Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

29 August 2008

Powers, v. 11: Secret Identities

Collects: Powers v. 2 #19-24 (2006-7)

Released: January 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 200 pages / color / $19.95 / ISBN: 9780785122616

And for a contrast, one of Brian Michael Bendis’s latest works, Powers, v. 11: Secret Identity.

In Secret Identities, the former supervillain husband of Queen Noir — a member of a prominent superhero group — is found dead. Detectives Deena Pilgrim and Christian Walker are called in, causing them to deal with high-strung superheroes with secrets and a media circus. And as always in the Powers Universe, whenever someone near a superteam dies, the whole team turns to ruin, and the bodies start piling up. (Bendis seems to believe superteams are an anomaly, something nature abhors only slightly less than a vacuum.)

Powers, v. 11: Secret Identities cover I remember liking Secret Identities much more on the first reading than the second. That may be because of the longstanding plot of Pilgrim’s new, secret powers and the investigation into the disappearance of a former boyfriend. It’s a subplot that started with Powers’s switch to Marvel in 2004, and it really rewards long-time readers. Pilgrim’s slowly been going through the emotions, and here, her defiance is beginning to crumble, and she hits rock bottom. It’s characterization that’s a cut above, and Bendis deserves a great deal of credit for it.

On the other hand, the plot is reminiscent of other Powers plots, with a culprit who comes from (mostly) nowhere. (It does make the second gratuitous sex scene less gratuitous and more a plot point, though.) There’s an interesting and plausible red herring, and a couple of uniformed cops (one of whom has a crush on Pilgrim) who are amusing, but Walker’s new powers leave me cold, and there’s only so much sex and disturbing violence I can take; at times, it seems Bendis is trying to top himself with the violence. At least there’s no monkey sex in here (that I noticed).

I love Michael Avon Oeming’s art, I really do; his square jawed, angular art and Bendis’s dialogue (and other quirks) define the Powers universe. This volume is no exception, with Oeming turning in his usual excellent work, with the bonus of seeing his gag version of a cover for a ‘50s romance comic. However, there are some worrying bits; a few panels are more than confusing, and judging from the script for #23, what he draws certainly doesn’t convey what Bendis is going for. (The scene with Pilgrim in her car, specifically.) It’s only a niggling worry, for the moment.

Really, this is not a book for new readers — not really because it’s confusing to new readers but because it’s not the best. So go to the beginning, become a Powers fan, and then read this.

Rating: Marvel symbol, because I couldn't find anything better Marvel symbol, because I couldn't find anything better (2 of 5)

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26 August 2008


Collects: Jinx v. 1 #1-7, Jinx v. 2 #1-5, various one shots and specials (1996-8)

Released: February 2001 (Image)

Format: 480 pages / black and white / $24.95 / ISBN: 9781582401799

Once there was a time when the millennium was new and shining, when all foreign and domestic policies didn’t begin with “9” and end in “/11,” when Brian Michael Bendis didn’t dictate the direction of all Marvel’s titles. During that time, Bendis wrote and drew Jinx

Jinx cover Jinx is the story of the eponymous female bounty hunter, who runs into a pair of small-time con men named Goldfish (who Bendis also featured in Goldfish) and Columbia. Goldfish and Columbia themselves have stumbled into The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: while Columbia is savagely beating Goldfish for abandoning their life of crime and for being better than him, a severely injured criminal crashes his car nearby, then gives half the location of a $3 million to each before conveniently dying.

Hey, it happens.

Coumbia is paranoid after Goldfish hooks up with Jinx in a wholly unconvincing romance made up of violence, vocalized pauses, and sex. Their attempts to get the Confederate gold — no, wait, stolen cash — drives the “realistic dialogue” and flashbacks … er, plot.

