Sunday, October 13, 2019

Batman: Knightfall Part Two: Who Rules the Night

Title: Batman: Knightfall Part Two: Who Rules the Night 

ISBN: 1563891484
Price: $14.95
Publisher/Year: DC, 2000
Artist: Jim Aparo, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Kelley Jones, Graham Nolan
Writer: Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant
Collects: Batman #498-500, Detective Comics #664-666, Showcase `93 #7-8, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #16-18

Rating: 3/5

The second part of Knightfall collects the issues directly following the breaking of Batman and lead into Jean Paul Valley's transformation into a meaner, deadlier Bat. Think of this as Azrael: Year One, with Batman's successor, the former Azrael, taking on the mantle of the Bat.

They say power corrupts and this book proves it. Given the role of Batman, Jean-Paul quickly descends into vigilante madness. Using "The System," which was implanted into his mind by the Order of Saint Dumas, Jean-Paul can perform incredible physical feats and perform complex engineering tasks -- like designing a bat-suit that's more like battle armor. Bruce Wayne worked all his life to become Batman. Jean-Paul got brain-washed to earn his skills. Obviously this is a Batman that just won't do.

As Jean-Paul gets more aggressive, he and Robin split and we're all left hating the new Batman. The purpose, it seems, is to make us clamor and hope for a replacement that isn't an asshole. That's really not what I'd call top-notch writing. As the story plays out, jean-Paul is essentially building himself up through experience so he can face Bane and take him down. As he improves, so does the suit as "improvements" turn it into an ugly piece of work.

On the one hand, we get to see what life might be like with a different Batman, but it's all too obviously manipulated. We never really get a chance to see Jean-Paul as anything more than a jerk with a somewhat questionable background who has no business being Batman.

Had DC the courage, they would have let Dick Grayson come in. Imagine the conflict when Grayson (who would certainly do things a little different than Batman) holds his own as the Dark Knight only to have Wayne healthy and ready to return to the role. How can Dick not give up the suit, but then, what if the city is better for having him. What if Tim Drake prefers Grayson? Now instead of a somewhat forced conflict, you have some real drama that builds on the history of Batman.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Rose City Comic Con 2019 - My Experiences
September 13-15, 2019
Oregon Convention Center
Portland, Oregon

I have been attending this great event since its noble beginnings back in 2012 when it was in a small hall at the Lloyd Center Doubletree Hotel and there were over 4,000 people trying to fit in the venue. I remember pulling up to the hotel and there was a large line waiting to get in.

Since 2015, I have been fortunate enough to be accepted as a member of the press for RCCC. I have watched as this con grew from those original four-thousand to now an expected 75k people attending over the 3-days. The official attendance numbers over the years are as follows:
  • 2013 - 18,000
  • 2014 - 25,000
  • 2015 - 32,000
  • 2016 - 42,000
  • 2017 - 64,000 (first year as a 3-day event)
  • 2018 - 58,000
Rita Upton of {Chrysalis Rising Photographic Studio} and myself waiting to get in on day 1.
There have been a few changes this year over the previous. In the past 4 years I have been a member of the press, I have had the opportunity to get onto the show floor at least 30 minutes before it opened to the general public. This has always helped so that I can make some connections with artists and creators before it gets very busy. It's also helped to be able to get a lay-of-the-land without the thousands of other people. This year, we were told that we would only be allowed in during normal show hours. While this was a little upsetting, it didn't really mater to me until about 15 minutes after the show was to open when they finally let us in. While waiting, I had the chance to converse with a few other members of the press who also expressed their dislike for the change.

I would also like to point-out that when we received our badges, the experiences wasn't the same as years past. I remember speaking with Paula Brister directly before the event when I had questions. This year, my pre-show questions remained unanswered until I was face-to-face with Mikala Rempe (Senior Publicist, Linda Roth Associates). While she told me that the information about not being able to get into the show early was in one of her emails, I have scoured them and found nothing. This is the first time I could really feel that the event was less locally run and more corporately run.

