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Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #14-#15

USM14CoverBack to School is a weekly issue by issue look at the beloved superhero teen comic Ultimate Spider-ManIn this week’s installment, I will be covering Ultimate Spider-Man #14-15 (2001-2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Welcome to “Back to School”, a weekly column where I break down the fan favorite superhero series Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and several other artists that was a huge influence on the recent, critically acclaimed Spider-Man Homecoming film. When I first read Ultimate Spider-Man in 2010, I was a high schooler and just a couple years older than Peter Parker in the comic.  Almost seven years later, I’m really excited to see what my older, if not necessarily wiser self thinks about this teen soap opera meets longform superhero epic starring Peter Parker and later Miles Morales as Spider-Man. (Also, I’m heading to graduate school in the fall so this column title is semi-autobiographical in a way.)

I tried to write about Ultimate Spider-Man in its entirety 2013 for Sequart, a publisher of excellent books and documentaries on comics creators like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Chris Claremont. Unfortunately, I only made it to issue 13, a classic story where Peter Parker reveals his secret identity to Mary Jane Watson. This is why I’m starting “Back to School” with issue 14, which kicks off the “Double Trouble” storyline, not issue 1.

And who really wants a rehash of a rehash of Spider-Man’s origin…

Ultimate Spider-Man #14 kicks off with Peter Parker’s civics (I guess) teacher giving them the on the nose assignment of delivering an oral report as either a real life superhero or one of their own creation. It cuts to Otto Octavius, who we find out is being held in a secret installment, and has eight arms of an exoskeleton he patented grafted to his body. He was injured in the Green Goblin’s attack on Oscorp several issues ago. Back at Midtown High, it’s pep rally time, and no one is invested. Instead, Peter has a discussion about superheroes with Mary Jane, Kong, Flash Thompson, and Liz Allen, who doesn’t like mutants because of something with her uncle. Then, Gwen Stacy makes her first appearance and shows them up in intensity and knowledge. In the super secret lab, Dr. Octopus realizes that the scientists who were supposedly saving his life were actually experimenting on him with his own tech, and he goes on a violent rampage. The issue closes with Kong laying on his bed and putting together the pieces that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

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Ultimate Spider-Man #15 begins with a rather hackneyed take on a slasher movie when Dr. Octopus kills a sweaty, blonde woman, who is living in his old apartment. Then, it’s back to school where Kong is playing Agent Scully and feeding Flash and Liz evidence that Peter Parker is Spider-Man like the fact that he was bitten by a spider, randomly became good at basketball, and beat Kong and Flash up. However, Peter’s cover remains intact when he takes a literal kick to his ass from Kong instead of dodging it with his powers. Gwen Stacy won’t stand for this and ends up threatening to stab Kong with a switchblade that falls out of her pocket. This leads to the principal calling her dad John Stacy, who is the primary detective investigating the previously mentioned blonde woman’s murder. There is also a Daily Bugle subplot where Spider-Man pretends to attack J. Jonah Jameson, and he faints. On a more serious note, Ben Urich is writing a story about the murders and thinks Dr. Octopus is a suspect because he was the previous owner of the apartment and also didn’t actually die in the attack on Oscorp. Jameson is skeptical, and the issue ends with Doc Ock ready to go on a rampage. Uh oh!

I could say this about most issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, which is a predominantly character driven book except when Bagley drew a whole issue of Spidey fighting Venom because symbiote power, but he and Bendis do a great job of making the non Mary Jane supporting cast interesting. First up is Kong, who gets to be the page end cliffhanger despite not being a nefarious supervillain.

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Kong is pretty clueless and insensitive towards both Peter Parker and mutants. He can’t really process their existence and thinks something should be “done” to them. Bagley shows this by giving him awkward facial expressions and gestures during the conversation about the superhero assignment unlike Peter’s determination to defend mutants and superbeings. However, like Shakespeare’s Fool, he has the wisdom and insight to see the rise of superheroes as a harbinger of the apocalypse, which ended up happening in the terrible 2009 Ultimatum storyline.

This insight extends to Kong piecing together the events of the past 14 issues and realizing that Peter Parker is Spider-Man in a great flashback sequence that looks like an old VHS tape thanks to the colorists at Transparency Digital. Memories are like a movie in my head, and Bagley and the colorist transpose this feeling to the comic. The most obvious clue is Peter Parker going from Carlton Banks to LeBron James in basketball skills as well as the broken desks and the fact that he flat out broke Flash’s hand. Even though Liz and Flash don’t believe him, kudos to the big guy for his common sense and deductive skills. And of course, he has this epiphany while a copy of Maxim magazine is lying across his chest.

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Mark Bagley gives Gwen Stacy quite the intro in Ultimate Spider-Man when she jumps into Peter and his frenemies’ discussion about superheroes and mutants with a thoughtful monologue about how they’re like the meteor, and we’re like the dinosaur. (This would later be disproven, oops.) She literally fills the page. But Gwen’s not a doomsayer and thinks that the dawn of superheroes will motivate human beings to be the best at whatever they’re good at and not be lazy bums. “Everyone has superpowers” is her thesis statement.

This well-articulated theory of superheroes sounds a lot like Grant Morrison, especially his then-contemporary work on JLA and New X-Men. The mutant as meteor metaphor seems ripped from Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “E is for Extinction” storyline of New X-Men where it’s revealed that humans are going extinct and will be replaced by homo superior aka mutants. The whole everybody having superpowers spiel reminded me of the ending of Grant Morrison’s JLA where the entire population of Earth gets special abilities to fight the villainous, Mageddon. It’s also a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in his Supergods aka the best self-help book ever written disguised as a memoir/history of superhero comics.

Sounding like someone who has read Grant Morrison comics instantly makes Gwen Stacy the coolest character in Peter Parker’s supporting cast. She isn’t the shy, blushing, headband wearing girl from the Stan Lee and John Romita Sr, but immediately plays an active role in the school plotlines, including standing up for Peter against bullies. Bendis and Bagley also introduce an interesting family dynamic between her and her policeman father John Stacy, who had previously appeared in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man. The combo of a bright, yet rebellious punk rock daughter and hard nosed single dad cop father could make an interesting comic in and of itself.

John Stacy is the connective tissue between the Dr. Octopus murders and the high school drama plots, but has quite the personality just like his daughter, Gwen. He tells off Midtown High’s principal on the phone when their tone gets “accusatory” and points out the ridiculousness of her being sent home when he’s at work and can’t discipline or talk to her. Bagley draws John as a strong jawed, go-getter homicide detective like Jimmy from The Wire, but he’s a little exasperated when he gets his case interrupted by a call from the school and the press.

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Yes, John Stacy and ace reporter Ben Urich, who recently wrote an article that caused the Kingpin to go into exile, face off in Ultimate Spider-Man #15, and it’s delicious. Ben is trying to do a story for the Daily Bugle on the murder, but John doesn’t serve up any quotes, only sass. He tells Ben off for the Kingpin article and said that “300 goombahs” are running loose and wreaking havoc around New York. It goes back to the old question of if organized crime is better than chaotic, disorganize crime in the scheme of things. These one-liners establish John as a hard edged, seasoned police detective who isn’t idealistic, and just does his job well. He’s the kind of guy who would call open murder cases “red balls” and easily solved ones “dunkers”. (Oops, most of my knowledge of homicide detectives comes from the works of David Simon.) The inclusion of John and Daily Bugle figures, like Ben Urich and J. Jonah Jameson in “Double Trouble”, show that Brian Michael Bendis hasn’t abandoned his roots in the crime genre even though Ultimate Spider-Man is a bright, splashy superhero comic.

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For the “origin” of Dr. Octopus, Bendis and Bagley dip into the horror genre to make him a slightly sympathetic figure.  There’s a little bit of Frankenstein’s Monster and a little bit of Cronenberg body horror when he first pops up in Ultimate Spider-Man #14. Bagley makes sure you can see some of his innards and his almost blind eyes from the optic nerve trauma he suffered in the Green Goblin’s attack. The reveal of the arms show that Octavius isn’t a patient recovering in a hospital, but an experiment to be poked, prodded, made fun of, and eventually profited on. He’s a brilliant scientist, who became a monster. And this monstrousness is being exploited for gain and not being cured or treated at all. Dr. Octopus is a killer, but his first murders are kind of justified revenge killings of people that treated him like a lab rat and not a human being beginning by calling him Dr. Octopus and not by his real name.

On the flip side, Ultimate Spider-Man #15 uses the horror genre in a pretty cheap way. There’s an opening scene where Dr. Octopus slaughters an unnamed, attractive blonde woman, who is exercising. There’s tension or fright to the scene because it’s one we’ve seen hundreds of times. Bendis and Bagley are trying to do the first ten minutes of Scream with a Spider-Man villain, but it feels more like one of those slasher flicks that is packaged onto those “10 Great Horror Movies” DVDs and sold for $5 at your local Walmart. The scene is a bad one, but it also makes Octavius less of a sympathetic villain and more of a serial killer with an octopus gimmick, which is selling him very short.

