Marvel Reviews: Secret Empire #4, Darth Vader #1, The Defenders #1, and more…

Secret Empire #4

Writer: Nick Spencer

Artist: Leinil Francis Yu, Rod Reis

Nick Spencer continues Marvel’s big summer event with Secret Empire #4. This issue is short on shocking reveals but allows for some key character moments this series has sorely been lacking. We learn some of the mysterious motivations behind those who have chosen to be on Cap’s side, while the quest to obtain the Cosmic Cube fragments ends in a stalemate.

Picking up where we left off with issue three we see the Punisher has in fact expressed loyalties to Hydra, well more so to Captain America Steve Rogers. It is a move reminiscent of how Punisher was portrayed in Marvel’s biggest event ever in Civil War. Frank Castle’s apparent insane mind respects Steve Rogers above all others. It is a characterization that has precedent but still feels like a misrepresentation of The Punisher. Most others have put the pieces together to figure out this is not the same Steve Rogers and there is no reason to think Frank Castle would not do the same thing. Perhaps this is a storyline that will be further explored in other issues or tie-ins but as the bridging gap between issues this moment comes off as a cheap ploy.

The meat of this issue involves Steve Rogers and his Hydra Avengers and A.I. Tony Stark’s led insurgency facing off in territory ruled by Ultron, who currently believes he is actually Hank Pym. Wow there is a lot to unpack in that sentence as is the case with the current state of Marvel comics. Although their skirmish with one another lacks any major standout moment the interaction between Utron and these two groups was a major highlight.Whenever Nick Spencer gets the opportunity to write an Ant-Man character good things happen. In this issue, he got to write three of them.

It is a weird world when Ultron is a voice a reason but that occurs as he provides a commentary about the world. His words are very similar that what many fans have been saying, which is not the first time that has happened in a Nick Spencer book. Heroes fighting heroes has become the norm so all a villain like Ultron has to do is sit back and wait.

Similar to The Punisher it is also revealed why certain people like Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Thor Odinson have decided to side with Hydra Cap. For those hoping for a deeply seeded explanation be warned you are not getting it. All the explanation is given in quick throwaway lines. Personally, I have no issue with that as I do not want to spend the majority of an issue discovering the backstory of a demon possessing the mind of Scarlet Witch. Progression has been a problem enough without that type of added backstory.

It was a welcome change of pace to see one story line take up the majority of this issue. There is a check-in with Black Widow and her Champions along with whatever world the other Steve Rogers is in. This was easily the most self contained issue of Secret Empire thus far as both of those check-ins were brief and to the point.Here the story was all about Steve and Tony and their attempt to outsmart their old foe Ultron. That moment could have even been stronger if the Tony involved was not A.I. version of the character. What you are left with are two robots pretending to be people as they argue with a man whose mind has been warped by a magical cube. The beauty of comics I guess.

By the end, we are still left with a story that has refused to go anywhere. Even the characters in this story appear frustrated with how static the progression of this chase has become. All this work has go into making this story happen and now its not much more than a vision quest to find missing pieces of whatever the random object is now. Spencer is missing the better story that is starring him right in his face. You have an evil Steve Rogers fully controlling the majority of the United States and we have barely seen that story. Hopefully something changes because so far this has been a long way to go no where.


X-Men Gold #5

Writer: Marc Guggenheim

Artist: R. B. Silva

If you want an X-Men book to feel like an X-Men book having them fight Sentinels is a good place to start. This series has been checking those boxes of what X-Men fans like to see in their comics, like the team playing softball or dealing with unmitigated prejudice blowhards. Where it is lacking is finding a way to bridge all those pieces together. What you are left with is a very disjointed book that is getting by solely due to the strength of its characters.

Not helping matters is R. B. Silva’s art that lacks any energy and at times is downright lazy. There are many panels that are lacking any form of detail. A moment like the X-Men arriving at the scene to save the day should feel triumphant, but when you have a group of X-Men looking like unfinished create-a-character from a 16-bit video game that moment lands with a giant dud. As the book goes on the artwork gets better and when the action is moving Silva is at his best. Still, if Marvel wants to resurrect the X-Men they need to start putting better artists on these titles.

Most of this issue is one giant battle and chase scene as the X-Men track down and try to defeat this mysterious new Sentinel. Along the way, bits of story are revealed and it is discovered this sentinel is attacking any form of mutation from actual mutants to those who are just colorblind. Why this is happening and what the grand ramifications will be are still not known. Of course for the X-Men it is business as usual.