But enough of that. Let's get into the show.

DAY 1-

The layout of the event was the same as the past years, which works very well for a good flow for people. Considering that Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, WA has boasted attendance numbers over 80k since 2015, I think that RCCC should seriously consider a larger venue within the next 5 years.

My first objective of day 1 was to get in line for "Weird Al" Yankovic. His first signing was to begin at 1:00pm or 1:15pm, and since we weren't let in until around 1:15pm, I felt the need to bypass everything to get to the media guest area, that was on the far side of the floor from where we were. Fortunately, I got a decent place in line and didn't have to wait for too long before Al showed-up. it was pretty great that Funko even sent a small crew down to present Al with the same Funko Pop Vinyl that I was about to ask him to sign for me. They also took my photo, which I asked them to email me a copy, but haven't seen or received it yet.

Now I'm not sure who was in charge of getting the guests to where they need in a timely manner, but from what I saw and heard from over the weekend is that they were lacking. There were several people commenting how they were rushed through a photo op because of timing or that one of the guests didn't arrive to their signing until very late because of a panel running long. I would hope that in the future, whoever is responsible for scheduling guests and managing their time will give a 30 minute gap (at least) between obligations so that there's enough time to get from one side of the event to another. More on this issue when I cover day 2.

Since creating Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer, I have always tried to include picking-up covers from contributing artists that are attending RCCC. This year was no different. My first visit was with one our newest contributors, Don Nguyen. Check-out Pablo the Gorilla.

Don Nguyen and I.

It's always great to meet-up with the different artist who have helped me make #CBC4C possible, and I love meeting new artists. My next visit was with Ron Randall. Please check-out Trekker.

Ron Randall with his latest donation to #CBC4C.

After meeting with Ron, I worked on acquiring a few personal autographs for my collection. I had brought things for Kelly Sue DeConnick, Adam Kubert and Terry and Rachel Dodson. Unfortunately, Kelly Sue and Adam weren't going to be at the show until Saturday and the Dodsons were only attending on Sunday. This makes me wish that this was published somewhere before the show. This would have saved me time packing books on Friday that I wouldn't be able to get signed until Saturday. More on this later.

One of my favorite things about going to RCCC is going to the I Like Comic booth because they always bring a load of trades at cheap prices. This is when I get to load-up on more trade to be able to read and review; and usually many that I would not have thought to purchase previously so as to expand my horizons. Unfortunately, they didn't bring any this year. They brought boxes of their back issues and many of their graded comics. I can fully appreciate the reasoning behind this because they have higher prices... and we do live in a capitalist society... I had to walk away from the area disappointed.

Another item on my list that I must do every event is stop off at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund booth. As much as I appreciate and support what they do, I love the selection of signed trades they have to offer. And when I saw The Walking Dead: Here's Negan signed by Charlie Adlard, I had to get a copy.

After checking-out a few other areas trying to find a good buy for trades, my body told me it was time to head home for the day. I stopped over at the RCCC merch area to pick-up some of the Rick and Morty blank covers for #CBC4C.

DAY 2-

Saturday's are always bigger at RCCC, and this day was no different. Even though we got up to the Convention Center plenty early, all the on-site parking had already been filled. We had to park over at the Moda Center, which is about a half mile away from the event... a walk that I was not planning on having this early in the day.

We were able to get in the press access area easily enough, and waited for the doors to open. My friend and I had guests to go get in line for, so we went our separate ways. He went to get ready for Billie Piper, while I went to queue for Wil Wheaton to get this Star Trek cover signed.

Art by Sydney Walton. Cover donated to #CBC4C.
 This is where the day started to go very negatively for me.