In the first couple issues of “Double Trouble”, Brian Michael Bendis exhibits some cleverness and turns a dangling plot thread and a possible plot hole into, well, a plot. Otto Octavius popped up in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man as one of Norman Osborn’s scientists, and he gets brought back in the nick of time as a scientist/villain, who was forcibly experimented on instead of Osborn, who took on the Oz formula (Super soldier serum) of his own free will. The U.S. government in the Ultimate Universe is pretty shady, and reporter Ben Urich knows this when he uses anonymous sources to find out that Octavius was held in a black site called (*groan*) the Octagon. These places are yet another reason why Peter Parker has only told Mary Jane about his secret identity because the government would likely run experiments on him like they did with Otto Octavius or force him to join the Ultimates and use his powers to help fight the George W. Bush era War on Terror.

The connection to Oscorp is also an organic way to create a villain instead of just having a random mad scientist with octopus arms show up. Peter and Octavius also met when Harry brought him over for a tour of Oscorp so there’s a personal dimension to be exploited when they square off later.

I already mentioned that Kong, who is the not the smartest student at Midtown High, realized that Peter Parker was Spider-Man all by himself. This is Brian Michael Bendis sort of covering his own ass because Peter Parker has done a terrible job keeping his secret identity under wraps, especially with the whole miraculously being good basketball thing. But he plugs the plot hole in one fell swoop when Peter takes a drop kick from Kong straight in his behind complete with painful facial expressions and speed lines from Mark Bagley and Art Thibert. It’s also a growing moment for him as he gets hurt for his secret identity and sets up Gwen Stacy as an anti-bullying badass. This one kick covers up a multitude of “sins” in the annoying Cinema Sins sense…

In Ultimate Spider-Man #14-15, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley draw attention to the varied supporting cast of Peter Parker and also incorporate the crime and horror genres into their teen superhero/romance saga. It’s a hell of the way to start the “Double Trouble” arc, and they make a hallway drop kick more suspenseful than a man with mechanical octopus arms wrecking a random apartment.

Feeling the Pulse #12-13

portrait_incredibleFeeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.  In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #12-13 (2005-2006) written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos with colors from Matt Hollingsworth.

In The Pulse #12-13, which concludes the three part “Fear” storyline, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos continue to have a two plot structure with Ben Urich investigating and writing a story on D-Man while Jessica Jones goes into labor, gets discriminated against by an anti-mutant hospital administrator, but gets swooped up in the nick of time by the New Avengers. (Luke being on the team is super helpful.) Getting Gaydos and colorist Matt Hollingsworth back for this pivotal moment in Jessica Jones’ life is a true coup as her raw emotions are on display while they show just how much Luke cares for her as he runs through the streets of New York (breaking up a drug deal along the way) and leaps into a Quinjet just to be with his girlfriend, who will hopefully become his wife.

The Pulse #12 opens frantically with Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel at this time) flying Jessica to the nearest hospital where she is peppered with questions about her mutant and radioactive status. This is while Luke Cage is stuck in the New York traffic and can’t catch a cab so Wasp does the old “Avengers Assemble” thing so he can be with Jessica. While this is happening, Ben Urich continues his titanic struggle with J. Jonah Jameson, who finds D-Man’s name and backstory to be amusing, but quickly backpedals when he thinks that this story is a cover for trying to keep Daredevil safe because he is currently being investigated by the feds after his secret identity is outed in Daredevil. Urich does end up doing the story, finds out that D-Man (whose real name is Dennis Dunphy) has been arrested for vagrancy multiple times, and ends up meeting him in the sewers after one of the shopkeepers he’s robbed tells him that he uses it for travel. Back at the hospital, an administrator basically says that Jessica can’t deliver her mutant abomination under her care, but the New Avengers show up in the nick of time and take her to the best doctor around, Stephen Strange.

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The Pulse #13 deals with the birth of Jessica and Luke’s daughter as well as Ben Urich interviewing and helping D-Man. Bendis and Gaydos show that Jessica and Luke are non-conventional parents when Jessica keeps swearing and also makes a leaning on the fourth wall reference to Alias when she tells Dr. Strange about her mouth “a few years ago” while Luke asks for Public Enemy and not soft music to be played in the delivery room. And then the press decides to show up overwhelming Dr. Strange’s valet, Wong so Captain America takes over the PR duties and lets Kat Farrell come through because Jessica signed an exclusive with the Daily Bugle to cover the birth of her child. However, Jessica refuses to talk to Kat and let the Bugle have the story because they lambasted Luke Cage in the paper back in New Avengers #15.

Speaking of the press, D-Man takes Ben Urich to his sewer home after complimenting his news stories about Daredevil and offering him a stale cupcake. There is some voiceover narration (Ben typing the story) about D-Man refusing to join the Avengers to be a hero for the homeless, but now he is just alone. Ben confronts him about stealing the jewelry, and it is clear that D-Man isn’t in his right mind as he thinks that the pieces of jewelry are Infinity Gems. And finally Jessica has her baby while J. Jonah Jameson is furious that he got scooped by the Daily Globe and printed a story about D-Man instead. Urich says he shouldn’t have disrespected her, and it flashes back to Urich getting in contact with Daredevil, who gets D-Man the help he needs. The issue closes with Jessica and Luke holding their baby when Luke proposes to her.

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The D-Man and Jessica giving birth plotlines in The Pulse #12-#13 aren’t super suspenseful, but they tie together nicely through the shared theme of empathy or the lack of it. Whether they are homeless petty thieves or celebrities (Superhero news stories are the celebrity gossip of the Marvel Universe.), these superpowered beings are human beings, who just want to make ends meet or start a family while helping others. Ben Urich chooses to listen to D-Man’s problems and not just use him for a story about a fallen story or as a joke, finds out that he respects Daredevil tremendously, and uses his connection with Daredevil to find him some kind of help or shelter.

And I don’t recall reading any of D-Man’s appearances in the past ten years, but currently, he is an important supporting character in Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Sam Wilson so perhaps Urich did some good. His actions are one final example of his belief that superheroes (even masked ones) are a force for good in society that is the complete opposite of his editor J. Jonah Jameson and fellow Pulse reporter Kat Farrell’s view that they’re good front page fodder to sell newspapers. Jessica Jones drives this point home more emphatically when she yells on the phone that Jameson is a mustache sporting Nazi while giving birth. Ouch, indeed.

On the other hand, with Jessica’s pregnancy, The Pulse #12-13 is a true example of superheroes cooperating to help one of their own even if they have different backgrounds from the retired Avenger Janet Van Dyne making the initial call to Carol Danvers being an amazing friend and holding Jessica’s hand and literally carrying her through this ordeal and finally to the New Avengers and Doctor Strange. Each New Avenger or guest hero (With the exception of Spider-Woman even though she and Jessica teamed up back in Alias.) has a great moment or line in support of Jessica.

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Carol’s shining moment comes straight out of the gates as she flies between New York skyscrapers and ensures Jessica checks into a hospital as quickly as possible and is followed by Wasp saying “Avengers assemble” as she immediately goes from chit chatting about fashion with Luke Cage to getting him a ride to the hospital. Wolverine gets to basically tell the anti-mutant hospital administrator to go to hell, Spider-Man makes awkward, badly timed jokes about the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s kids, and Iron Man flies the Quinjet moving Jessica from a hospital run by a bigot to the Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange. And Captain America pays forward Jessica’s saving of his reputation back in the first arc of Alias by being a literal shield for the hordes of press surrounding Dr. Strange’s house.

Cap gives a measured speech as Gaydos zooms into the star on his chest showing that he’s a champion for his fellow heroes whether they’re facing aliens, mind control, or journalists. Matt Hollingsworth’s color palette is usually pretty faded on Alias, but he makes the panels just a tad brighter when the various superheroes show up even Daredevil, whose red acts as a light to lead D-Man out of squalor and into a better life. Hollingsworth’s colors also stand out when Luke Cage is running to be with Jessica as she’s in labor and the street around him is all yellow because of the taxi cabs. Yellow has been Luke’s color since his Power Man days in the 1970s, and the use of color in both his shirt and surroundings shows his determination to be with the women he loves as she brings his daughter into the world. Their relationship continues to be the center of the story as he helps her get through the pains of labor holding his hand as she starts her contractions. (It was vice versa, but the unbreakable skin did more harm than good.)