Where this book has succeeded from the beginning is with the portrayal of Kitty Pride. She makes a fascinating team leader and has grown a great deal in such a short time. Considering she is coming back from being away for some time it makes sense the focus will be on her. Hopefully, as this series continues other characters like Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus will have their moments as well.

X:Men Blue #5

Writer: Cullen Bunn

Artist: Julian Lopez Velarde

As someone who was hoping the Ultimate universe was done for good I am concerned about where this story may lead in the future. Marvel tends to take one step forward and two steps back so it would not surprise me if everything that happened as a result of Secret Wars will be undone anytime now. Although this may be the weakest issue of this series so far this still remains the best book of the X-Men relaunch.

What this book has and something like X-Men Gold is lacking is a better treatment of the team dynamic. Cullen Bunn is much better at finding a way to support all his characters so everyone gets their moment. Also the dynamic between these characters is key element to why this is such a joy to read. This are kids that look like and act like teenagers. Bunn can even make bad characters work. Jimmy Hudson, Wolverines alternate universe son, is a character most thought would never heard from again. With good reason as he is someone many major comic fans did not eve know existed. Bunn gets you to care about the character without resorting to making him just another stand in for the real Wolverine.

Julian Lopez Velarde’s art is a welcome improvement for what is happening in some of the X-Men titles. Even some of the awful costume designs of the X-Men characters look stylish with the way that he draws them. His paneling keeps the action flowing, and most importantly teenagers actually look like teenagers.

The only major stumble with this issue is with the character of Ms. Sinister and her plot. She solely served the purpose of exposition and her entire grand plan does little to excite for future issues. Considering she was revealing her plan to her adversary maybe there is more to it than we know, and if anything by the end we should at least understand why all these Ultimate Universe characters are suddenly appearing.

As a lifelong X-Men fan it is great getting excited for an X-Men title. Even if this group of time displaced X-Men find their way back home I hope the book follows their stories as Bunn has tap into something special here that has been missing in an X-Men book for some time.

All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #3

Writer: Gerry Duggan

Artist: Frazer Irving

After two issues of stirring adventure issue number three of All-New Guardians of the Galaxy goes in an entirely different direction. It is the type of issue that will catch many of guard with the drastic change in tone and story. What we have is one gigantic dream sequence with little lead in to what exactly is happening. Gerry Duggan is getting these characters back to their roots and making them more than a long combination of jokes and gags. Considering how close this is to the release of the most recent film it is surprising Marvel is giving him so much freedom. Here’s hoping he turns it into something special.

Most of this issue surrounds the character of Gamora as we get a brief rehash of her origin that leads into her current dreamlike state, and again Duggan sticks with the original comic origin rather than referencing the changes that occurred in the film universe. What exactly is happening is unclear but something is up with her as well as the universe. Any time we get an Adam Warlock reference something major is going down that is for sure.

Usually a drastic shift in art style would hurt a book but Frazer Irving’s pencils fit this story perfectly. You need a more atmospheric approach that is not closely tied to reality. His work sets the mood that something is not quite right as what is being witness may not be fully truthful. There is a consistent haze hovering over every event causing the mystery to only grow.

All-New Guardians of the Galaxy is shaping up to be a much better series than expected. Gerry Duggan is out to show the world that he can make these characters his own despite their worldwide popularity. This is a book that could easily be on cruise control. Where you tell a different version of the same story because as long as key characters get their moments most will walk away happy. Instead what we have is a book that is striving on its own merits reminding readers of the majesty of the Marvel cosmic universe.

Captain America: Sam Wilson #23

Writer: Nick Spencer

Artist: Joe Bennett

Since Secret Empire has kicked off this series has work as a type of therapy for the character of Sam Wilson. It is a place where he can work through his frustration and express his feelings over the insanity that has plagued him for some time. As a major event tie-in it does not add much to the overarching story. Instead it adds some character texture to the major elements going on in the main title.

What is unclear is where exactly in the Secret Empire timeline this fits in. As this issue appears to take place both before, after, and during the third installment in that series. Those who prefer their timelines to line up perfectly would surely become frustrated if they ever tried to fully plot out this story, which is typically the case for event storytelling.

Here Sam is still trying to sneak people over the border and this time he is providing an assist to a number of his past Avengers buddies. This leads to some fun monster action and a welcome appearance for everyone’s favorite underground dweller Mole Man. His interaction with Sam Wilson was the biggest highlight of this issue. Not only did it lead to a humorous Fargo reference it also shows how Sam has grown as a character beyond the point of many of his peers. He has his ear to the ground and better understand the way this new world functions.

