Doctor Strange #5
Concluding the first story arc of this new series (except not really), this issue goes a little bit further into the nature of Stephen Strange’s powers and the price he has to pay to control them. We learn for a fact what we’ve always sort of suspected, which is that Strange’s assistant, Wong, is much more important in the Sorceror Supreme’s life than even he understands: Wong has assembled a number of Tibetan monks called “The Secret Disciples of Strange,” who voluntarily take on the incredible pain and other psychophysical repercussions of using magic in the extreme ways that Strange does – a kind of vicarious payment that allows Doctor Strange to carry on his duties without making his eyes bleed and his soul explode all the time. Even Strange himself doesn’t know that the Secret Disciples exist, believing only that Wong takes very good care of him when he gets a psychic hangover from too much Atlantean Black Magic or whatever.
That’s the interesting bit, but it’s also the part that doesn’t advance the storyline; and unfortunately, the part that does is much less compelling. Strange finally discovers the true nature of the threat to the multiverse’s magical beings, i.e. the Empirikul, scientistic fundamentalists who are dedicated to wiping out all magic. It’s an amazingly cool concept, but I’m afraid it’s been executed poorly (although I don’t think this is entirely writer Jason Aaron’s fault, as he’s probably being required to stretch out his stories out to five-issue arcs to fit into trade paperbacks when for everything that’s happened so far could have fit more comfortable into three or even two issues). Ultimately we don’t even get to see how Doctor Strange and the other major magic-users of the Marvel Universe defeat the Empirikul’s heralds, besides having the advantage of knowing that they’re coming, which presumably no one on any of the worlds that were destroyed had.
The Empirikul themselves are still to be dealt with – in the next probably-five-issue-story-arc – but while it could be a really fascinating concept to hash out (the relationship between the Empirikul’s anti-magic fantaticism and Doctor Strange’s devotion to it despite the hell is wreaks on his body and mind), and hopefully we’ll get to see some of that in the next arc, it feels like time was wasted in these past five issues that could have been devoted more to the narrative and philosophical implications of that conflict.
Where to Start: Doctor Strange #1 Time investment: 4 issues
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Howard the Duck #4
Howard continues his flight from the various cosmic entities who are now after him for his newly acquired status as a Living Nexus, capable of transporting others to any of the infinite realities out there in the multiverse. Obviously that’s a skill in pretty high demand, but unfortunately Howard isn’t enjoying being the duck that everyone in the universe seems to be trying to use for their own purposes. I mean, who would? As he points out in this issue, back on his home world, he’s just a normal guy. He hasn’t got any powers, he’s not a big deal in any way whatsoever. And yet since coming to this universe, he’s got wrapped up in all these adventures so much bigger than him, that he certainly never sought out. No wonder he’s getting paranoid about the universe being out to get him, which is one of the overriding themes of this series.
Thing is, now Howard actually does have powers. Not only is he a Living Nexus, but in this issue he ends up getting the Power Cosmic from Silver Surfer, who’s trying to protect him from a wannabe Herald of Galactus who’s trying to get on the Devourer of Worlds’ good side – and incidentally saving zillions of lives, although of course at the expense of Howard’s – by using him to help Galactus find universes full of uninhabited planets for him to munch on. This new character, Scout, is pretty interesting too: she learned about Galactus the last time he tried to eat the Earth (and was defeated – or rather rerouted – by the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and then, having got her hands on a piece of the Power Cosmic that Silver Surfer left lying around a while back, turned into a Galactus groupie-bordering-on-stalker. What kind of a person falls in love (or infatuation, possibly just platonic, but still) with an omnivorous (in the most literal sense possible) Cosmic Horror older than the universe itself and dedicated to the consumption of life to continue his own existence? It’s like the ultimate exemplification of the “He’s bad…but I can change him!” trope that we see everywhere from trashy romance novels (where it usually works) to actual real life (where it doesn’t). I hope we’ll get to learn more about Scout as this series goes on – or in some other series, since with the Power Cosmic she can pretty much go wherever she wants and do whatever she wants. I also want to see more of her because of her super rad flapper hairstyle. Get on it, Marvel!
Where to Start: Howard the Duck #1 Time investment: 3 issues
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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Amazing Adventures #7
I think this is my favourite issue of this series since the first one, and probably the reason is that the main story focuses mostly on the bad guys’ point of view rather than the Turtles’. Shredder’s hench-mutants, Fishface and Rahzar, and Bebop and Rocksteady, bitterly reminisce about their lives pre-mutation. Neither pair were exactly friends prior to their association – Xever (who became Fishface) was the terror of the South American underground, and Chris Bradford (who became Dogpound, then later Rahzar) was not only Shredder’s protégé and head of the Foot Clan in New York, but also a martial arts movie star and owner of a national string of dojos; Bebop (Anton Zeck) was a master thief, and Rocksteady (Ivan Steranko) an arms dealer for the Russian mafia – but following their getting mixed up with Shredder and the Foot (and especially the Turtles), and their mutations, their quality of life considerably declined. Xever and Bradford had been rivals for Shredder’s favour even before their mutation, but since Bebop and Rocksteady entered the fold, they’ve found themselves demoted even further to mere mooks. Similarly, Bebop and Rocksteady have yet to really prove their worth to Shredder. Also, one member of each pair really hates their mutant name – when Michelangelo starts calling you something, it tends to stick (maybe it’s part of his mutant powers!). Zeck and Xever are always yelling at people not to call them Bebop and Fishface, respectively; whereas Steranko thinks that Rocksteady is a pretty cool name, and at least Rahzar (by which Bradford became known after he was double mutated into some kind of skeleton wolf thing) is better than the previous name, Dogpound.