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As I mentioned last week, Michael Gaydos’ return was super timely as he draw the dark corridors of the New York City sewers as well as the emotions that are running high as Jessica Jones has her daughter. Most of his facial expressions are pained as Jessica goes into labor while being hounded by doctors and various hospital people, who are asking about her mutant status, her superpowers, and kick Carol Danvers out because of her energy based powers. However, it gets better in The Pulse #13 when Carol, Luke, and Cap are there to soothe her as the pain increases, and the censored profanity increases. Even though he’s not allowed to show the actual words because this is a comic set in the mainstream Marvel universe, Bendis uses profanity in a manner similar to Alias to show Jessica’s raw feelings as she is about to experience a life changing moment. And Gaydos’ depiction of Jessica with her newborn daughter is quite touching as he goes away from the grid filled double page spreads that he uses to show the verbal tete a tetes that Jessica, Ben Urich, J. Jonah Jameson, and other characters have engaged in throughout Alias and The Pulse to back to back full page spreads. Also, the final page with Luke and Jessica is pure bliss with well-earned smiles everywhere. Of course, we don’t hear her answer to his proposal because Bendis has to leave one thread untied for next issue’s finale. (Jessica’s reaction to the proposal is priceless and ambiguous though.)

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J. Jonah Jameson detests it and mentions taking legal action while continuing to denigrate Ben Urich as less than a reporter, but the D-Man story that Ben Urich writes is what Jameson had in mind for The Pulse when he first came up with the idea. These articles that are in-depth, analysis pieces on superheroes that every day people can connect to, like human interest stories with a side of colorful costumes and punching. And this is the kind of story that Urich excels at writing even though he’s best known for investigative journalism about the Kingpin and Norman Osborn as D-Man talks about the “layers” he gave Daredevil, and how his writing style brought the Man without Fear close to a struggling superhero and wrestler, like him.

I’m not saying that Ben Urich is a self-insert character for Brian Michael Bendis, but it is handy to have a writer character in your story to  expound your ideas on a certain topic: superheroes in this case. In his superhero comics from Ultimate Spider-Man to Daredevil, Avengers, and way too many event miniseries, Bendis finds a kind of middle ground between deconstruction and reconstruction. He can write a character like Jessica Jones, who rejects the superhero life as painting too much in broad strokes and not looking at the big picture, or he can write Ultimate Peter Parker, who is the embodiment of heroism mingled with teen angst and optimism. Bendis’ best work and characterization has definitely come with the solo street level heroes, like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and he does better at telling dialogue driven stories focusing on the human side heroes with splashes of action even though he has a couple of cool concepts in him, like House of M alternate reality, Nick Fury’s Secret War, and bringing the original 1960s X-Men to the current time period.

The Pulse #12-13 has plenty of emotional payoff for the characters of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage as they overcome discrimination and just the usual fears of bringing a child into the world with the help of their superhero friends. And in the B-plot, Bendis and Gaydos continue to show why Ben Urich is one of the most underappreciated supporting characters in the Marvel Universe as he uses his skills as journalism to not only tell the truth about the world around him, but also to create empathy for his fellow human beings even smelly, homeless Z-list superhero dropouts, who happen to be people with dreams, aspirations, and ideals too.

Feeling the Pulse #10-11

The_Pulse_Vol_1_11Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.  In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #10-11 (2005) written by Brian Michael Bendis with issue 10 pencilled by Michael Lark, inked by Stefano Gaudiano, and colored by Pete Pantazis and issue 11 drawn by Michael Gaydos with colors from Matt Hollingsworth.

In The Pulse #10, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano tie the comic into yet another Marvel “event” and instead of the relatively self-contained Secret War, it’s House of M, a comic which really kickstarted the decade plus Marvel tradition of having a summer event that ties into virtually their entire publishing line. To jog everyone’s memory (Thank goodness for recap pages!), Scarlet Witch lost control of her reality warping powers in the famous or infamous “Avengers Disassembled” arc (also written by Bendis) and killed the Avengers Hawkeye, Ant-Man (Scott Lang), and her ex-husband Vision. After this, she flees to her father Magneto while Professor X gathers the X-Men (from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run) and New Avengers to decide what to do with her and hopefully not killer. But this confrontation causes her powers to go into overdrive and create a whole new reality called House of M where mutants led by Magneto and his children rule the world, and humans are hated and feared. Wolverine and Layla Miller (A smart teenage mutant from Peter David’s X-Factor) remember the pre-House of M reality, and this leads to complications when Layla reminds the still living Hawkeye that he died in another reality.

And Hawkeye freaking out leads directly into The Pulse #10, which doesn’t feature Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, but focuses on Ben Urich, Kat Farrell, and the Daily Bugle, whose editor-in-chief is somehow Mystique. The issue opens with Kat Farrell investigating an explosion of a Stark Industries building, which Bishop, a bodyguard/PR guy for the House of Magnus, blames on a human using mutant growth hormone when Kat spots kinetic energy absorbing mutant Sebastian Shaw and members of SHIELD on the scene. Thinking she has a scoop, she brings it up at a newspaper meeting, but is deflected by her editor-in-chief, who is waiting for SHIELD to make a comment. Then, Kat gives Mystique a piece of her mind and has a heart to heart with Ben Urich about working within the system and occasionally breaking a big story. And while working late, the story happens as Hawkeye bursts in and starts to realize that there were two realities when a newspaper headline about his death turns to something about the House of Magnus memorial. And when he tries to show Kat Avengers Mansion, it turns out to be a memorial to mutants killed by Sentinels. Reality is flimsy, and it freaks him out. And in his freakout, he destroys the Sentinel memorial with exploding arrows, asks Kat to tell his story, and runs off. The issue kind of ends with a note to follow the rest of Hawkeye’s story in House of M proper. Sometimes event tie-ins can be really annoying.

The Pulse #11 takes us back to the friendly haunts of Earth-616 as well as reuniting Bendis with Alias artist Michael Gaydos and colorist Matt Hollingsworth for the final arc “Fear” before cancellation. And they give us an excellent character-driven story with a B-plot featuring a Z-list superhero and the Daily Bugle journalists that wouldn’t be out of place in Alias. Also, Gaydos just plain understands how Jessica Jones looks as a character and her reactions to things, like when she is scared, being sarcastic, or just being happy. The Pulse #11 focuses on her taking a trip to the Baxter Building, seeing how the superest of moms Sue Richards deals with having kids and superpowers, and then going to lunch with her and Carol Danvers. Their conversations are raw, honest, and kind of read like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but with superheroes. And while Jessica is lunching, Ben Urich is investigating an interesting case of a smelly, out of breath superhero, who looked like Daredevil in his original yellow costume , helping stop the robbery of a store way out of Hell’s Kitchen. Kat Farrell identifies him as D-Man, a wrestler turned superhero and former Avenger, thanks to his “Wolverine hat”, which is what cowls should be called from now on. And it turns out that he took more than just a bottle of water from the store. The Pulse #11 concludes with Janet Van Dyne working on redesigning Luke Cage’s costume because he’s now a New Avenger when Jessica’s water breaks.

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In characterization and art, The Pulse #10 isn’t a bad read as Kat Farrell is the lead character for the first time in the series. Her tenacity and willingness to tell the truth, snap a cellphone pic, and break a story even in the face of a mutant, who has both telepathic and energy absorbing abilities are on full display this issue. It’s also a subtle inversion of her role in the main universe The Pulse series as Ben Urich is the one courting controversy, hiding Daredevil’s secret identity, and possibly taking down Nick Fury while Kat is more willing to play ball with editorial. In this issue, Ben is the one giving Kat a mini-lecture about picking battles and working with Mystique until they can really blow the whole Magnus regime open. Artists Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano with colorist Pete Pantazis even give us a glimpse at the writing process with a double page spread that cuts between the dusty Daily Bugle archives, and Kat desperately trying to churn out a story. Her computer has a slight glow in the dark building and will remind anyone of that burning feeling you get in your eyes when you’re trying to beat a deadline the night before.

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However, the story of Kat Farrell intrepid journalist comes to a halt halfway through the issue and becomes the tale of Hawkeye Crossover Event Explainer Man. He doesn’t even let Kat get in a word edgewise, threatens her with his arrows, and blabbers on about what’s happened to him in the previous issues of House of M. There is a payoff to all the chatter, which isn’t bad to read as Bendis makes Clint a real salt of the Earth fellow as he quips about only reading the sports page of the newspaper, with the earlier mentioned destruction of the Sentinel memorial, but the issue just ends. There’s no reflection on Kat’s part just a silent scene as the police pull up. It’s like this House of M tie-in was supposed to be a two-parter with Kat writing the story in the second half and trying to get it past editorial, but it only ended up being one issue. It’s an example of what not to do with an event tie-in as Bendis and Lark set up story-worthy themes, like the difference between journalism and PR, and intriguing situations, like Mystique being interested in print media for some reason (She’s been a high school principal too so this isn’t her weirdest form of employment.), but fail to explore them and just explain the events of the main series.

