity after the apocalypse. Likewise, Sean Murphy can draw. His linework is the same as it was in Punk Rock Jesus, angular and dynamic, and the color scheme adds a lot of definition to the story. There are a few instances where I couldn’t be sure what was going on in a panel, and while it could be argued that the confusion is intentional, it felt disruptive.

It’s almost a shame that The Wake is hitting its stride now rather than its first issue, but this is still a very accessible read to newcomers as well as a rewarding read for those that’ve been following up until now.

Tomb Raider 1 (Simone/ Selma): There’s not much that makes me feel OLD, but upon realization that the Tomb Raider franchise, going back to its “Indiana Jane” character and her pixelated Madonna-like chest, is over 18 years old, I feel like I’m due for a walker. This purely irrational sensation, with a lack of personal love for the video games, along with a distrust of cross-medium tie-ins, had me set to not like this book. As it turns out, it’s starting quite well, which is a huge accomplishment on its part. [8/10]
Lara Croft only just got back from her first real adventure, one where she lost a lot of beliefs she thought were stable, and a lot of people besides. She’s practically drowning in guilt, feeling solely responsible for the lives either destroyed or damaged, and can’t think about her next project. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to – one of her fellow survivors is reaching out for help. By the time she gets to him, a few things have changed, like his social attitude, his knowledge of exotic cultures, and the odds that a tsunami will strike in the middle of the desert. I imagine Lara would have preferred getting struck by lightning as she was winning the lottery.

People expecting grand sequences, massive architecture, and epic moments aren’t going to find them here. What they’ll find instead are the sequences, architecture, and moments that make up each of our lives, with just a little bit of fantastic flavor to make them slightly grand, approachably massive, and casually epic. Lara’s inner monologue portrays a human being in pain, someone once imaginative and ambitious, but hurt so completely that their only goal is to limit the damage. That happens to translate into minor globetrotting and leaps of faith so risky that life and death are separated by a few millimeters, which is fortunate for us as readers.

Gail Simone (full disclosure, I do follow her twitter feed, but mostly for the trolling) slays here. The subtlety she brings to the character and her trappings capture everything that (I’ve read) the rebooted game set out to achieve: a new, less superhumanly-fantastic, more accessible Lara Croft. Rather than start at the top and make an effort at reaching down to the audience, this feels like it’s starting with us and reaching higher, and that feels really good.

Selma’s artwork carries the essence of this concept over very reliably. His Lara Croft is a striking young woman, but not impossibly so; the jumps she makes and threats she avoids are dangerous, but avoid coming off as ridiculous. There are a few places where this sense of being grounded is too much, where Lara’s speech says she’s struggling, but she’s shown as being carried gently. There’s a flatness to the art that’s practically invisible for the smaller panels, but in bigger moments takes away from what could have been a more meaningful impact.

This is a strong, solid, engrossing book that’ll surprise a lot of readers. It’s definitely worth a look, no matter what your relationship is with the Tomb Raider franchise (or even if you don’t have one).

One-Hit Wonder 1 (Sapolsky/ Olivetti): My first instinct on seeing this was to go on one of my numerology rants and berate the creators trying to get multiple issues out of their “one-hit wonder”, but I won’t. There are some rather critical flaws to this book, so critical that I argue it makes the book so bad that it’s good, like something from MST3K (though with a lot more nudity, you’re now forewarned). [4/10]
Richie Reese is famous. In his youth, that was because he was a screen star born to screen stars. In his adulthood, it’s because he’s a master assassin. He kills for money, but he also loves what he does, the dream of every working man. His last job put him on the map for his first mark killed in front of a live studio audience, and his latest is pitting him against the FBI, specifically their mole in an illegal immigration ring. She’s a fiery triple agent with a talent for form-fitting dresses and turning the tables when her life is in jeopardy.

This would be a tongue-in-cheek book if the tongue hadn’t been blown off and the cheek perforated. There’s a glamour and refined lifestyle associated with this brand of professional assassination, as if the East Coast’s Murder, Inc. met LA’s high-speed “let’s do lunch” mentality. Richie can take meetings, kill targets, and be back at a villa sipping cocktails and arranging arm candy before mid-afternoon. He’s high-profile, in high-demand, and has no worries about police intervention. It looks like every ugly stereotype to come out of Hollywood: sunny, glamorous, and fake.

Nothing quite fits the role it’s supposed to fill. Richie’s shadow-clad manager fails to hide his long, personal history with his client, and he also fails at keeping his separate interests separate – he tags Richie to clean up a mess another branch of his operation has caused. The cities Richie travels to seem to lack any visible police force, or any authoritative body for that matter. Despite Richie being a face the entire country has seen for decades, nobody recognizes him, even after he’s shot someone in front of millions of witnesses. All these factors add up to an utterly senseless world.

And it’s made even more senseless by Richie himself, a demonstrated list of things NOT to do when you kill people. Talking to your agent a bulky wireless phone, both outdated AND unsecure, in front of vapid sex objects is bad enough, but when said vapid sex objects understand your language, that’s just asking for trouble. And this is after the taping of his improvised snuff film? And don’t even get me started on when he screws up the hit on the Fed. Okay, it was smart to lowjack her car in case she got away, but if you’re going to be that smart, be smart enough to not get in close when you’ve got a gun. If you have a ranged attack, don’t provoke melee, that’s basic! And when the direct approach fails as epically as it does, you don’t try it again! If your mark’s on the run, doesn’t suspect being tailed, and heads straight for a public place where food and drinks are served, you sap a waiter, you poison your mark, you get out.

I mean, uhhh, somebody COULD do that. If they wanted to kill someone. Which no one should. Because killing people is bad. That is my, err, LEAST favorite thing to do.

(CC Note: Caaaaarll!)

Moving right on, this is a terrible book for what it tries to do, but it’s a great book to read in groups and laugh about.

Look over there! Bye!

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