I found where Wil Wheaton's area was, and there was already a short line of about 12-15 people. For those who have attended comic cons in the past, you know that there is typically (what I have found common, at least) a taped path in a zig-zag formation to help form the queue. Even though it would seem common sense to follow the taped lines, there were some people in line behind me that thought the line was straight down the left side of the area. There wasn't a huge issue, it just made things a little frustrating when the line would occasionally progress forward.

Add to this frustration the fact that I was standing in line for over an hour, and at that point Wil was about 45 minutes late. This is when I learned from the henchman who was "working" the area that there would be no cash or credit sales at the table. The only way you could receive the autograph (that I had been waiting for) was to have pre-purchased. When I looked on my phone to make the purchase, it showed me that the only availability would have been in Group 3, and the time for that group was already 15 minutes past. On top of that, there is an 8% surcharge for purchasing online. The fact that I was only able to budget enough money for the actual autograph and now they were informing us about this kind of pissed me off, so I left the line. It didn't help that my good ankle was beginning to bother me from all the standing around for nothing. I would hope that for future events, changes like this would be posted where you could see them, preferably before getting in line.

After that fiasco, I needed to go sit for a while as the next item on my to-do list was getting autographs from Adam Kubert and Kelly Sue DeConnick, and they were both going to be at their respective areas at the same time. I also took some of this time to hit the Oni Press area as I have been interested in getting the Rick and Morty vs Dungeons and Dragons trade for a while. I also picked-up volume 1 of their regular series.

When I arrived at Adam Kubert's table, there was already a line waiting, and he wasn't scheduled to be there for another 10 minutes. So I queued. Again, I would like to point out that there are people in this world that don't understand the meaning of a line... and some that don't really care, it seems. In the time that it took for me to get in line and finally get to see Adam, there were more than one individual that was trying to circumvent the concept of a queue. My frustration was at a boiling point, but it is not my job, nor my responsibility, to teach people common courtesy in attending events of this nature. I abhor conflict, so I stew and write about it later.

In the line ahead of me was a man with a stroller. I thought nothing of it at first, except when I noticed he had 2 dogs in it. He also kept going through a large selection of comic he had, asking others in line if "he did the art for this". It was simple to see that this was not a fan of the work that Adam has put in over the past 30+ years, but rather someone looking to try and score some cash on his autograph.

When I got closer to the front of the line, that was when I overheard that Adam was charging $10 for autographs. This was counter to what I saw the day before at his table.

This changed things for me, but only a little since I had saved some extra money from not being able to get the autograph earlier from Wil Wheaton. When I got to Adam, I mentioned to him about my work with Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer, and he obviously wanted to help in some way. He asked if I was going to back on Sunday, but unfortunately that was not in the cards. He then offered a donation of some of the signed prints.

Original art donated by Mike Hatfield

Signed prints donated by Adam Kubert.

After this great meeting with Adam, my next intention was to visit with Kelly Sue. I have been collecting her autograph on her works for years, beginning with her run on the Dark Horse title Ghost. This is what brought her to my attention, and when I get a chance to see her again, I take the opportunity. Unfortunately for me, when I arrived at her table, there was a line about an hour deep and my ankle was not going to allow me to stand for that. Fortunately, since she and her husband are both Portlanders, I knew that there would probably be a good chance of being able to see her again in the near future.

Before going back to sit and rest, I stopped by the Hero Initiative booth. I always stop by to give me support for their cause. It it wasn't for them and the different 100 projects that they have done to raise money, I would not have been inspired to start Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer. After having my copy of the Walking Dead 100 Project for so long, and not being able to add any new signatures to it for quite some time, I thought I would pick-up a new book to start again.

While I was giving my body some rest, I thought I would tweet a photo of the prints that Adam Kubert had donated to #CBC4C and thank him publicly.

My tweet.
The response received from Adam. :)
Considering how poor the wifi signal is inside of the convention center, this made my day.

During the course of the remaining time at the event, my friends and I shared a wonderful experience from Wild Bill's Soda. I had seen them at past events, but dismissed them for one reason or another. I'm glad we got this mug/cup, and look forward to drinking from it again at future events.