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But, if The Pulse #10 has you down, The Pulse #11 is the breath of freshest air. And one thing that surprised about me is the comedic timing of Michael Gaydos despite his rougher hewn style compared to say, this series’ original artist Mark Bagley. And it’s on display from the opening page where Jessica Jones can go right up to see the Fantastic Four in the Baxter Building after being escorted out by security back when she needed their help in Alias with the FF’s receptionist still having that creepy rictus. Next, there is his and Bendis’ riff on the fights between the Thing and Human Torch that seemed to happen during Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four. Gaydos’ realistic style shows the serious side of their battle as the Thing almost falls into a very pregnant Jessica Jones (who is saved by a last second force field from Sue Richards). But it ends being a great set-up for a line by Sue about Franklin and Valeria being more well-behaved than these grown men and superheroes in their twenties and thirties. And the comedy comes back in the final pages as Gaydos nails Luke’s painful reactions to the various superhero costumes that Janet Van Dyne is trying to interest him in as Carol and Jessica giggle in the background. It’s also a larger meta joke about Luke Cage not having an iconic costume since his days as the tiara wearing, yellow silk shirt sporting Power Man back in the 1970s and just wearing jeans and a t-shirt in Bendis’ New Avengers run. (Maybe Sanford Greene will change this in his Power Man and Iron Fist run.

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The lunch with Jessica Jones, Carol Danvers, and Sue Richards is another showcase of Brian Michael Bendis’ ability to craft characters through dialogue and conversation. Gaydos’ faces are key too as he can do subtle really well, like Jessica spacing out when Sue gets a little bit too earnest about the Fantastic Four’s mission, and how her children “live a life without superficial judgment”. But most of their talk is dealing with the cold, harsh realities of motherhood, and Sue doesn’t sugarcoat things for Jessica saying that her superhero status could leave to villain attacks and kidnapping and that it’s super freaky to be entrusted to take care of another human life. But in the end it’s all worth it, and Jessica is actually pretty refreshed to see how “normal” the Richards kids are as Franklin adorably touches her pregnant stomach and gets scolded for saying “butt”. Bendis continues his tradition of writing mothers well (Aunt May in Ultimate Spider-Man comes to mind.) and gives Sue a warm voice as she loves her kids, but also can get exasperated by them. It’s unfortunate that the Fantastic Four and their family dynamic is one team he hasn’t been unable to write so far.

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And because this is a comic about journalism and not just Jessica Jones, Bendis and Gaydos give us a pretty interesting journalism subplot about Ben Urich and Kat Farrell investigating the re-emergence of D-Man as a vigilante and thief. Gaydos and Hollingsworth initially sell that this is a Daredevil story by using plenty of shadows in the art as well as touch of red in the background as a gun goes off. But, then there’s a cut to D-Man ambling around the store with his gut hanging out and moving a little slower than the Man without Fear. The store owners that he save don’t paint the most flattering picture of him saying that he had a smell and took some jewelry. And thus begins Ben Urich’s investigation into superheroes, who don’t have the benefit of a well-paying job as a lawyer or the sponsorship of a billionaire philanthropist or bald guy.

The Pulse  #10-11 features one example of how not to write a tie-in for a company-wide and one example of how to tell use superheroes to tell a story about a real life situation in this case, becoming a mother. It encapsulates the uneven nature of The Pulse as a series, which didn’t know if it wanted to tell Jessica Jones stories or and found a balance between both in the “Fear” arc just as it was being cancelled. At least, the art is consistent with Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, and Michael Gaydos finding a sweet spot between realism and cartooning with a side of natural facial expressions and the awkwardness of superhero costumes. (Honestly, only George Perez, Jack Kirby, and the animators of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can pull off the “Purple H” Hawkeye costume.)

Feeling the Pulse #8-9

thepulse8coverFeeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.

In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #8-9 (2005) written by Brian Michael Bendis, pencilled by Michael Lark, inked by Stefano Gaudiano, and colored by Pete Pantazis.

In The Pulse #8-9, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Michael Lark (Daredevil, Gotham Central) and Stefano Gaudiano tie up the “Secret War” arc with an air of measured cynicism as the Daily Bugle decides to not print the story of Nick Fury sending superheroes to fight an unsanctioned war on foreign soil. And it’s not because they’re afraid of Nick Fury, who shows up all grandfatherly in a hologram to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones towards the end of The Pulse #9, but because they don’t have all the facts in a story that could lead to World War III. But these issues aren’t all down in the dumps as Jessica Jones resists HYDRA interrogation (Pretty damn easy after all those cops in Alias and an earlier issue of The Pulse) and shows her love for Luke by looking for him all over the state of New York before having an emotional reunion involving the words “I love you”. It’s sweet, well-earned, and adds humanity to the conspiracy and journalism plots. However, The Pulse #8-9 isn’t without its flaws even though Lark, Gaudiano, and colorist Peter Pantazis evoke Michael Gaydos’ style on Alias when drawing Jessica Jones and the various supporting characters. First, there is Wolverine yelling about being raped in front of Jessica Jones, who has been forced to watch young women being sexually assaulted by Killgrave. This isn’t mentioned at all, and Bendis just uses it to make Wolverine seem really crazy when Pantazis’ blood red colors do an even better job of showing him that he’s not in his right mind. There is also Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) acting completely mean and cold around Jessica and not letting her see Luke thinking she’s just another Power Man groupie. Night Nurse comes out and blames it on insomnia, but it’s a little sad that Luke’s best friend and girlfriend get off on the wrong foot for seemingly no reason.

The Pulse #8 opens with several silent pages as we get to see the supervillain attack Luke and Jessica’s apartment in Harlem and explode (Another great use of red from Pantazis.) before coming to the present day where HYDRA is giving her the old sales pitch appealing to her outsider nature, talking about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s corruption, and promising money and support for her and her baby. At the Bugle, Ben Urich is desperately trying to find Jessica and get to the bottom of this Nick Fury story when he gets a call from a retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Al McKenzie, who corroborates Jessica’s story about Nick Fury doing something seriously wrong, and tells him that the attack on the hospital was technology themed supervillains taking revenge on Fury for invading foreign soil without the sanction of the U.S. government or U.N. McKenzie says that Urich should print this story even if Fury’s activities have been off limits in the past. Urich has his usual argument with Jameson, but the story’s still in play as Agent Clay Quartermain and S.H.I.E.L.D drop in and save Jessica after she tells a HYDRA agent to stuff thousands of dollars in cash up her ass. The issue ends with Jessica acting Quatermain about the “Secret War” and S.H.I.E.L.D’s illicit activities, but he doesn’t say anything.

The Pulse #9 amps up the drama and opens with Jessica Jones berating J. Jonah Jameson for being a terrible person and letting her get kidnapped by HYDRA. As she runs off to look for Luke, Urich follows her and tries to help when Al McKenzie (who looks a lot like Donald Sutherland) shows up, applauds Jessica for not joining HYDRA, and then gets punched by her. She lets him go after he gives her an address where Luke is in upstate New York. Urich knows he’s lying, but Jessica goes into a nearby dive bar any ways and runs into a drunk, rage filled Wolverine. Wolverine hits on her, then gets angry when she mentions S.H.I.E.L.D., and talks about Jessica was probably set up so he would get angry enough to kill Fury on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wolverine says that Luke Cage is a good guy, and Urich suddenly has an epiphany that Luke is staying with the Night Nurse to patch up his wounds. (He knows about her because he’s friends with Daredevil.) Luke is being heavily guarded by several martial artists, including Misty Knight, Shang Chi, and Iron Fist, but after a super emotional jarring conversation with Danny Rand, Jessica finally gets to see him and sharing a touching moment. This is ruined by a hologram of Nick Fury showing up and saying he cares about them, but doesn’t give any details about the Secret War. (Jessica totally tells him off.) The issue ends with Jameson and Robbie Robertson deciding not to print a story about Nick Fury’s illegal activities and going with their usual “Spider-Man: Menace” headline.

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Pete Pantazis really punches up his colors in The Pulse #8-9 in ways both subtle and bombastic. As I mentioned earlier, he uses red during moments where Jessica Jones feels her life or her baby’s life is being threatened. The two page opening scene of The Pulse #8 is very powerful because Bendis lets Lark and Pantazis do the heavy lifting with plenty of shadows overlaid by red and by showing the scene from Jessica’s POV as her apartment crumbles all around her. It’s a visual representation of how terrible she has been feeling throughout the arc. This red comes back when Jessica runs into Wolverine at the dive bar where he is drinking away his trauma of being used as a human weapon yet again by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a similar manner to the Weapon X program. He flashes his claws as Lark breaks up the page, but relents just before the killing blow as Pantazis relaxes his colors from scarlet red to just a general dark palette.

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This is a strong way to show Wolverine’s berserker rage as well as his humanity, but Bendis kind of ruins it by having him yell, “Stop raping me” over and over again in regards to secret government organizations manipulating him. Comics is a medium that prides itself on economy of storytelling, and the best comics use a well-placed facial expression or use of color to convey meaning instead of dialogue. But Bendis won’t let Pantazis’ excellent color work stand for itself, or even Lark’s panels of Jessica Jones looking terrified as Wolverine pops his claws. He has to have Wolverine go on about being a rape victim in front of someone, who was actually sexually assaulted. Of course, he’s not in his right mind, but usually when Wolverine goes feral, he’s non-verbal or monosyllabic. (See the laconic killing machine when he was brainwashed in the “Enemy of the State” from Mark Millar’s run on Wolverine.) So, this is both out of character, insensitive, and just plain takes me out of the story. Luckily, Bendis course corrects by the end of the scene with Pantazis returning to a neutral palette, and Wolverine saying that Luke Cage is one of the four good guys he knows. (Who are the other three, I wonder? Maybe Bendis expands on this in his New Avengers run that I’ve only read in bits and pieces.)

