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X-Men #158
Marvel Comics
(w) Chuck Austen
(a) Salvador Larroca & Danny Miki
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

There's good news and bad news on the X-Men front this week. The good news is that it looks like Chuck Austen will be leaving the title with issue #170. High fives all around! Unfortunately, the bad news is that he still has 13 issues to go, and this is one of them.

Last issue, the X-Men discovered an unconscious Xorn, who until recently was nothing more than a false identity assumed by Magneto. Now that Magneto's dead, who could this imposter possibly be? I couldn't care less, because of all of Grant Morrison's creations, this is a character Austen never should have touched. Anyhow, the X-Men argue and whine at each other until they figure out that Xorn's star-for-a-brain has destroyed everything for miles around. First and foremost among these casualties was originality, evidenced by the arrival of the Chinese version of the X-Men, who spout dialogue along the lines of, "Fool! You are in China, and you are not Chinese!" Cue the big "misunderstanding" superhero team brawl, as I weep for Marvel's editorial standards.

I say it every month, but this title is bland, unoriginal and insulting. This used to be one of my favorite comics, and now it's nothing but clichés and bad dialogue. Also, I hate every single character in this book and wish they would die. So join us next month, as…ah, who cares.

Final Grade: D+

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The Amazing Spider-Man #508
Marvel Comics
(w) J. Michael Straczynski
(a) John Romita Jr.
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

It's over! After three long years of repetitive mystical storylines and "unstoppable" cosmic villains, J. Michael Straczynski's supernatural Spider-man story is finally over! And the final issue - the one where everything comes together - is completely underwhelming! And it features a completely unrelated 9/11 cover! Oh, boy!

For all his cryptic advice and mysterious warnings, the enigmatic Ezekiel turns out to be nothing more than a selfish asshole. It seems he made a bargain for his spider powers back in the day, and now that it's time to pay the piper, he wants Spider-man to take the fall. You are such a dick, Ezekiel. This forces Spidey to summon all of his strength and overcome all odds - you know, like he's done in the past half-dozen storylines. Except this time, he loses. Only when Ezekiel realizes that with great power comes great responsibility ™ does he grow a sack and take Spider-man's place, sacrificing his life to the dark forces that don't want him sticking to walls anymore.

That's it? A lot of you out there disagree with me about the path this title has taken ever since JMS came on board, but I remain convinced that there's nothing in the last 3 years that couldn't have been summed up in a 6-issue story arc. And after all the build-up, things end with a whimper. The events behind Spider-man's revamped origin are wisely left vague, but still, I'm glad this ordeal is finally behind us. Next month, it's a new story arc, featuring…the return of Gwen Stacy? Oy.

Final Grade: B-

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Spider-Man #3
Marvel Knights
(w) Mark Millar
(a) Terry Dodson
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

Mark Millar's new Spider-man title isn't exactly breaking any new ground. It's a 12-issue mini-series that pits our hero against an unseen criminal mastermind with a personal vendetta against the wall-crawler. While trying to solve a mystery that affects his loved ones, Spider-man is forced to go round after round against his entire rogues gallery in an all-out super-powered slug-fest. In other words, it's exactly like Hush, last year's semi-disappointing Batman mega-event.

Originality issues aside, this is still an entertaining read. Spidey's still on the trail of his Aunt May's kidnapper, and after going up against the Green Goblin and The Avengers, this issue's villain du jour is Electro. There are some red herrings and a little plot advancement thrown in, but mostly it's just a solid brawl. Millar amps up Electro's powers a bit, and gives his readers a good sense of the villain's shady desperation. Marvel has over-hyped this book in its usual fashion, claiming it's a bolder, more mature take on Spider-man. It's not. It's light-hearted super-hero fare as long as you don't take it too seriously, and there's nothing wrong with that. Next issue, it's the Vulture's turn to kick the crap out of Spider-man, so we should see more of the same. I plan on following this series to its conclusion, but I have to wonder if seeing Spider-man take a beating after each obligatory fight will lose its luster in the long run.

Final Grade: B+

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The Incredible Hulk #73
Marvel Comics
(w) Bruce Jones
(a) Mike Deodato Jr.
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

The verdict is in: this book is retarded.

In the last two issues of The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark have joined forces to create an Iron Man suit that can withstand gamma radiation (the same force that gave birth to The Hulk). Then there was something about Stark's colleague and lover who recently commit suicide, and a would-be assassin who turned out to be her brother. I might mention that their relationship was never explained in the actual story - it was brought up nonchalantly in the summary chapter of issue #72, which is just sloppy. Anyway, the assassin is never really given any character depth, but all of a sudden he's a major player. The same goes for the Playboy model that brings him food once he's captured, and unwittingly helps him escape - twice.