I ended up paying more attention to people talking about their experiences for the rest of the event; good and poor. I have also noticed that there were many people venting their frustrations online after the event. We live and learn, and I hope that we can work to make RCCC 2020 even better. I look forward to being there myself.

To those who read this post, I would welcome you to share your personal experiences in the comments section. If you can provide some constructive criticism for things that may not have gone well for you, perhaps the management of Rose City will take notice and work to make improvements where they can.

Batman: Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat

Title: Batman: Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat

ISBN: 1563891425
Price: $14.95
Publisher/Year: DC, 2000
Artist: Jim Aparo, Jim Balent, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan
Writer: Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon
Collects: Batman #491-497, Detective Comics #659-663

Rating: 4/5

In the 90's, DC comics shocked the industry with two unthinkable events. Superman died and Batman was broken. Interestingly enough, both were defeated by brand new foes. But where Superman was felled by an unstoppable force who simply tore through the DCU, Batman was defeated in a much more convincing and painful manner.

Bane, who in this book is a brilliant strategist and evil bastard, sets loose all of Arkham Asylum, gives them weapons and lets them run wild. While Batman fights against utter chaos, Bane sits and waits, watching his prey. He waits until Batman is completely drained, until he can barely stand, until he no longer wants to stand. Then he strikes. The battle is one-sided. Batman has nothing left, he knows he is dead. But instead of being killed, Bane does one worse -- he breaks Batman's back and leaves him like waste.

Knightfall Part One collects the run of Batman and Detective comics that begin with the Arkham breakout and end with the broken bat. A story such as this certainly has a chance to become an epic, but in retrospect, Knightfall doesn't resonate years later.

There are some great things about Knightfall Part One. Bane's plan is brilliant and executed flawlessly. The Batman's own ego ends up being part of his downfall. Running a gauntlet through Arkham's worst can make for some inspiring reading, but oddly enough, the majority of enemies Batman faces most people have never heard of -- Zsasz. Amydala, Firefly? Sure, a few classic baddies show up, but a lot of screen time is devoted to bit players.

More frustrating than anything is the complete exclusion of Nightwing in any way. Batman plays it tough and says not to call on Dick Grayson, but it's impossible to believe the Grayson, having heard about the massive breakout, never shows up on his own or bothers to even call. No, that's not possible, because it would ruin the story, would destroy Bane's plan. Instead of incorporating Nightwing into the story and into Bane's plans, he's shut out. As a long-time Batman fan, I don't buy it. And when you're going to crack Batman's back, you really do need to cover all bases.

Despite some shortcomings, Knightfall Part One is an enjoyable read. However, you should be warned that this trade doesn't explain why Bane hates Batman nor does it show the events leading into Knightfall. These events are crucial, because when Arkham inmates are sprung, Batman is already weak from some previous incidents.

If you are eager to read some books that are still a big part of Batman continuity, Knightfall Part One is a good choice. And really, if you are any kind of Batman fan you owe it to yourself to see how Batman's will was broken (which is much more interesting than cracking his back). The despair in Batman's face and his crumpled body language before his battle with Bane makes this a rather unique instance in Batman's history -- the one time where he loses it all.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Superman: Earth One Vol. 2

Title: Superman: Earth One Vol. 2

ISBN: 9781401231965
Price: $22.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Shane Davis
Writer: J. Michael Stracynzsk

Rating: 4/5

Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 continues where the first volume left off; shedding light on the transition of Clark Kent into Superman.  The first volume re-imagined the creation of Superman in an updated world (as did Man of Steel No. 1 by John Byrne in 1986) and gave readers a look into the "why" he chose to don the symbolic "S" on his chest.  The second volume depicts his battle with Parasite, a serial-killing super-powered human that gains strength as he steals energy from humans, electrics, cars and even Superman himself.