Along with Wolverine, Bendis’ characterization of Iron Fist is inconsistent in The Pulse #9. It’s perfectly understandable that he, Shang Chi, and Misty Knight (We could have used a pointless ninja brawl with those three in the same panel.) are protecting Luke Cage, whose injuries were considered life threatening back in The Pulse #6. However, Danny acts very rudely towards the mother of his best friend’s child. It isn’t like he doesn’t know who Jessica is and tersely acknowledges her presence and pregnancy in their first interaction. However, then he goes on a long diatribe about how he and Luke have had many enemies since their days as Power Man and Iron Fist, and how does he know that she’s not one of them. Then, he closes by claiming that Luke might not be the father of her child. (Lark nails Jessica’s anger in this scene with a subtle zoom towards her bloodshot eyes and bandaged face.) But before he does or says anything, Night Nurse and Misty Knight shut him up, and we finally get some payoff to Jessica’s breathless search throughout New York that included enduring a HYDRA monologue, calling in a favor from an ex-boyfriend, and having adamantium claws a couple inches from her face.

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So far, I’ve said a lot of negative things in this article, but The Pulse #8-9 does an excellent job with its characterization of Ben Urich as well as creating some genuine emotional catharsis in Luke and Jessica’s reunion scene. These issues incorporate the Daily Bugle reporters into the narrative nicely while showing that Ben Urich has had to compromise in the past to get stories and has connections other than the ones who wear red and run or swing from rooftops. Bendis and Lark use the illustrated script format to make the extended conversation between former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Al McKenzie and Urich easy on the eyes as well as pulling a twist that, yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is okay with the Bugle printing a story showing Nick Fury in an unfavorable light. Lark’s art shows how restless Urich is as he shifts from side to side and looks over his shoulder, especially after McKenzie says the call has been “monitored”, which is different from being “bugged” and what the government does to all major media companies in an post 9/11/NSA/Patriot Act world.

And in this short exchange, we drift away from the world of superheroes to explosions and to a world where people who leak government secrets are literally stuck in Russia. This fear of retaliation from an organization that can send a full squad of agents based on a cellphone call from three days ago (Jessica freaking out and calling Agent Quatermain with no result before she fainted and was scooped up by HYDRA agents.) is truly frightening, and the HYDRA agent’s words about S.H.I.E.L.D. now being extralegal terrorists kind of rings true in the light of these events. Espionage is one thing, but this is covering up a military engagement against the sovereign state of Latveria. (These details actually don’t make it into The Pulse, and not reading the actual Secret War adds to the suspense and makes the ending doubly bitter.) The “Secret War” arc ends in bitter resignation as Urich types up a story about the Secret War even though he knows Agent McKenzie is manipulating him to take down Nick Fury, but it’s Robbie Robertson, the idealist and proponent of news journalism as truth, who doesn’t decide to print it, not the pragmatist J. Jonah Jameson. He realizes the messiness and potential gravity of this situation and decides to protect his readers (and the United States by extension) by not going forward with a story that relies on an unnamed source. It would be thrilling to read about the Daily Bugle taking down a corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. All the President’s Men style, but Bendis and Lark give us a story that rings true to the 21st American surveillance state albeit in the heightened world of the Marvel Universe.

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The short, quiet scene that Jessica and Luke share towards the The Pulse #9 is a heartwarming to the cold dose reality served up by the Daily Bugle deciding not to print a story about Nick Fury and Secret War. Lark uses a nine panel grid to isolate the focus on Jessica and Luke’s feelings while Bendis easily conveys their chemistry together by having Jessica’s confession of love stem from a witty retort to a good natured quip from Luke saying she used to be a “tougher broad”. But, of course, Nick Fury shows to ruin the mood, but letterer Cory Petit turns thing up to eleven when Jessica tells the hologram to “Get the @#$% of our lives”. Like, in Alias, where she just wanted to make ends meet, Jessica just wants to keep her child and Luke safe and not have to deal with random explosions and S.H.I.E.L.D cover ups. Her anti-superhero/anti-establishment attitude serves her well in this situation.

Some issues with his writing of Wolverine and Iron Fist aside, The Pulse #8-#9 is a strong ending to Brian Michael Bendis, Brent Anderson, Michael Lark, and Pete Pantazis’ “Secret War” arc, which acts as the darker counterpoint to the investigative journalism triumph that was “Thin Air”. Lark was a good choice of artist for this story compared to Mark Bagley because he is known for doing stories that are more street level and cynical of costumed heroes, like Gotham Central or Daredevil. He also works well in the shadows, which really shows in the climactic scene in the dive bar with Wolverine or even the HYDRA warehouse. “Secret War” is overall a better arc than “Thin Air” because it also focuses more on Jessica’s and Ben Urich’s story than Spider-Man’s grudge with the Green Goblin and gets bonus points for shedding new light on Secret War from a different perspective.

Feeling The Pulse #6-7

marvel-the-pulse-issue-7Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.

In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #6-7 (2005) written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by Brent Anderson, and colored by Pete Pantazis.

In the “Secret War” arc of The Pulse, which acts as kind of a follow up to The Pulse writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Gabriele Dell’Otto’s miniseries Secret War about Nick Fury sending different superheroes to Latveria to depose Dr. Doom, Bendis, new artist Brent Anderson (who won 7 Eisners for Astro City and drew the famous X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel), and colorist Pete Pantazis tap into the old Alias magic and craft a conspiracy plot that gets pretty personal. The Pulse #6 opens up very enigmatically with Wolverine running around ferally before the story cuts to Jessica Jones and Luke Cage’s apartment in Harlem blowing with both of them rushed to the hospital. Luke is in a coma after taking the brunt of a power blast from an unknown superpowered female, and the doctors can’t do anything to bring him back because no needles can break through his unbreakable skin. There’s yet another annoying police interrogation session, and then Nick Fury and Captain America burst in with Cap socking Fury in the jaw and then heading out with Luke and Danny Rand. (This arc is more mysterious if you haven’t already read Secret War) Jessica is really perturbed about this and tries to call her lawyer Matt Murdock, but ends up talking to Ben Urich instead. Then, lights start to flash in the hospital with explosions everywhere, and the issue ends with Jessica Jones in the wreckage of the hospital.

The Pulse #7 is all about Jessica freaking out with Ben Urich and wondering where Fury and Cap took Luke. A nurse at the hospital blames her for the damage on the hospital and then says that Luke Cage should have never dated a white woman. After this painful exchange, Ben calls into the Daily Bugle and finds out that there was a “fireworks incident” at the pier while a homeless man tells Jessica that he was saved by Daredevil at the same location. Something doesn’t really add up. Then, she frantically calls everyone from her ex boyfriend and current SHIELD agent Clay Quatermain to Misty Knight and Danny Rand and finally Luke one more time. There’s no response so she and Ben head to the Daily Bugle where Jessica is furious when Robbie Robertson tells her that the Bugle and all media outlets turn a blind eye to Nick Fury’s activities because he is protecting national security and the greater good. Then, Jessica runs off and ends up collapsing outside Misty Knight’s apartment where some teenagers try to steal her wallet before they’re scared off by HYDRA agents in a crazy cliffhanger.

Whereas “Thin Air” was more of a Daily Bugle story, the first two chapters of “Secret War” feel like an actual Jessica Jones solo story. Sure, there are cameos from Captain America, Nick Fury, Wolverine, Iron Fist, and other superheroes’ voice mails, but their appearances remind me of the first arc of Alias where the big name characters are used to create tension and show that Jessica’s paranoia is well-placed. The Pulse #6 and #7 also look like a Jessica Jones story as the standard superhero art of Mark Bagley is replaced by the realism and gritty lines of Brent Anderson. As an artist known for his character first, spectacle second approach on titles like Astro City, range on emotions are at the forefront of his work. For example, Captain America can go from angrily berating Nick Fury and punching him in the face with speed lines zooming and then pivot and ask Jessica how her baby is doing before leaving without a word. In Alias, Cap said Jessica was a true hero, and this is a nice reminder of their previous positive interactions as well as showing that he is a decent human being even in a terrible situation.

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But most of Anderson’s work is dedicated to showing Jessica’s vulnerability, paranoia, and how terrible she feels, but that she’s an ex-superhero/P.I and a current journalist, who wants to get to the bottom of this situation protocols about Nick Fury be damned. His pencils and ink work are pretty bleak showing the swaths of destruction created by this unknown supervillains, and he even opens The Pulse #7 with a highly detailed, almost watercolor painting of a sad, exhausted Jessica Jones. The fact that this is a conspiracy involving the man she loved has taken an extra toll on her, but has also increased her resolve to get to the bottom of it.