One of the real strengths of Nickelodeon’s take on the Turtles is showing the internal tensions and rivalries among otherwise affiliated groups like the Foot, but the whole thing about names is also being addressed; almost all of the names of this series’s new characters are really, really dumb, and I strongly suspect that it’s the toy company that has the Turtles license that’s been dictating to the show’s writers what these characters are going to be called. The writers know perfectly well that these names are terrible, but rather than pretending otherwise they incorporate it into the story: Mikey gives ridiculous names to mutants, and they hate them, but can’t get other people to stop using them, which makes them hate the Turtles even more. It works, and takes some of the sting out of how bad the names are for the audience, and making it an issue for the characters themselves even opens up possibilities for stories like the one in this issue. That’s good writing.
And the backup story in this issue is about why the Turtles don’t wear shoes. It’s also pretty funny and features some gloriously awful shoe puns.
Where to Start: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Amazing Adventures Volume 1 Time commitment: 6 issues
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Invader Zim #7
After returning from a weapons run, Zim and GIR are stranded on a lifeless planet – lifeless, that is, until a trail of ooze from their crashed Voot Cruiser kicks off some abiogenesis and accelerated evolution of a bunch of weird monsters and little creatures that think of Zim as their god. So it’s like that one episode of the Twilight Zone, or that Treehouse of Horror Simpsons episode that parodied it, or the best episode ever of Futurama that also followed this premise. Except that there’s (very deliberately) no philosophical point being made in this issue whatsoever. A civilization of tiny green squirmy things crop up, and Zim immediately claims them as his subjects because he is so much taller than they are (and in Irken society, as we all know, status is directly proportionate to height). They fall for this and devote themselves to carrying out his will for thousands of generations – his will mostly consisting of recovering his ship and defending him from these huge carnivorous mutated ladybugs.
This issue – the second without Jhonen Vasquez at the helm – wasn’t as good as the previous issue by KC Green, but it was still pretty funny, if shallow. The best bit maybe was the end, where the amoeba things have evolved to be way taller than Zim, and you expect them to realize that since they are now taller they shouldn’t be taking orders from him anymore, but instead they demand that Zim destroy them – because since Zim is so into destroying things, destruction must be the greatest thing ever and they want in on that. It was unexpected and very Zim, but as entertaining as this series has been I’d still like to see some mythology building and continuity rather than nothing but one-shot “monster of the week” episodes, if you will.
Where to Start: Invader Zim Volume 1 Time commitment: 6 issues
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Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #3
DC Comics / IDW Publishing
This series is so cool. Trapped in the DC Universe, Shredder uses The Penguin (whom he insists on repeatedly calling “Bird Man”)’s underworld connections to acquire the technology and personnel needed to build a dimensional portal generator and return to his own world – not just because he’s homesick, but so he can call in reinforcements and come back to conquer Gotham City and then Earth-0 itself (or whatever the current mainstream DC Universe Earth is called; it’s really hard to keep track with all the Infinite Crises and Multiverticles)!
By now the Turtles and Batman have ironed out their differences and apprehensions and realized that they’re on the same side after all. The understanding and respect that writer James Tynion IV has for these characters is a big part of what makes this team-up so great: watching Michelangelo gleefully riding Batman’s full-scale model Tyranosaurus (a memento of his early adventure on Dinosaur Island) or Donatello beholding the technological wonderland that is the Batcave and declaring “Is this what love feels like? I’m pretty sure this is what love feels like” is just as satisfying as seeing Batman get totally nonplussed when he realizes that not only have the Turtles used their ninja skills to follow him back to the Cave, but that Splinter figured out Batman’s secret identity like it ain’t even no thing.
Halfway through this series, the writer is doing some unexpected things – subverting the expectations we all have from seeing crossover event after crossover event, but not subverting them too much. In this issue not only do we see the portal generator completed and functional (which you wouldn’t normally get until issue 5 or even 6 in a 6-issue miniseries), but it also gets destroyed and the one guy who could rebuild it explodes. As I mentioned in my review of the previous issue, one of the dangers of this kind of story is that it always ends up as some variety of the “We Have To Get Back Home!” trope, which this also is, but at the mid-point of this story what we get is a bit surprising: not just Shredder’s initial plan to take over both worlds, but his contingency plan when it becomes clear that the Turtles are about to defeat him and take control of the portal: Shredder goes, basically, “screw it,” and blows the whole thing up, stranding the Turtles but also himself in the DC Universe, because he figures, hey, it’ll be way easier to take over this place than the world he came from originally, since in this world there’s no Krang, soon to be no Turtles (since the mutagen in their blood is counting down to becoming inert and turning them back into regular animals), and compared to where he comes from Gotham City’s criminal element is laughably easy to take control of – no word yet if Shredder knows about Superman, but he doesn’t consider Batman to be much of a threat, and it’s only at the end of this issue that he meets the man who refers to himself as Shredder’s “new partner,” namely Ra’s Al Ghul. Which, come on, awesome.
Again, this balance in Shredder’s character between single-minded determination to acquire power and a pragmatic willingness to sacrifice anything or anyone – including his own way home – in the pursuit of the overall goal shows a degree of insight into the character that’s surprising in a stunt like this crossover, you know what I mean? It’s ninja to the core, and I am just so giddily impressed with how much fun this series has been so far; fun but also, like, a really cool Turtles story and a really cool Batman story on its own merits at the same time, that fulfils the requirements of this kind of thing but isn’t simply connecting the dots or painting by numbers or any of the other metaphors for lazy storytelling that I probably already used in my reviews of previous issues. Seeing the Turtles and Batman together is rad in and of itself, but seeing the Turtles and Batman together in a comic that I’d enjoy reading even if I were not a huge fan of the Turtles or Batman? Priceless.
Where to Start: Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 Time investment: 2 issues
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