Bendis’s art is surprisingly good for someone who’s never had much cause to use it with the Big Two. Not that I particularly enjoy looking at it; 50 percent of the art is filled with shadow, and 40 percent is word balloons. This makes it frequently difficult to tell what’s going on. It is interesting artwork, though. Bendis admits to using models, including himself (as Columbia). It’s a valid approach, and for the most part, Bendis avoids making his subjects look stiff or posed. However, when he adds photorealistic elements — what looks like photocopied $20 bills atop his art, for instance — it’s offputting, because it looks like badly photocopied $20 bills atop comic art.

Readers’ enjoyment of Jinx is largely going to depend on their evaluation of Bendis’s dialogue. If you find starts and stops, vocalized pauses, and occasional explosive profanities realistic and engrossing, you’ll love Jinx. It is Bendis’s trademark, and it sounds like no one else. This is earlier Bendis, without much restraint or refinement, though; if you don’t really appreciate Bendis’s style, you’ll likely find the dialogue tedious and the story padded. Myself, I don’t think it would have been so bad if Bendis had hired a copy editor; missing and misplaced punctuation and misspellings changed the tedious to aggravating.

Despite the killer hook — female bounty hunter — the story fails to grab. Jinx is too abrasive to be compelling. The romance doesn’t sizzle; rather, it lies there and slowly rises to room temperature. The plot, as I said, is derivative. And f*&k Bendis for taking Lauren Bacall’s name in vain.

As a side note, David Mack’s introduction is one of the worst pieces of text I’ve ever read.

Rating: Image symbol (1 of 5)

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25 August 2008

This week: All Bendis!

Yes, this week will feature all Brian Michael Bendis, all the time. Of course, a week for me is only two reviews, so make of that what you will.

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22 August 2008

Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet

Collects: Avengers West Coast #51-7, 60-2 (1989-90)

Released: January 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 232 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785130277

I think the kindest thing I can say about Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet is that it gives background to Brian Bendis’s catastrophic Avengers: Disassembled and House of M. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to recommend Darker than Scarlet, unless you’re a really big Disassembled / House of M fan. (Or Avengers West Coast fan, I suppose.)

Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet coverThis is not John Byrne’s finest hour. Byrne is one of modern comics’ best writer / artists. Here, his art matches up well with the rest of his ‘90s work; not as inspired as his earlier output, perhaps, and with a slight tendency toward dated hairstyles,12 but it’s still better than the exaggerated work of most of his contemporaries, who were being lauded as “hot artists.” (There is a coloring error of some importance on p. 35, but that’s not Byrne’s fault.)

The writing — more specifically, the plotting — is the problem. Part of the difficulties lie in crossovers. Darker than Scarlet runs through, and to a certain extent is intertwined with, the Acts of Vengeance crossover. Acts of Vengeance was a loose crossover in which Loki persuaded villains to fight different adversaries who didn’t know their weaknesses13; the West Coast Avengers fought Mole Man, a Fantastic Four foe, and the U-Foes,14 the Hulk’s sparring partners. Unfortunately, the Avengers issues in which the good guys unravel Loki’s plot aren’t included in this collection, so we go from the realization that someone is behind the strange attacks to the climactic fight, and the second half of the fight with the U-Foes is in an unincluded Avengers issue. Also missing is the Scarlet Witch’s part in the Atlantis Attacks crossover, which should come between #53 and 54. Byrne even has to apologize for allowing Tigra to be in Atlantis Attacks because her subplot wasn’t wrapped up in time. (He mostly ignores the subplot in Darker than Scarlet as well.) The Scarlet Witch’s story, chronicling her coming unwound mentally, is mixed with this, as are her reunion with her father, Magneto, and her brother and enigmatic scenes with Immortus watching alternate timelines. These don’t mix together well, leaving a heterogeneous mess.

Then there’s the manipulation of the Scarlet Witch. I don’t know if this qualifies for the Women in Refrigerators discussion — it seems the opposite to me, since it’s her male relations who are killed and she gets an increase in power — but there’s no doubt Darker than Scarlet sees the culmination of seemingly gratuitous trauma for a stalwart character, putting her through the wringer, turning her “evil,” and then making her a helpless pawn of Immortus. I don’t know if this oversteps the bounds of sexism in comics — I tend not to think so, since DC was doing worse to Hal Jordan at about the same time — but it’s close enough to make me uncomfortable.