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The Pulse #6 and #7 is filled with sudden, insane events that make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read Secret War. Why is Nick Fury giving Captain America orders like he’s just another soldier? Why does a simple Daredevil and Black Widow team-up level a major docking area in New York and warrant a double page destructoporn spread? And why are random, hidden in the shadows superhumans showing up and blasting energy at buildings with striking gold colors from Pantazis? With the departure of the superheroes in The Pulse #6 and the inability of the Daily Bugle to publish or even investigate anything having to do with Nick Fury, Jessica is truly on her own in this situation.

Also, in The Pulse #6-#7, Jessica Jones sounds and acts like herself. In a couple pages with black gutters simulating the bars of an interrogation room, she tells off police officers, who focus on her possible mutant status, constantly refer to Luke Cage as her husband, and give her no space, because she has just lost her home and possibly her boyfriend. Again, Bendis turns his focus on casual sexism as the police say they’re big fans of Luke Cage, but don’t even acknowledge her abilities, career, or even listen to her when she says over and over again that she’s not married to Luke. And in a more simple return of the character’s voice kind of way, the hard swearing Jessica Jones of Alias is back even though her f-bombs are censored because The Pulse is set in the mainstream Marvel Universe. And, like in Alias, it’s not profanity for the sake of shock value, but Jessica Jones is super freaked out and alone and turns to her reporter friend, Ben Urich, to help her sort out this crazy situation.

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But The Pulse #6-7 isn’t just a conspiracy thriller and character study of Jessica Jones. Bendis uses the beginning of the “Secret War” arc to show how news media is complicit in government cover-ups because of “national security” reasons or because they’ll lose their access to press briefings, which hurts their access to breaking stories and will probably make them lose circulation and readers. Of course, Jessica won’t have any of this, and J. Jonah Jameson tactfully chooses the more idealistic Robbie Robertson to break their “no Nick Fury stories” policy to her even though him getting punched by Captain America while Luke Cage and Iron Fist look on in a hospital that later gets levelled would make a hell of a news story. Even Ben Urich, who has stood by his conscience for years and not exposed Daredevil or Spider-Man’s secret identity, agrees with the Bugle’s stance. This leads to angry running from Jessica Jones as Anderson’s layouts go from a grid to overlapping shapes as she looks at a Hulk headline and realizes that the media exists to make money and not show the truth about the world. It actually makes perfect sense that Jessica Jones is furious in this situation because her old job was a private investigator and to expose the secrets of the powerful (including a presidential candidate in the first arc of Alias) while the Daily Bugle reporters are implicit in the cover-up.

Even though some of the suspense and/or understanding of The Pulse #6-7 is contingent on if you’ve read another Brian Michael Bendis comic actually called Secret War, these two issues are a true artistic improvement over the previous five as Brent Anderson is the documentary filmmaker to Mark Bagley’s superhero stylist. Anderson really hits that sweet spot between cartooning and photorealism as his art is detailed, but not stiff. You can really feel the pain in Jessica’s eyes as she sees seemingly random superheroes fighting and arguing while her boyfriend is in a coma, and the power in Cap’s blow as he sucker punches Nick Fury, who is looking very guilty. Anderson and Bendis aren’t afraid to expose the dark, cynical underbelly of the Marvel Universe and even show that honest reporters, like Ben Urich, aren’t always paragons of integrity.

Feeling the Pulse #4-5

The_Pulse_Vol_1_4Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.

In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #4-5(2004) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Scott Hanna, and colored by Pete Pantazis.

Spider-Man has a prominent guest role in The Pulse #4-5, but he doesn’t steal the spotlight from the real heroes of the “In the Air” arc: the journalists of the Daily Bugle, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, whose picking up Norman Osborn’s limo throws a wrench in the newspaper’s plan. However, it ends up opening up the story a little wider as J. Jonah Jameson decides to forgo the sensationalism of TV journalism and focus on the victims of the Green Goblin’s murders. Along the way, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna spend some time taking stock of Jessica Jones’ feelings about her pregnancy as she is freaked out that the Green Goblin has killed her baby and goes berserk in some power packed panels.

The Pulse #4 opens with Ben Urich getting ready to meet Spider-Man on the roof while Jessica Jones catches up Luke on what she’s been up to at work and even shares an adorable dream about their child and her superpowers. Then, there is a quick back and forth conversation between Ben and Spider-Man as he tells him how he discovered Spidey’s secret identity and about how the Green Goblin is just killing at random now. Spider-Man is worried about this and tells Ben that the Green Goblin killed the love of his life, Gwen Stacy, and to be careful with his story. Ben then talks to Terri’s (the Daily Bugle reporter who was killed) friend Sheryl and with great reluctance, Jameson lets him go to the police with his findings on Norman Osborn after Jessica says that these kind of stories are why journalism exists. The police come to Oscorp with Ben and Jessica, who is acting as an “outside viewer”, because they might make the cover of the Daily Bugle, and the issue ends with the Green Goblin throwing pumpkin bombs at them.

The Pulse #5 is mostly explosive superhero action that Bagley excels at drawing as Spider-Man swings in and saves Jessica Jones from the Green Goblin. Completely freaking out, Jessica gets a few licks in and throws his glider at him as he flies away. The scene switches to Jessica and Luke at a hospital where the doctor compliments her toughness, says the baby is okay, and says that her pregnancy and labor will be tough so she should see a doctor that specializes in superhuman cases. Next, a deranged Norman Osborn is conferring with his lawyer, who helped get the Kingpin off and should get his own spinoff comic, when Luke Cage wrecks his limo in payback for almost killing his kid. Spider-Man shows up to cool things down, but even he ends up as a weapon in Luke’s hands as Norman Osborn’s identity as the Green Goblin is on display for the whole world. This ends up being a big headline for the Daily Bugle with the Pulse section running profiles on the families of Green Goblin’s victims, and Jessica walking alone and saying all she cares about is her baby. The final page of The Pulse #5 is a great return to her attitude in Alias where she just wanted to pay the bills as a P.I. and not have to deal with superhero drama.

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With plenty of whiz bang fight scenes in The Pulse #5 and opportunities to draw arguably his signature character, Mark Bagley seems more at ease in these issues. He even gets a little visual humor when Ben meets with Spider-Man on the roof and is almost blown away by the wind while Spidey just chills out and sticks on the wall like a spider. Colorist Pete Pantazis’ work doesn’t particularly pop, but he definitely uses brighter reds, blues, and yellows for Spider-Man and the Green Goblin tussling together versus muted browns and greys for Luke and Jessica just chatting about their lives. And his palette is almost clinical when Jessica is in the hospital in The Pulse #5 as inker/finisher Scott Hanna channels his inner Michael Gaydos and gives her some frown lines that reminded me of when she was stressed out in Alias. For once, she doesn’t look like a teenage girl, but a superhero mom-to-be, who has taken a little bit of a beating while protecting the ones she loved.

Bendis probes at a weakness in Spider-Man in The Pulse #4 and borrows a little bit from the deconstructive bent of Alias as Ben explores why he just lets the Green Goblin walk free after killing so many people, including his girlfriend. Spider-Man is afraid that if he tells the press or authorities what he knows about Norman Osborn’s true identity that his own secret identity will be exposed, and that he will go to prison for his supposed murders and crimes. And this is yet another iteration of the famed “Parker luck” where Spider-Man can never catch a break.  (Except that might not be a thing any more because he’s basically Batman now in Dan Slott’s current Amazing Spider-Man run for some reason.) Does putting one murderer out on the street outweigh all the good Spider-Man has done for the people of New York? It’s a dilemma that gets solved by journalists and a hero, who went public years ago and still doesn’t end up being a part of the Superhuman Registration Act in Civil War because he wants to protect his neighborhood in Harlem and not exist at the government or S.H.I.E.L.D’s beck and call.

Speaking of Luke Cage, the fight between him and the Green Goblin is cathartic and memorable. A crazy LukeCagevsGreenGoblinpsychopath hurt his girlfriend and almost killed their child so he’s back for revenge, and a limo or a pumpkin bomb won’t be able to stop him. Unlike Spider-Man, Luke doesn’t have to protect his secret identity from the public, press, and bad guys and is free to whale on the Goblin. Bagley even gives us the hilariously epic panel of him putting a pumpkin bomb on his bulletproof skin and then quipping about losing his shirt “again” because kevlar looks tacky as daily or vengeance wear. And Bendis gives Spider-Man a perfect rejoinder about “unbreakable pants”. But this isn’t in the end, and Luke fights the Green Goblin until the villain is unconscious in front of the Daily Bugle reporters. Without a shadow of the doubt, this famous industrialist is the murderous Green Goblin, and if Luke hadn’t come over and given him a piece of his mind and fists, there probably would be two or three more issues focused on the legal battle between Oscorp and the Bugle. Also, this sequence shows how much Luke cares for Jessica, and how he wants to keep her safe.