Stracynzski does an excellent job of adding his own touch to the Superman franchise.  He has taken the Perry White character and developed him into a mentor for Clark Kent the journalist, as opposed to sticking to the tough boss we've seen in past comics.  He has also made the Superman story even sexier--enter Lisa Lasalle, Clark's redheaded next-door neighbor who is so hot she might have superpowers of her own.  While Lisa is Clark's love interest for this storyline, Lois Lane is also mentioned in the book--Lois is investigating Clark's past to uncover his secrets.

Shane Davis and Sandra Hope have phenomenally drawn this comic.  The book is edgy and colorful and both Parasite and Superman look tremendous--although, at times, Superman does look almost villainous with those red eyes.

The battle scenes in Earth One Volume 2 may seem short-lived and quick, but their point is made and drawn beautifully.  But, the main focus of the book is to explore Clark Kent's mind and give readers a look into his past and what went into his becoming Superman.  The book does this very well.  Readers are drawn in by Clark's human feelings, which were developed by his life in Smallville.

Stracynzski, Davis and Hope creatively modernized Superman like no other previous attempt has managed. I highly recommend this comic book to anyone who enjoyed "creation of" and "evolution of" superhero storylines in the past, as this one is right up there with the best and well-deserving of your hard-earned money.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol. 1

Title: Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol. 1

ISBN: 9781401271503
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: DC/IDW, 2017
Artist: Freddie E Williams II
Writer: James Tynion IV
Collects: Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1-6

Rating: 4/5

Instead of just trading on nostalgia or phoning it in, James Tynion IV takes the time to tell a genuinely interesting story.  The plot, at times boilerplate though it may be, actually unfolds at a believable pace. Things aren’t rushed, which makes the stakes feel real, and there’s enough action to punctuate the story without feeling derivative or tiresome.

Put simply, the story finds the Ninja Turtles in Gotham City, teleported there by the Shredder’s experimental dimensional transporter.  In a race to get home, and beat the Shredder there in the process, the Turtles team up with Batman to discover how they can get back.  There are several genuinely shocking twists along the way, not the least of which is when Shredder purposely destroys the portal that would take him home just so he can trap the Turtles in this dimension.  It was unexpected and great for that very reason, and it worked well with Tynion’s “ticking bomb” scenario: because mutagen doesn’t exist in Batman’s universe, the transformative ooze is slowly leaving the Turtles’ bodies.  Eventually, they’ll revert to being simple turtles… or worse.

The way the collection unfolds the story is interesting, in that it all flows as a single narrative.  There aren’t any chapter breaks or indications that an issue is ending or beginning, which makes for some seamless storytelling.  In that regard, I quite enjoyed it, as it felt like one whole story rather than six smaller chapters.  The price that was paid for that is a lack of credit pages, though, which are often just as much an artistic expression as the story itself.  It would have been nice if they had included the “unedited” title pages, even in the cover gallery at the end.

As good as the storytelling and plotting are, it’s the characters that truly shine.  No joke, this was the book that actually sold me on Tynion being the right man for the job on Detective Comics.  There’s tons of heart and humor, and the title characters feel like unique individuals.  Even secondary characters like Damian, Alfred, and Casey Jones make an impression in their small roles.

Some of the Turtles get more of a focus than the others, especially Michelangelo and Raphael.  Considering they are the emotional core of the group, that’s not really surprising; Mikey is each and every one of us, all wide-eyed and in awe of the world of Batman, and Raph is his usual tempestuous self.  Because of that, he’s central to the best scene in the book.

After storming off in a fit of rage, Raphael is intercepted by Batman.  Bruce takes Raph to Crime Alley, hoping to see that he truly empathizes with their situation.  It’s dialogue-heavy, yet there isn’t a single word that feels out of place.  When far too many people speak instead of listening, Batman reaches out to Raphael for understanding.  It’s a beautiful, quiet scene, and one that elevates the whole story in its effectiveness.