The Immortus storyline and his plans for the Scarlet Witch are laid out by Roy and Dann Thomas, who wrote the final three issues. I’ve never been that interested in Kang’s less martial self, and his plan to use the Witch as an empty vessel (while calling her his “queen”) to control 7,000 years of human history doesn’t rise beyond the level of creepy. The Legion of the Unliving aren’t very compelling, given their unreality and the fact that they disappear while some of them are winning, and Tempus the Time Giant seems silly. (It’s like central casting sent over one of Thor’s frost giants for #62, and the Thomases had to quickly get him a slight costume change and shoehorn him into the plot.) Given that the storyline is wrapped up essentially by the Scarlet Witch saying, “No,” and the Time Keepers showing up to set Immortus straight as deus ex tempo, it’s a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to the long buildup. Paul Ryan’s art is solid, if unspectacular, and meshes with Byrne’s work.

There’s a lot of things going on in Darker than Scarlet. Unfortunately, it’s too much, too ambitious a central story to credibly tell with all the other stories competing with it.

Rating: Avengers symbol Half Avengers symbol (1.5 of 5)

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19 August 2008

Casanova, v. 1: Luxuria

Collects: Casanova #1-7 (2006-7)

Released: February 2008 (Image Comics)

Format: 144 pages / monochrome / $12.99 / ISBN: 9781582408972

Casanova, v. 1: Luxuria is a book that is simultaneously all thriller and all filler. Casanova is filled with enough high concept to make a movie studio exec’s head explode at 20 paces. Which sounds like a complement, especially if you’ve seen Norbit, but it’s not.

Casanova, v. 1: Luxuria coverWriter Matt Fraction puts explosions, spy organizations, and supervillains above likable characters. This is one of those books that doesn’t convince me to like the protagonist, Casanova Quinn, who starts out as a high-tech king of the cat burglars and is then drawn into a parallel reality. He has flexible morals, and while he tries to stop short of killing, 1) that’s not always possible, and 2) I have the feeling he’d do anything else if Fraction thought it was cool.

Gabriel Ba’s long and stylized art gives Casanova the distinct look the book needs. Ba’s Quinn looks like no one else. Impressively, despite a limited palette and a style that skimps on details for the big effects and atmosphere, all the characters remain distinct. I’m not convinced pale green, black, and white is the best color scheme for this book, but it does give the art an extra unmistakable look. Ba’s art and the color is as much a part of Casanova as Fraction’s writing, and I don’t say that sort of thing about art very often.

In many ways, Casanova is the mirror image of Nextwave: gloriously high concept, over the top, and rapid paced. But I like the cast of Nextwave; writer Warren Ellis makes me laugh. Fraction’s writing makes me think he’s in too much of a hurry to get to his next “cool” idea. Don’t get me wrong — there are cool ideas, and Fraction has obvious enthusiasm for all of them. But I don’t care enough about them to continue following this series.

Rating: Image Comics symbol Image Comics symbol (2 of 5)

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15 August 2008


Collects: Beyond! #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: January 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785120131

It’s a hard sell to get readers in the 21st century interested in a miniseries based on the Secret Wars. It’s even harder when you don’t go for nostalgia or play it for laughs. And if you include the Space Phantom, like writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist Scott Kolins did in Beyond!? That is setting a high degree of difficulty.

But McDuffie’s work is partially successful. While he uses the “abduct heroes and villains” bit from Secret Wars, taking them to a bizarre outer space planet and inciting them to fight one another, that isn’t difficult enough. No, no. He uses Sean McKeever’s Gravity as a viewpoint character, and he works in relative newcomers the Hood and Al Kraven. The cast also includes veterans such as Hank Pym, the Wasp, and Spider-Man; relatively C-listers like Firebird and Deathlok round out the crew.