But the characters that come off as the real heroes of the first arc of The Pulse are the pregnant, ex-superhero Jessica Jones and the embattled, intrepid reporter Ben Urich. Bendis gives Jessica an amazing speech about how taking down men like Osborn is the point of a paper like the Daily Bugle, and “isn’t telling people stuff like this, like, the only reason to work here?” In any other character’s speech, this line would come off as a tad saccharine, but it seems more genuine coming from Jessica, who is usually cynical and sarcastic although she is a good person beneath it. If she’s the idealistic one, you should really go after the story. And her heroism is on display later as she beats the crap out of the Green Goblin, leaping and throwing him around to keep him away from Ben and Spider-Man. Bagley doesn’t depict these scenes like a typical superhero fight with punches and, but as an intense brawl with Jessica grabbing at the Goblin’s throat. There’s just a hint of sentiment as Jessica gets caught by Spider-Man, who is her high school crush, Peter Parker.

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Ben Urich doesn’t get a big fight scene, but he gets several panels of getting his throat grabbed by the Green Goblin, who taunts him with bad jokes about journalists. Bagley and Hanna zoom in on his pain stricken and constricted face with Pantazis giving the backgrounds a fiery color after all the explosions and punches being thrown around buildings in New York. And after this and seeing the Green Goblin get away, he’s still brave enough to publish an article saying he’s Norman Osborn on the front page of the Daily Bugle. He’s also clever as hell as Bendis and Bagley spend several pages in The Pulse #4 showing how he realized Peter Parker was Spider-Man from the obvious of him getting the best pictures of Spidey to the soot on his costume he gets from running on rooftops like Daredevil and finally the fact that a school teacher from Queens knew Matt Murdock was Daredevil. Spider-Man’s first reaction to this is understandably anger, but later he fears for Ben’s life as he goes to take down Osborn via the printed word and even confides in him about his relationship with Gwen Stacy. Ben Urich is street level superheroes, like Spider-Man, Daredevil, and later Spider-Woman’s greatest advocate, but he isn’t naive about them and is still a solid journalist through and through.

The Pulse #4 may seem like padding for the trade, but it gives us a look at the time consuming and difficult journalism process as Ben Urich must corroborate sources and also make a strong argument to J. Jonah Jameson about printing his article about Norman Osborn being the Green Goblin. It also furthers the bond between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones as they talk about their future child adding an emotional layer to the slugfest of The Pulse #5.

It slips in some spots artistically and sometimes pushes its presumed protagonist Jessica Jones to the side, but the “In the Air” arc of The Pulse  is a fairly triumphant melding of an investigative reporting story with a superhero comic.

Feeling the Pulse #2-3

The_Pulse_Vol_1_3Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.

In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #2-3 (2004) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Scott Hanna, and colored by Frank D’Armata, Brian Reber, and Pete Pantazis.

In The Pulse #2-3, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna abandon the whole half-assed murder mystery angle to tell the story of the Daily Bugle trying to expose Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin. It’s high concept and definitely a tough story to break, but is definitely the kind of hard hitting journalism that J. Jonah Jameson wants in The Pulse section of the Daily Bugle. Something that would usually be a subplot in a Spider-Man or Daredevil comic (or TV show) ends up being the main plot of The Pulse as up and coming reporter Kat Farrell, teams up with supposedly long in the tooth Ben Urich, and Jessica Jones to prove Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin after he killed the young Daily Bugle writer Terri Kidder.

The Pulse #2 is the kind of super focused character study that Bendis excels at as he and Bagley turn a woman, who was just a body at the end of The Pulse #1 into a flesh and blood human being with passions and weaknesses. The issue’s protagonist is Terri Kidder, a new reporter at the Daily Bugle, who transferred from a “major metropolitan newspaper”. (Perhaps The Daily Planet if sharing the first name and surname of two actors, who have played Lois Lane, is any clue.) She is trouble finding her place at a paper where the publisher is up in everyone’s business and gets laughed out of meeting when her first article pitch in a couple weeks is a puff piece on The Avengers. However, this lights a fire under her, and after talking with her friend, who is an Oscorp employee, she decides to interview Norman Osborn about multiple people at Oscorp, who have gone missing. She gets an interview with Osborn and plays to his pride first before pivoting and asking about the people. The issue ends with him strangling her to death, transforming into the Green Goblin, and killing her.

We finally catch up to the present day in The Pulse #3 as Robbie Robertson gives a big, motivational speech that wouldn’t be out of place in Newsroom, The West Wing, or hell even Friday Night Lights about the Daily Bugle having the best, most connected and giving Terri’s family a clear answer about why their daughter is dead. He puts Ben Urich, Kat Farrell, and The Pulse on this story/case. After showing a short tiff between Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, we get to see Ben and Kat in action and the difference in their reporting styles. Ben has a lot of skeletons in his closets from past editorials and gets told off by a NYPD homicide detective when he says he wants to help with the case. On the other hand, Kat makes friends easily and gets all the details about Terri’s death from her medical examiner buddy, who is on his coffee/look at Iron Man break. Along with Jessica, they put their heads together and think about flying superheroes/villains, who may have dropped Terri in the lake. The issue ends with Ben being a tenacious, dogged reporter and digging in Teri’s desk (aka an active crime scene), finding a recording of a phone conversation with her friend at Oscorp, making the connection to the Green Goblin, and calling Peter Parker. Because a Spider-Man cameo is always great for sales.

Even if the exposé of Norman Osborn is barely starting to pick up steam three issues in, The Pulse #2 stands alone as a “day in the life” type story about an ordinary journalist in the Marvel Universe, which happens to end with her getting dropped into a lake by the Green Goblin. This is a dangerous place to hold a job because the corporation that gives you a nice pension package and healthcare could be run by an insane supervillain. Before you try to go after a powerful billionaire, you should probably be able to call Spider-Man, Daredevil, or another superhero for backup But Terri is just an intrepid reporter, doesn’t have any of these connections and ends up fish food.

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However, Bendis gives Terri a full character arc in The Pulse #2 as he and Bagley use a kind of “hypercompression” and the “illustrated play technique” that was used in Alias #10 to show how much of a damn chatterbox J. Jonah Jameson was. There is text off to the side showing how stressed out Terri is at the Daily Bugle while Bagley draws yet another full page cutaway diagram to show the bustling newsroom. Bendis’ writing also reveals her motivation for working for the Bugle: she wants to be part of every day people’s conversation by writing for a tabloid newspaper. (And once and for all, Bendis through Teri dispels the idea that the Daily Bugle is the Marvel Universe equivalent of the Daily Mail because the tabloid is the form and not the content in this case.) And this stress combined with J. Jonah Jameson’s insults propels her onto a deadly path, including an interview and death at the hands of Norman Osborn.

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Bendis and Bagley are definitely on the same page when Osborn goes loony. Terri and Norman’s encounter just starts as a usual talking heads scene with a decent amount of panels as he adjusts his suit while she lobs softball questions. But when she asks about the missing people, something snaps, and Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin even before he puts on the Halloween costume. Bagley’s layout turns into a strict eight and then six panel grid, and he and Hanna progressively give Osborn more wrinkles in his face while colorists Frank D’Armata and Brian Reber give his eyes a full green color that they previously hinted at in the hue of his chair. The ever increasing close-up is a successful device at showing Terri’s horror and surprise and reminds readers that Green Goblin isn’t a cheesy villain, but a psychopath, who kills for kicks.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, the warm chemistry that they shared has mostly left the building in The Pulse #3. Neither character appears in The Pulse #2, and they share a short conversation in issue three, which is mostly contradictions and arguing for the sake of arguing. And, of course, Jessica cries because she’s pregnant while Luke sits and acts stoically. They do get one genuine spark as Jessica lands a great one-liner about hiring a guy to tell Luke he’s the “mutha&*%in’ best” superhero as a random Luke Cage fan wanders by and gives him a high five. The conclusion of their conversation isn’t half bad either as Jessica talks about hating her body, and Luke just gives her hug and kiss. Some interesting ideas are thrown about Luke not liking Jameson or the fact that he’s an obscure superhero, but they don’t really come into play. Basically, Luke and Jessica’s arc is stupid fight, not the best characterization of a pregnant woman, and then a kiss and makeup. They definitely both play second fiddle to the Daily Bugle reporters so far.

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And we get to see Kat Farrell and Ben Urich’s journalistic process and philosophy in The Pulse #3 as they try to get to the truth in different ways. Kat doesn’t hate superheroes, but she knows her editor does and isn’t a big fan of both Terri’s piece about the Avengers as well as Ben withholding his knowledge about Daredevil’s secret identity. Therefore, she is more in-line with usual, non-fantastic journalistic practices, like having a source in the police station, similar to Terri, who has a friend that works at Oscorp. Their conversation is the kind of upbeat banter found in the good police procedurals and connects the plot dots a lot quicker than Urich mouthing off to an NYPD detective.