There needs to be some sort of technological expositor, so of course Donatello does the heavy lifting there.  As for Leonardo, he’s an unfortunate blank slate.  His stoic leadership isn’t much of a match for Batman’s more commanding personality, and he’s the first to feel the effects of the dissipating mutagen.  Leo does have the thankless role of the straight-laced leader, so his getting the short end of the stick isn’t exactly surprising, but disappointing just the same.

What’s nice about reading the series as a whole is seeing Freddie Williams’ pencils evolve and improve.  Strong as the storytelling was, the first issue was pretty rough from a visual standpoint: from the odd bodily proportions and the unclear perspectives, the look was just off.  Thankfully it got better as the story went along, to the point that it was genuinely good artwork overall.  I’m thinking animals and other beastial characters are his strong-suit, as the Turtles look consistently great.  Even from the start, when Batman looked a little weird, the Ninja Turtles were illustrated marvelously.  That skill pays off, too.

As bonkers as it gets at the end (and really, Batman’s Turtle-Bat armor still looks so incredibly silly), the book earns its ending.  Tynion took the time to tell the story he wanted, moving at a deliberate pace and focusing just as much on character as he did on the plot.  That makes the inevitable showdown between Batman and Shredder all the sweeter, with a brilliantly rendered fight that carries genuine weight.

Even veering into silliness, the story remains tonally consistent to the end.  Making a story where the Penguin turns into a literal penguin a genuinely moving experience is no mean feat, and suffice it to say this creative team accomplished that goal.

A massive cover gallery and sketchbook are included.  The gallery contains every cover and variant, along with some pencil drafts, and the sketchbook has some nice breakdowns of the character designs.  My personal favorite is the study page that shows the Turtles in proportion to Batman, along with detailed descriptions of the Turtles’ different head shapes.the cake.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness

Title: Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness

ISBN: 9780785127437
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel/Dynamite, 2007
Artist: Fabiano Neves
Writer: John Layman
Collects: Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

I thought Marvel Zombies was a trip—but this crossover is something else. For those who have not read the prior volumes, the basic rundown is in a parallel universe to the normal Marvel Universe, all our beloved Superheroes still exist…but as hunger-crazed denizens of the undead. Instead of using their superpowers to protect and serve, the zombies lured innocent victims into their chomping jaws, until they had exhausted the entire food supply on the planet, finally resorting to…other techniques to gain sustenance.

Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness picks up following Ash’s story arc in Army of Darkness #13. I have not had the pleasure of reading any of the Army of Darkness comics, but I didn’t find myself lost with this graphic novel–basically, if you have seen the Evil Dead and/or Army of Darkness films, you should be fine. Ashley Williams, boomstick and chainsaw wielding S-Mart clerk and deadite banisher, lands in a New York City dumpster. Immediately, he is harassed by a deadite baglady (yes, a deadite baglady) who warns Ash that Earth 2149 will soon be destroyed. Ash, showing the finesse and lady skills that only Ash can, responds by punching deadite bag lady in the face. Soon, however, Ash realizes that he should have listened to the bag lady, and tries to enlist the Avengers for help. Once again, Ash’s particular brand of communication skills prove wanting, and lead the Avengers to think he’s a complete nutjob. Soon after, however, chaos ensues when Ash turns out to be right–when he crash landed in the dumpster, a zombie version of The Sentry came with…and has been hard at work, making more deadite Avengers.

With superheroes zombified, Ash takes matters into his own hand and decides that finding the necronomicon is the only way to end the reign of deadites. He runs into a few familiar faces (Spidey, the Punisher), but ends up hooking up with Dazzler and Scarlet Witch (naturally) to find the nasty book of the dead. More chaos, universe bending/time travel occur, more superheroes make appearances, and best yet–fans of the Marvel Zombies franchise get some questions answered concerning Reed Richards and how the zombie infection took hold (there is some cool role reversal stuff going on with Doctor Doom), and the origin of the infection.