By all means this is a general throwaway issue that will not have any lasting effects nor does anything major happen readers need to be aware. Despite that it is one of the more fulfilling books that has the Secret Empire insignia. By having the world go to hell the burden has been removed from Sam as well as this book. The focused as been more narrowed with a distinctive purpose, but based on the developments of Secret Empire that focus will widen as Sam gets tangled into the overall conflict with Hydra. Hopefully Nick Spencer takes the time to give Sam a purpose outside of reclaiming his Captain America moniker because if not  it would be a major step backwards for the character.


The Defenders #1

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Artist: David Marquez

Marvel can seemingly never get their timing right when it comes to the Netflix series obvious tie-ins. Recently both the Luke Cage and Jessica Jones solo series came out long after their Netflix shows debuted, and now Defenders is being released months before the show hits. Clearly Marvel is hoping this will allow for the first trade to be released right around the time people first start watching the show. Knowing Marvel’s uncanny knack for delays who knows if that will actually happen.

This Defender’s universe has slowly been building throughout this year. Daredevil and Jessica Jones had their books deep in their run and then this year we got the debuts of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Bullseye, Electra, Kingpin, and now finally Defenders. Not all these books will directly tie to one another but do help in shaping the more grounded street level side of the Marvel universe.

Tonally this has the most in common with Brian Michael Bendis’s current Jessica Jones series. It does not carry the mature label but it is delving into some more adult topics like drugs and gang level violence. Clearly, they were attempting to recapture much of what made the Netflix shwos such a popular and critical success.

As often is the case with number one issues for team books this is your standard version of getting the band back together. Diamondback is back from the dead and reeking havoc on the city streets. Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones have found out Diamondback has returned the hard way as each was attacked in broad daylight. Concerned with how daring these attacks are they all team up to track down Diamondback before he gets the chance to strike again.

There are certain characters Brian Michael Bendis was born to write and nearly all of them are in this series. I know many have grown tired of his style, and Marvel did put him on way too many series. His name may not mean what it once did for a book, but he has been kicking some major butt this past year. Jessica Jones and Iron Man have been two of Marvel’s best titles and this adds another to his growing list of great books. All these characters already have an established familiarity with one another so all Bendis had to do was restart that button. The book is not without its faults. Giving Diamondback a calling card of leaving diamonds on his victims is unnecessarily cheesy and out of place. There is a chance it is a move that has greater meaning, currently it feels like something a generic James Bond villain would do.

When David Marquez was told he was drawing this book Marvel defiantly advised him to be heavily influenced by the Netflix series. He avoids the sin of photo referencing as characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones resemble their current real life counterparts without looking like photo recreations. The character introductions were fantastic as each was given their own title card when they first appeared on screen. Maybe it is a little on the nose but it made the appearance of each character feel super important and I could see blowing up each of those panels to make some great looking posters.

Sometimes a book just feels right and that is the case with Defenders. My excitement for The Defenders Netflix series took a hit due to the failure of Iron Fist. Reading this though I can see the amazing potential a story can have when these characters come together. Hopefully whoever is making that show was given this comic with the straightforward direction of ‘Do This’, because this is the type of story that could work in any medium.


Doctor Strange #20

Writer: Jason Aaron

Artist: Chris Bachalo, Kevin Nowlan

Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s run on Doctor Strange is finally coming to an end. Oddly since issue twenty-one has already been released we have an idea of what the future holds for the character. Currently, in retrospective, it is safe to say this is one of the best runs, if not the best runs for the character. Chris Bachalo’s creative artistic style fits the world of Doctor Strange perfectly, and Jason Aaron’s vision for the character added a level of stakes that have never been there before.

Typically with a final issue, the norm is to reset every major change you set in place so the new team can come in fresh. That does not happen this issue as not only is the world still without magic, but Strange’s life is changed in a way that will have lasting effects. In a way, this could have been just as effective as the beginning of a run as the end of one. Leave it to a writer like Aaron to accomplish such a task.

Not many writers would choose to open the final issue of an epic run with an image of their titular hero as a cute puppy dog, but this is not just any creative team. Oddly Strange takes a backseat in this issue as his librarian apprentice takes center stage. We did get a welcome return to Weirldworld, which was an unexpected surprise. Much of Aaron’s run has been focused on the necessary sacrifices Doctor Strange has had to make and how close to the edge he would go in order to accomplish his goals. In this issue Strange is faced with his most difficult moral quandaries yet as he had to decide to either let someone die or ruin someone’s life forever.