Beyond! cover But it doesn’t work out that well. The story’s relatively innocuous, running from squabbling heroes to Space Phantom to a technobabble-fuelled escape after a fight with a lesser-used Marvel cosmic power. It’s been done before, and although this is done fairly well, it’s forgettable. Also, McDuffie kills off two characters, explaining away one and assuring readers the other will return, adding to the inconsequential feel of the book. Additionally, Hank Pym seems to be acting out of character, and that’s not the same Hood that’s been showing up in Brian Bendis’s Avengers. (Then again: possible Skrull involvement. Also: definite Bendis involvement.)

Kolins’s art does the job well enough, but it seems a bit a bit fiddly for a big story with cosmic players. Kolins seems a better fit for something more ground level — Daredevil comes to mind, or maybe Iron Fist / Power Man. Let me be clear: Kolins does a yeoman’s job, and he occasionally shines (I particularly like the scenes in Limbo), but I think there are probably better fits for McDuffie’s story.

Still, this just screams “missable.” I know McDuffie probably wasn’t allowed to do much earthshaking in such a minor miniseries, but if you can’t give a creator the license to give the final kibosh to Gravity, the Hood, or Al Kraven (or Firebird, for that matter), you aren’t letting him do all that much. On the other hand, I’m just going to ignore the throw-away death of Bi-Beast on the first page of the story, so what do I know?

Rating: Marvel Comics symbol Marvel Comics symbol (2 of 5)

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12 August 2008

What If?: Civil War

Collects: What If?: Civil War, What If?: Planet Hulk, What If?: Annihilation, What If?: Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire, What If?: Spider-Man vs. Wolverine (2007-8)

Released: June 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785130369

First of all, What If?: Civil War is a misleading title. A more accurate title would be What If?: Recent Events / Crossovers. An even more accurate title would be What If?: We Changed Recent Events to Kill More Heroes.

Second: merely asking What If? isn’t good enough. You have to have an interesting answer.

What If?: Civil War cover To be fair, I have not read most of the events this book uses as springboards. I didn’t care enough about Civil War, Annihilation, Planet Hulk, or (especially) The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire to read the originals, but I know enough about them that only Shi’ar Empire was slightly confusing. I have read Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, but that was from the mid ‘80s.

So I’m not the ideal audience. Still, I’ve read enough comics to know good ones when I’m given one for free, and this isn’t it. (Although it was free. Thanks, Diamond!) The main Civil War and Planet Hulk stories feature one of the most common What If? tropes: one thing changes, everybody dies. The body count in Annihilation is much lower, but so much is crammed into the story that it stops being a story — it’s more a retelling of fictional history. I’m not objective about Shi'ar Empire; the extension of Ed Brubaker’s massive retcon (no, the other one, the one without Bucky) leaves me cold. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of bloodshed in that one, with heroes dying (and Polaris being reduced to a pile of green hair) in a consequence-free environment.

The best of the lot was Spider-Man vs. Wolverine. I don’t believe Spider-Man would drift into the spy world, but at least it’s a full story, a real story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s competently told, with recognizeable motivations and characters. It works, in What If? terms, and writers Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin deserve a lot of credit for not succumbing to the temptation to ramp up the body count and change everything.

The backups are also not bad; the Civil War one works for no other reason than it serves as a rebuke to the stupidity of Civil War. Greg Pak — who wrote all the Planet Hulk stories — does well with his two low-key backups. The first has Banner and Hulk squabbling over the peaceful planet the Hulk was supposed to land upon; the second, a one-page joke with Fred Hembeck art, made me chuckle.

As for the whole package, it’s less than the sum of its parts. Different writers, different artists, characterizations (intentionally, to be fair) all over the place … I don’t think this could satisfy the casual reader. I’m not sure a casual reader would even pick this up, though.