This is a complete win-win scenario–if you love Ash J. (G.) Williams, you will be pleased, and if you like some black comedy with your Marvel heroes, you’ll be pleased. Heck, if you just like zombies, you’ll be ecstatic. This crossover has everything a fan could want. The writing is hilarious and captures the perfect blend of slapstick comedy with wonderfully disgusting zombies going to town on their unlucky colleagues. Another cool plus–as with the first graphic novel, this release contains more zombified classic covers (Ash included, naturally).

I didn’t think there could be much topping the hilariousness that was Marvel Zombies, but this volume takes the cake.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Secret Invasion: Amazing Spider-Man

Title: Secret Invasion: Amazing Spider-Man

ISBN: 9780785132707
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009
Artist: Marco Santucci, Mike McKone
Writer: Brian Reed, Mark Guggenheim
Collects: Secret Invasion: Amazing Spider-Man #1-3, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1

Rating: 2.5/5

Tie-ins can be tricky things to write, because you have to tether your story into the core issues without stepping all over them. The tie-in Amazing Spider-Man issues during Civil War did a nice job of inserting Peter into the main story, replicating what parts they could of the main issues but also adding other layers of depth to Spidey's tale where Civil War chose to focus on other characters. It's a good blend and, together, the main Civil War story and the Amazing Spider-Man issues help tell a rounded story about the Web-Slinger. These issues are...not as good.

Written by Brian Reed with art by Marco Santucci, the first issue begins with a splash page explaining pretty much everyone the story’s going to follow: new red-headed hero Jackpot; a Super-Skrull with the combined powers of six of Spider-Man’s enemies (Rhino, Venom, Lizard, Electro, uhm…well, that’s honestly all I can tell from any of the images); Daily Bugle owner Dexter Bennett; Daily Bugle employees Robbie Robertson and Betty Brant; and police officer/Spider-hater/Peter's roomie Vin Gonzales.

The problems with the story begin immediately, and one caption on this page even acknowledges that fact. Highlighting Robbie Robertson, the caption claims he’s a “one-time street racer, which is not something anyone knew before today.” When a writer gives a character an ability they never possessed before because a situation demands someone have that specific ability, it’s called “plot convenience.” Acknowledging it as a plot convenience within the story doesn’t help make it any better, sorry.

The tale follows Jackpot confronting Dexter Bennett at the Daily Bugle offices because of libel printed against her in their paper, when a Skrull shows up disguised as Spider-Man looking for the actual Spider-Man. Not sure what the point of the disguise is, but he soon reveals himself as the Super Skrull and starts fighting Jackpot, screaming about wanting to know where Spidey is (hint: it’s the Savage Land, but nobody knows that). From there, Jackpt battles him and helps staff members of the Daily Bugle—Bennett, Joe Robertson, and Betty Brant—escape with Joe’s convenient driving skills. Oh, and Vin Gonzales joins them, seemingly out of nowhere.

At the same time, we’re treated to Harry Osborn and his girlfriend Lily Hollister, who themselves get attacked by various Skrulls masqueraded as Doctor Strange and Giant Man, except they’re still Skrulls, just dressed as superheroes. This part’s actually cool, in a visual sense, since it shows us what these aliens would look like if they combined with our favorite heroes. It’s a clever idea that, visually, looks really neat. Artist Leinil Francis Yu does a fantastic job crafting these Skrull/superhero mash-ups in the main Secret Invasion story, and the event is worth taking a look at if only for his illustrations and the big brouhaha at the end, which brings together all our favorite heroes against a Skrull army. This part of the story I do enjoy.