As a writer, Aaron excels at placing his characters in no-win situations and actually following through with the consequences. In the world of comics, heroes use whatever deus ex machina they can in order to find a solution where everyone wins. With this series and especially this issue that is not the case. We got a Doctor Strange book without magic and somehow it ended up being one of the best superhero titles since its release. Doctor Strange tends to work best when he either has a special appearance or is part of a team, but Aaron and Bachalo took away his magic to look at the man behind the sorcery. Many writers have tried to write a Doctor Strange story but most have failed. Now let’s see if it can happen all over again.

Deadpool #32

Writer: Gerry Duggan

Artist: Matteo Lolli

Who would have thought the character that would benefit the most from Secret Empire would be the merc with a mouth Deadpool? After the last issue, Gerry Duggan showed that Wade Wilson was more than random reference humor and breaking the fourth wall. When the time is right he can actually give us a story with some feeling behind it.

Now with Hydra in full America take over mode Deadpool has found himself still on the side of his hero Captain America Steve Rogers, although he is having his doubts. This is demonstrated in his unwillingness to spout out Hydra’s most infamous rallying cry. Rogers has slated Deadpool as the man to take out those who have failed to fall in line. This time his focus is on everyone’s favorite New Warrior Speedball.

Last time Gerry Duggan limited the humor and gave us a more somber issue. Here much of that humor returns, but it is as effective as ever. Speedball and Deadpool’s little skirmish does not last long but is effective in providing some key laughs. Duggan does not fully forget what happen with Agent Coulson as it still weighs on Deadpool in a way that fits the character. Add to that the difficult his daughter is having in school and you have a Deadpool in major conflict with himself. We are getting a story that is more than Deadpool having fun shooting heroes. We are quickly finding out there are even lines a mercenary won’t cross.


Generation X #3

Writer: Christina Strain

Artist: Amilcar Pinna

As the X-Men are making a triumphant resurgence in the world of Marvel Generation X remains a series that is still trying to find itself. Christina Strain is finding a voice for many of his characters, but that voice is so unlikeable this book becomes hard to read. It is one thing to leave space open for growth it is another to design a group of characters that are at times utterly insufferable.

Not helping matters is Amilcar Pinna’s art that is both sloppy and just plain ugly. The way he renders faces makes nearly everyone look distorted and misshapen. When action does occur it lacks fluidity and excitement. This book is not a total loss as this unique group of characters could produce a good story. We get a small glimpse when a faceless mutant is attacked and a key student has to determine if it is the right place and time to actually use his powers. Those are the type of stories that can and have worked for a series like this, but without better characters and sharper art, I do not see this part of the resurrection lasting much longer.

Star Wars: Darth Vader #1

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Giuseppe Camuncoli

When the previous Darth Vader series ended it was somewhat of a surprise. Story wise it made sense however it is not common for Marvel to stop a series that is so finically successful. Of course, it was only a matter of time until it returned as now we are seeing a new team take over the character. Charles Soule brings the book back to the very beginning as this opens in the famous final moments of ‘Revenge of the Sith with everyone’s favorite ‘Noo!!” cry. Perhaps Soule wanted to start as a down note to lower expectations from the start.

Kieron Gillen made the previous series work by building a strong supporting class around Darth Vader. Vader may be the most famous villain in movie history, but in all honesty, he is not the most dynamic character in the world. The more you see of him the less effective he works as a character. He is like the shark in Jaws.  The possibility of his presence is enough to capture emotion and propel excitement. What Charles Soule is doing with this series is asking how exactly did he get to that point.

Here Vader does not even have his trusty lightsaber. Quickly though we see Vader does not need his toys to be a major threat. This leads to a first issue that works well as a piece of entertainment. Those who prefer their Vader being a badass will get their wish. Looking at the general story there is not much there. It was basically the first level of a video game that is specifically designed to allow you to learn the moves. Now that Soule has gotten some practice he can hopefully move to some more complex maneuvers in future issues.

Thankfully Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art stays away from the photo referencing that has plagued these Star Wars books in the past. His Emperor may look a little strange, but outside of that, it is a gorgeous looking book. The Star Wars comics look best when you have high-quality cartooning that is not attempting to simply recreate actors faces. By default, when Darth Vader is your main character you avoid that issue without much effort. We are finally finding out how Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The only question is if that is a story worth telling.



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Dan Clark

A fan of all things comics, movies, books, and whatever else I can find that pass the time. Twitter: @DXO_Dan Instagram: Comic_concierge

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