If all this sounds vague and stupid, it's because that's exactly what it is. Nothing in this book makes sense at all, and it's impossible to understand - much less relate to - the characters. Things just happen with little or no explanation or justification; the plotting is an absolute mess. For example, after bickering through an unsuccessful experiment, Stark frees the imprisoned Mr. Cummings so they can have a fist fight, while the bikini-clad Nicole unleashes her profound insights over a picnic with Dr. Banner. Things end as quickly as they begin, and then it's on to something else. The characters are all extremely unlikable, and their actions are just plain mystifying.

Next issue brings a merciful end to this disaster of a story arc, and after that, issue #75 promises to answer all of the questions that no one's been asking for at least 20 issues. That's where I'll be hopping off the Incredible Hulk conspiracy train, and I formally invite you to join me.

Final Grade: D

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B.P.R.D. - A Plague of Frogs #4
Dark Horse Comics
(W) Mike Mignola
(A) Guy Davis
FC, 32 pgs w/ ads $4.25 CAN / $2.99 US

It's the penultimate chapter of Plague of Frogs, and Mike Mignola seems to be spinning his wheels a bit. This Hellboy-related miniseries is still a good read, and I'm interested to see how the next and final issue ties everything together, but with that said, this installment feels strangely unnecessary.

In the first few pages, pyrokinetic Liz Sherman sets everything on fire because…well…that's what she does. We've seen it before, and it doesn't break any new ground here. From there, the story shifts to Abe Sapien, as he hunts down the man responsible the cult of mindless frog monsters. It turns out Rasputin - the mad Russian and Hellboy's arch-nemesis - is involved, and he wants revenge on Abe for his untimely death ten years ago.

I don't know. I realize that this is supposed to be a sequel to Seed of Destruction, but does that mean every character from that miniseries needs to turn up? This story was doing just fine without Rasputin, and his unexpected return is somehow disappointing - it makes the Hellboy universe feel a little too small. Beyond that, we really don't learn anything new in this issue - every revelation is either something we've seen before or something we already knew. There's some nice Lovecraftian imagery of other-worldly rituals, and these are the characters we know and love, written by the man who created them, but this issue feels like filler more than anything else. A step down from the previous issues, but the final verdict depends on next month's finale.

Final Grade: B

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Ultimate Fantastic Four #6
Marvel Comics
(w) Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar
(a) Adam Kubert
FC, 32 pages w/ads, $2.25 US / $3.25 CAN

In the final chapter of Fantastic, the origin story of the newer, younger, more "ultimate" Fantastic Four…nothing really happens. The team is brought together for the first time in the Mole Man's subterranean caverns, but since the big superhero fight took place last issue, the characters are left with little else to do but stand around and spew Bendis-style stuttered dialogue, making everyone sound just like Ultimate Spider-man.

It's a lackluster issue, as all of the plot points from the previous issues are repeated. Dr. Molekevic is crazy, and he's been spying on everyone. The teenaged quartet has strange, unexplained powers. And that's about it. After a brief scuffle between the Fantastic Four and a bunch of dirt monsters, the Mole Man falls into a hole, and the team returns to the surface. There are a few witty moments, but overall there's not much here. For the finale of an introductory story arc, it's pretty much a letdown, especially considering the previous five issues. Next issue, however, Bendis and Millar jump ship, as Warren Ellis takes over writing detail just in time for the introduction of Ultimate Dr. Doom. That's got potential written all over it, so I wouldn't count this title out just yet.

Final Grade: B-

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Fantastic Four #514
Marvel Comics
(w) Mark Waid and Karl Kesel
(a) Juan Vlasco
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

The Fantastic Four are still dealing with the fallout from their recent actions. Seems their fan base is none too keen on ill-advised hostile takeovers of other countries. On top of that, there's some movement on the super-villain front, as the Wingless Wizard has assembled some second-stringers - Hydro-man, Trapster and Salamandra - in an effort to reform the Frightful Four, and take down his arch enemies for good. His weapon of choice? Internet chat rooms. That's right - a blind date for The Human Torch could spell doom for the Fantastic Four. But I have a feeling things are going to work out just fine.

This title has certainly become silly as of late. Waid started out with some strong ideas, and the issues leading up and including the climactic battle with Dr. Doom were excellent. But since then, the team has gone to Heaven, met "God" and had a light-hearted team-up with Spider-man in a water park. It's harmless fluff aimed primarily at kids, but when I think of everything that fans did to keep Waid on this title, I can't help what wonder what the big deal is. In the end, this looks to be one more Marvel title I'll be crossing off my monthly list.

Final Grade: C


--Dave Brennan
[email protected]




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