For some reason, Bendis gives her some insane Buffy-speak (“Did the guy have the super duper? Was he whacky on the junk?”) maybe to show that she is younger than Ben even though it’s impossible to tell her age relative to Jessica or anyone because again Bagley draws adult women like teenagers with slightly different fashion and an extra line or two from his inker Hanna. Ben Urich is the aging loose cannon to Kat’s fresh faced, company woman, and it shows in his not so friendly chat with Police Detective Gans, who has turned Terri’s desk into a crime scene. Bendis’ dialogue really sings when it’s used combatively, and the detective and Ben’s sniping shows the often antagonistic relationship between the police force and press of a major city. However, it’s his connection with Peter Parker that could be their only chance at exposing Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin and simultaneously providing a successful first story for The Pulse.

The Pulse #2-3 is trying to tell a non-superhero story in a superhero universe, and it should be commended for that even if it’s not as groundbreaking, visually interesting, or as nuanced as its “mother” series Alias. It might have Spider-Man on the cover, but it’s really about ordinary journalists trying to break stories and find the truth in an extraordinary world.

Feeling the Pulse #1

ThePulse1Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.

In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #1 (2004) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Scott Hanna, and colored by Frank D’Armata and Brian Reber.

In The Pulse #1, Jessica Jones goes from being the through and through protagonists of her own series to a co-protagonist with embattled Daily Bugle city and crime reporter Ben Urich, who was a scene stealing supporting character in writer Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil as well as making a couple appearances in Alias so the two aren’t strangers. And like Alias, The Pulse isn’t a superhero comic, but something like The Newsroom set square in the center of the Marvel Universe. For over 50 years, the Daily Bugle and its denizens, like J. Jonah Jameson, have been supporting characters of Spider-Man, and now they get the spotlight. And they shine for the most part with some quick hitting conversations that would make Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet proud even though the “hook” for the next issue is a little conventional with a floating dead body and an ID of a random person. Also, it is entertaining to see J. Jonah Jameson talk out of both sides of his mouth as he pitches “The Pulse” newspaper section to both Jessica Jones and Ben Urich.

PulseIntroThe Pulse #1 opens slowly and cinematically with a full page spread from artists Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna of reporter Ben Urich looking at a Daily Bugle newspaper with a typical anti-Spider-Man headline while his crime story about a Yakuza uprising is pushed to the back page. Perhaps this is a comment on traditional superhero tales continuing to dominate comics sales while compelling crime and noir stories are more middling, and no one wants to read about journalists. (In February 2004, Ultimate Spider-Man #53 sold 92,514 copies whereas Bendis’ crime meets superhero story in Daredevil #57 sold 54,629, and The Pulse #1 sold 51,116 and dropped to a little over 27,000 towards the end of its run.) It’s a compelling character introduction with a medium brown color palette from Frank D’Armata and Brian Reber

The first issue shows a dead body just rotting in a lake in Central Park for a whole issue while Jessica Jones prepares for her interview with the Daily Bugle in an attempt to find stability (and health insurance) for her and her boyfriend, Luke Cage. J. Jonah Jameson tells her that because his paper’s circulation numbers are down in the age of TV and Internet news that he is trying something new and deciding to give superheroes a positive spin in the new weekly “The Pulse” section, which will feature in-depth features about them. Ben Urich will write the stories while Jessica Jones acts as a “vigilante analyst” or consultant and will even be part of the story once she announces her pregnancy. Jameson tells a very different thing to Ben Urich telling him that even though “The Pulse” is meant for admirers of superheroes that he should be tough on superheroes if he catches them doing something wrong. This section is Jameson’s attempt at trying to shake off his lethargy and get him breaking big stories. Presumably, his and Jessica’s first piece will have something to do with the random body in Central Park that was dropped by a superhero or supervillain.

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Before delving into the excellent characterization of J. Jonah Jameson or Bagley’s use of double page spreads to give letterer Cory Petit an opportunity to let Bendis’ long stretches of dialogue breathe, there is one main negative that will make you wish Michael Gaydos was still the artist. Mark Bagley is terrible at drawing adult women. He does an okay job with the teenagers in Ultimate Spider-Man, but his facial and anatomy work with Jessica Jones shifts rapidly as she goes from looking like a 17 year old when she’s cuddling with Luke Cage to a middle aged woman when she enters the Daily Bugle offices. Hanna’s inking gets more consistent during the “interview” scene between her and Jameson, but she does look like a brunette version of Ultimate Mary Jane Watson.

Bendis really seems to get a kick out of writing J. Jonah Jameson and even though Ben Urich and Jessica Jones are nominally the protagonists of The Pulse, he steals the entire issue kind of like J.K. Simmons stole the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy from Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, and company. He builds off Jameson’s characterization in Alias where he is grateful to Jessica for finding his missing foster daughter, Mattie Franklin, and creates a turning point for him as a character as he goes on about giving superheroes a fair shake if only to increase readership. But there’s always a catch with him, and the catch is the Daily Bugle getting the exclusive on her pregnancy as his tabloid headline grabber side reveals itself. Jameson likes good, hard news as evidenced by his keeping Ben Urich on the staff, but he also wants to make a buck and if he has to say nice things about superheroes, so be it.

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Bendis and Bagley create a study in parallels between Jameson’s chat with Jessica Jones about The Pulse, and his chat with Ben Urich at the local watering hole. Bagley uses a stricter grid when Jameson and Jessica speak as she tries to keep it as businesslike as possible and is willing to compromise a little bit to support her family. But with the Jameson, Robertson, and Urich conversation, D’Armata evokes the smell of a respectable, but not too respectable tavern with brown wood tones and just enough shadow to keep it from being noir. Jameson also uses a similar manipulative technique on Urich that he did with Jessica by portraying each of them as “washed up” in some way or another. Jessica as a superhero and P.I., Urich as a reporter. Starting out, he dictates the narrative and dynamic between them. And teaming up an ex-superhero, who has a low opinion of them with a journalist, who respects their power to inspire, and an editor, who hates them is bound to lead to some great drama and disagreements along the way.

For being a first issue, The Pulse #1 doesn’t have the greatest final page hook. It is kind of interesting that there’s been a dead body in the lake for an entire issue in a city the population of New York, and that no one has noticed. Perhaps some kind of mind control is involved. But, whether it’s because of lack of visual distinctness in Bagley’s faces for women or just a plain, bad ending, the cliffhanger of the police looking at a faded I.D. falls flat. But the concept of a supervillain murder mystery from a journalist and possibly police perspective has some genre bending potential, and the interference and role of the press always spices up mystery and crime stories. (See The Wire or more recently BBC America’s Broadchurch.) Plus it’ll give Jessica a chance to do her private investigator thing.

The Pulse #1 has a unique concept and the makings of a compelling ensemble in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, J. Jonah Jameson, Ben Urich, and Robbie Robertson, who have been liberated from playing second fiddle to Spider- Man.Some of the execution is lacking, such as Bagley’s inability to draw adult women and a half-assed murder mystery plot, but Bendis’ dialogue was built for walk and talk newsroom environment. (He used to work as a cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and this is evident in his development of Jameson’s philosophy for the Daily Bugle and its Pulse section.)

Review: Spider-Woman #8

sw008This has been possibly the most perplexing title at Marvel in the past year, but perhaps for good reason as it also contains one of the most perplexing characters in Marvel’s publication history.  Despite Marvel’s ability to stick the word spider on the beginning of most things and thereafter sell a lot of comics, Spider-Woman has never enjoyed the success of her namesakes.  Instead the character has been one that has mostly been a secondary character or a team member, but never really able to hold down her own series.  It would seem though that the problem all along is the choice of focus, on the spider rather than on the woman.  The first issues of this recent attempt at the character seemed to be heading down the same path as those before.  It was entirely serviceable but also overwhelmingly normal, and stayed as such until the series was rebooted almost before it had a chance to begin.

The reboot threw Jessica into a completely different story line.  Eschewing her Avengers friends, she instead got interested in protecting the people and made her view a lot smaller.  She was approached by Ben Urich in relation to a story about the disappearing loved ones of supervillain henchmen, and the action took her to a town where they all reside and live their lives in a safe haven as opposed to the outside world of super-chaos.  In the final issue of this new arc, Jessica comes to blows with a human wearing a construction equipment based exoskeleton as she decides what to do with the fates of those involved.

What the creative team has managed to do with this series is interesting.  In comics the default gender is male, and by adhering to the usual story lines, the creative team would never have been able to take advantage of what makes Jessica special, the woman suffix, not the Spider prefix.  This issue is a perfect example of how that is done to build a competent superheroine and one that typifies her gender as opposed to hiding it under spandex or a cape.  With this first story arc now completed it seems as though this series is on a good path as it looks to extend her adventures into mainstream comics for the foreseeable future.

Story: Dennis Hopeless Art: Javier Rodriguez 
Story: 9.2 Art: 9.2 Overall: 9.2 Recommendation: Buy