Halfway through the “War of the Realms“, and it looks like this is gonna be an event where the tie-ins were more memorable than the core story. War of the Realms #3 dropped this week, and it’s a treat to see Russell Dauterman draw, basically, the entire Marvel Universe including the Fantastic Four and Captain America’s cute little snow jacket for adventuring in Jotunheim. But, it’s just trailers for better, more interesting comics like Bryan Hill and Leinil Yu’s very longwindedly named War of the Realms Strikeforce: Dark Elf Realm #1 and Champions #5 where Jim Zub and Juanan Ramirez once and for all prove that, indeed, Cyclops was right. (But Ramirez’s trolls look like Skrulls, oops.)
War of the Realms #3
After two straight issues of various Marvel superheroes fighting various fantasy creatures, we get yet another issue of Marvel superheroes fighting various fantasy creatures. Sights that Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Matthew Wilson subject us to include Daredevil tripping balls and flirting with being an agnostic while having the power of the god of fear, Luke Cage riding a flying horse, Punisher wanting to blow up Ghost Rider’s car, and of course, Thor covered in blue Frost Giant blood. And there are jokes; so many jokes. However, with the exception of the Thor becoming a berserker part and a Venom plot point, the comic feels like a trailer for other comics, namely, the Strikeforce series of one-shots.
Jason Aaron did a fantastic job writing Daredevil in War Scrolls #1, and I was excited to see how he set up the Man without Fear’s transformation. Boy, was I disappointed. Heimdall makes a quip about about creeping on Daredevil while he was on Earth, there’s another joke about Catholicism, and then Daredevil is the God of Fear and defender of the BiFrost. The page where he gains godhood is very trippy with a Dippin’ Dots color palette from Wilson though even if his role is basically Asgardian Scotty from Star Trek until the BiFrost has to be destroyed for plot reasons.
This past weekend, Avengers Endgame showed that spectacular action could be combined with both continuity fun and character arcs. However, War of the Realms #3 is mostly just the spectacular action part with Aaron and Dauterman just moving pieces on the board. Sure, the comic looks cool, and there are some actually funny jokes (Spider-Man’s line about fighting with a shield). But it’s all fights and no substance or emotional tether even with Freya, who is written much better in the Dark Elf Realm one-shot. I also have some little quibbles with it like Captain America and Spider-Man being cool with animal cruelty, and Aaron’s portrayal of Venom not fitting in with Cullen Bunn and Iban Coello’s story for him. War of the Realms #3 is just a skeleton to be filled in with “meat” from its tie-ins so it gets the Overall Verdict of Pass.
War of the Realms Strikeforce: Dark Elf Realm #1
I thought this was going to be yet another Punisher fights Elves shoot ’em up fest. I was happy to be proven wrong as Bryan Hill proves the old Brian Bendis saying that conversations can be fight scenes, and Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Matt Hollingsworth bring grit and shadow to the art of War of the Realms Strikeforce: Dark Elf Realm #1. Basically, this shows how Freyja recruited Punisher, Hulk, Ghost Rider, and Blade to destroy and then defend the Black Bifrost adding context, depth, and resolution to the fight in War of the Realms #3. Along the way, Hill and Yu create some parallels between these heroes (and one not quite hero) and the Black Bifrost itself as they and Freyja embrace their shadow selves to get the job done.
In the space of a single one-shot, Bryan Hill, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Matt Hollingsworth create some fantastic chemistry between the Punisher and Freyja. Freyja is afraid that she has to dip into the dark, sorcerous side of herself to defeat Malekith so she enlists a man who has been consumed by darkness and revenge to help her. Yu goes very stylized with Frank’s first appearance and in other scenes shrouding him in shadow as he has come to terms that he’s a monster fighting monsters.
This insight extends to the characterization of Jennifer Walters, Ghost Rider, and Blade as they fight their worst fears in powerful one page sequences that involves Jen punching Bruce’s Hulk in the heart, Ghost Rider headbutting Johnny Blaze while he tries to do a Penance Stare, and Blade fighting his older self, a vampire king. Yu uses close ups to give each final blow maximum effect and establishes that even though three of these characters are Avengers, they’re not afraid to act like a black ops team on this mission. But maybe Freyja isn’t ready, which is Frank comes in and talks about how they’re at war and must do everything to get victory.
Bryan Hill makes multiple cases for why he should take over a Punisher or Blade ongoing comic, or even a dark series set in Asgard as that realm (As shown in Aaron and Fraction’s Thor work and the Thor Ragnarok film.) was built on violence and war. He, Yu, Alanguilan, and Hollingsworth serve up dark, fascinating visions of characters (Except for Freyja.)who have been treated like jokes or action figures in the core War of the Realms series so Dark Elf Realm #1 earns an overall verdict of Buy.
Jim Zub and Juanan Ramirez finally give Cyclops the respect he deserves in Champions #5 where he takes a break from the X-Men to defend New York with his younger self’s old superhero team, the Champions. Along the way, Miles Morales and Kamala Khan deal with the guilt of letting someone die on his watch and seeing friends and teammates drift away respectively. It’s an issue that is part introspective and part cartoon-y art from Ramirez as Cyclops and Kamala showcase their tactical skills and fight trolls of the non-Internet variety.
Through Kamala’s narration and with the help of Ramirez’s kinetic fight choreography and confident poses, Jim Zub shows that Cyclops isn’t just a stoic stiff or mutant terrorist, but a great leader, who is cool under pressure. Also, with the tension of the Champions and their shifting and expanding lineup, Kamala needed a hug and a reassurance from an old friend. Zub and Ramirez also use the return of Cyclops to have him interact with Dust, who decided to not rejoin the X-Men because their predilection for violence wasn’t in line with her Islamic beliefs. For example, after a badass sequence where she uses her sand manipulation powers to choke out some trolls, Dust prays and tries to come to grips if her violent actions were necessary for the situation. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this lineup of the Champions is the first time that two Muslim women have been on a superhero team.
Under Jim Zub’s shepherding, the Champions series has been a template for a modern team of young superheroes with its diverse lineup of characters, social conscience, fun team-up action, and plots that come out of the team’s interpersonal relationships. Yeah, the series is a bit soapy at times, but Champions #5 ably juggles a big lineup of characters while getting in the action beats and doing some soul searching with Miles and Kamala. On top of that, Zub’s work on Avengers No Surrender and No Road Home has served him well in using big events and continuity to tell compelling stories like understanding that the X-Men are in New York at the same time as the Champions and using it to put a little respect on Cyclops’ name. For that, Champions #5 easily gets an Overall Verdict of Buy.
Unless Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman make some second half adjustments, War of the Realms might go down as that event where different Marvel superheroes had cool fantasy inflected designed and had some big battles, but it was mostly empty calories of story. Aaron does hit on some small beats like Jane Foster growing into her role of All-Mother and leading the Asgardians into battle despite having no powers and Thor’s violence addiction. The event has also been an okay frame for more perceptive intriguing stories featuring characters Freyja, Frank Castle, Kamala Khan, Blade, Dust, and surprise surprise, Cyclops!