Rating: Marvel symbol (1 of 5)

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08 August 2008

Essential Spider-Man, v. 8

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #161-85, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11, Giant-Size Spider-Man #6, Nova #12 (1976-8)

Released: April 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 512 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785125006

I really enjoy older Spider-Man stories — and by that, I mean stories before 1990. Back when Spider-Man’s simple life was very complicated, when the supporting cast was regularly used, when Norman Osborn was dead, when Spider-Man’s rogues gallery cold be taken seriously (even if everyone knew how ridiculous they were) without making them dark and gritty.

Essential Spider-Man, v. 8 cover So I have been a supporter of Marvel’s Essential Spider-Man series (as well as the Essential Spectacular Spider-Man and Essential Marvel Team-Up). The series has now reached Essential Spider-Man, v. 8, a landmark of sorts; this volume markes then end of Amazing Spider-Man runs for writer / editor Len Wein (with #180) and artist Ross Andru (with #185). Andru’s style is almost the epitome of Spider-Man art; like Romita, his Spider-Man is streamlined, sleek but muscled, with no distracting, unnecessary details (like Ditko’s underarm webs — which I like — and McFarlane’s many eccentricities — which I don’t). Andru is best known for his Spider-Man work; this is, in many ways, the apex of his career.

Too bad the stories aren’t quite worthy of him. Spider-Man is always judged by his villains, and there’s a decided lack of quality villainy here. There’s Jigsaw, essentially someone to be the Punisher’s foil; the Lizard-knockoff Stegron; the ephemeral Will o’ the Wisp; the forgettable Dr. Faustus; and a host of even lesser lights. Wein did pull the Kingpin and Molten Man back from obscurity, but I’m not sure making Molten Man Liz Allen’s stepbrother was a wise idea at the time, since he serves more as a complication than a character. Kingpin’s return is welcome, but he’s put out of commission again immediately, and the whole “draining life-force” plot is a little out of place in Spider-Man. (Fine for the Fantastic Four or Superman, though; each is more high-concept sci-fi than Spider-Man.)

Wein succeeds in the subplots. He gives Aunt May a purpose beyond Peter, making her a militant Gray Panther; this doesn’t go very far for later writers. Jameson becomes suspicious about Peter’s secret ID in the aftermath of the Clone Saga; Peter dissuades him distressingly easily. In building another Spider Slayer, Jameson meets Marla, his true love. This is probably most lasting legacy, humanizing Jameson.

Wein’s lone excellent job is a Green Goblin story that introduces the third version of the villain. It’s filled with suspense, drama, and ethical dilemma’s for Spider-Man; it ends with a Green Goblin vs. Green Goblin fight. This was really the last hurrah10 for the Goblin, upstaged by the Hobgoblin a few years later, but Wein and Andru give him a hell of a sendoff.

After a fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman takes over for Wein, and his four issues … well, they ain’t exactly masterworks — Rocket Racer, the Big Wheel, and the somewhat less-than-sociopolitically-correct White Dragon. It isn’t really fair to expect greatness in just four stories, but they don’t help the volume. Wolfman also has Peter fail to graduate for not completing a gym credit — incredibly stupid, I’ve always felt — and writes Mary Jane out of the book before having the married Betty Brant throw herself at Peter.

Compared to a modern comic, there’s a lot going on in this background: Peter and his supporting cast are changing, usually in an interesting way. But Spider-Man … His stories, other than the Green Goblin arc, are nothing exceptional. Spider-Man is reduced to being a co-star for Nova in a crossover, for heaven’s sake. 11

Amazing Spider-Man is going into the doldrums here and in v. 9. It won’t stop me from buying the next volume, but I can’t recommend v. 8 for the non-Amazing Spider-Man fan.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half-Spider symbol (2.5 of 5)

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05 August 2008

Runaways, v. 7: Live Fast

Collects: Runaways v. 2 #19-24 (2006-7)

Released: April 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color digest / $7.99 / ISBN: 9780785122678

Runaways is among Marvel’s best new concepts since Jim Shooter was forced out as editor-in-chief in 1987; certainly, it’s the best of the last few years.