Stakes get raised as Harry and Lily are separated in an accident that Harry presumes has killed his girlfriend, and Jackpot is snatched away from the rest of Spidey’s supporting cast by the newest Goblin-foe, Menace. They battle in the air as the Super-Skrull nears the car. Now, this is one decent aspect of good writing in this miniature story arc: the Skrull believes one of these people is Spider-Man—and was initially drawn to the Bugle—because they all carry Spidey’s scent. This is a really good idea, considering they’ve all interacted with Peter Parker a lot—Betty is his friend, Bennet his former boss, Robby his editor, and Vin his roommate—and so of course all carry traces of him (which does make one question how well they all shower). Cool as this is, the Skrull can’t do anything about, as Jackpot kills two birds with one stone by directing Menace’s Goblin glider into the monster. Menace is gone, but the Skrull is left still standing. Another fight breaks out between the two, and Jackpot finally stops the rampaging monster by driving him into a freezer, where he’s turned into a popsicle.

Spidey finally shows up at the end of the story, to congratulate Jackpot for beating the Skrull. He also makes an appearance as Peter with his friends, where it turns out everyone’s okay, even Lily, who wasn’t actually killed. Now, one can argue this is Jackpot’s “baptism of fire” story, which if it is, then it’s fine. She does something heroic on her own and comes up with the win. Cool. However, it’s just told in a really clunky manner, with too much coincidence and forcing together of plot points and characters to feel coherent. I guess it just seems weird to hide this kind of story within the pages of a crossover tie-in, rather than in the main ASM line of stories itself. Granted, we’ve had one other tale focusing on her at the beginning of Brand New Day, but for a new character who’s supposed to be mysterious and is intended to make fans wonder “Is Mary Jane a superhero now?” it’s kinda sad she gets sidelined like this.

Jackpot returns for the next story in this volume, which is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, by Marc Guggenheim and Mike McKone. Until I started writing these blogs, I never realized how much Guggenheim did with these stories, and it almost disappoints me that he wasn’t handed the reins to write ASM as a solo act when the Brand New Day era was said and done. While I’ve read better writing in comics, he seems to be very passionate about Spidey and probably would’ve had some good stories to tell. This story is definitely better than the Secret Invasion tie-in, centering on Jackpot as she investigates a corrupt mogul named Walter Declun. Peter Parker, after an interview between Declun and Betty Brant, is suspicious of him too, but he’s even more suspicious of Jackpot, since a secret identity she gave him earlier, “Sara Ehret” turned out to be false. Breaking into her apartment, he comes into conflict with her before learning the truth: there is a Sara Ehret who got powers and should’ve been a hero, but decided not to be one, so the fake Jackpot bought her identity and started injecting herself with drugs to replicate her powers. Spidey, being the hero he is, stresses the dangers of drugs and delves into Declun, finding a connection between him and a supervillain named Blindside. He attacks the villain and is, ahem, blindsided by the guy and his supervillain girlfriend Commanda until Jackpot rescues him. Unfortunately, she’s touched and blinded by Blindside, and the chemicals he releases when his uses his power mix with the ones in her system and kill her. Cause that’s how science works, yep.

It’s not a terrible story. I really like the idea of someone wanting to be a hero so bad they purchase a heroic identity in order to do it, even though I can’t condone the drugs. And while I’m glad Jackpot’s story got fleshed out through the Secret Invasion issues and this Annual (considering how packed with subplots the regular ASM issues are already), the revelation of who she is and her sudden death seem quick. The story would have worked better if, somehow, it could have been included in the main tales. Admittedly, that stuff is packed to the brim already, but her inclusion in the stories more often (maybe further team-ups with Spidey) would have added a lot to her character. Granted, the story ends with Spidey giving the real Sara Ehret the opportunity to adopt this identity and become a hero on her own, which she will do, and that’s a great way to end it. However, it just seems that a story that began with “Hey, let’s have a red-headed hero who calls herself ‘Jackpot’ and really, really seems like Mary Jane with powers” turned into “Let’s have this hero turn out to be someone completely different because plot twists.” If Jackpot was more prominent in the Spider-Man world and didn’t just die like she did, it might have been a quality idea. Sadly, this seems like the real first misfire for the Web-Heads: a character with a lot of potential who doesn’t go anywhere, except for under the ground.