Runaways, v. 7: Live Fast wraps up some of the plotlines from previous volumes, such as Gert’s death, the Gibborim, the New Pride, and Alex Wilder. Because it closes out these plots without raising many new ones, it makes Live Fast feel as if it’s coasting along on momentum — especially since most of those plots aren’t monumental. Gert’s death, for instance, deserves to be dealt with, but it’s spread over two storylines and is more interesting than anything else in the one it’s not featured in. The one that does spotlight Chase’s reaction to Gert’s death feels a little padded.

Runaways, v. 7: Live Fast cover There are some interesting parts: Xavin’s search for identity, Chase being a legal adult, etc. And there are throwaway moments like the pack of werewoofs that are amusing. Nico having a new boyfriend feels a little rushed, though. But even if the plots feel a little weak, this is still Brian K. Vaughan writing the characters he created, and that’s entertaining.

Live Fast is the final volume by Runaways co-creator Vaughan, which explains the tied-up plotlines. Vaughan wrote 42 issues of Runaways, and although its readership did not always match its quality, it’s had an excellent five year run. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon takes over next, then comes Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore. Both are established names, but with the departure of one of the book’s creator and a cliffhanger opening the team into the larger Marvel Universe, you have to wonder if the book’s going to lose its specialness.

Adrian Alphona — another co-creator who is leaving the title — does the art for the final three issues of this volume; his work is excellent, as always, and the gives the book the distinctive look that says “Runaways.” Mike Norton, who does the first three issues, has a smoother style, but it fits Alphona’s work without seeming like he’s trying copy. Also, the digest size doesn’t seem to muddy his art as much as it does Alphona’s.

Live Fast ends with a teaser for the next storyline, but it’s unclear whether that story is in v. 8 of Runaways or in the Civil War: Young Avengers / Runaways miniseries. The back cover seems to suggest the Young Avengers / Runaways story happens simultaneously with Live Fast, influencing the story there. Soon, those of us who wait for the trade will finally get to see whether new writer Whedon follows up on the Civil War angle.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (4 of 5)

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01 August 2008

Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius: Lab Brat

Collects: Son of a Genius, Everybody Loves Franklin, Super Summer Spectacular, Happy Franksgiving, Masked Marvel #1-2 (2006-7)

Released: January 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color digest / $7.99 / ISBN: 9780785123224

I feel kinda bad not recommending Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius: Lab Brat.

I really want to like Franklin. It’s written by Marc Sumerak and Chris Eliopoulos and drawn by Eliopoulos. Those guys are usually pretty good, but Franklin is …

Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius: Lab Brat coverWell, I hesitate to say “rip off” — certainly not as much of a swipe as those decals of Calvin whizzing on the automotive logo of your choice. It’s not like Bill Watterson should call his lawyers. But there’s definitely a Calvin and Hobbes dynamic, both in plot and art. (Man, does Franklin look like Calvin.) The stories are often greatly similar to Calvin’s sci-fi plots — where he “invents” a duplicator or transmogrifier and his invention / imagination gets out of hand. Because Franklin’s dad can actually invent those devices, the connection is obvious. Eliopoulos’s art is frighteningly similar to Watterson’s at times, although it’s usually more of a cross between Eliopoulos’s usual style and an overenthusiastic homage.

Franklin obviously plays the impulsive Calvin; his nanny / robot HERBIE is Hobbes, although because HERBIE is responsible for Franklin, there’s a slightly different relationship. Still, there are a considerable number of scenes with HERBIE standing aside, bemused at Franklin’s antics. Sumerak and Eliopoulos also inject the Marvel Universe into Calvin and Hobbes plots, but it doesn’t really feel as if the Marvel Universe adds much, except for a few Doombots.

Also included are a pair of Masked Marvel stories by Karl Kesel and David Hahn, about a comic book writer who’s secretly the Masked Marvel. Eminently missable page filler.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (2 of 5)

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