Friday, June 23, 2017

A Familiar and Weaponized Narrative: Weapons of Mutant Destruction #1

The following is my review of Weapons of Mutant Destruction #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


There are some ideas that are just so wrought with failure that the mere act of entertaining them again is akin to giving Deadpool an unlimited supply of napalm. It's one thing to revamp and reconsider a failed idea. Sometimes, ideas are just too ahead of their time or not properly managed. Others, however, are akin to fixing a cracked windshield with a sledgehammer.

When it comes to ideas that fail in the most spectacularly destructive ways possible, the Weapon X program and the gamma experiments that made the Incredible Hulk are basically co-champions. These are experiments with simple, albeit devious goals. One seeks to create the ultimate living weapon. The other seeks to create an unstoppable monster that can be controlled and directed like a bomb that never stops going off.

They are weapons that anyone, be they the Avengers or Hydra, wouldn't mind having in their arsenal. When it comes to developing them, however, there sheer breadth of the failures are so staggering that even the most deranged James Bond villain wouldn't dare attempt them again. Even with the combined efforts of the Scarlet Witch and every good luck charm that ever existed, the odds just aren't in anyone's favor.

That's why the premise for Weapons of Mutant Destruction is akin to waiting for a demolition derby where every car is armed with a machine gun and a rocket launcher. Weapon X and all things gamma related have done enough damage to the Marvel universe to buy Hulkbuster armor for every man, woman, and child. Greg Pak and Mahmud Asrar believe there's still plenty of entertainment value in that level of destruction. Weapons of Mutant Destruction #1 shows that even if that value is there, making it compelling is a challenge that even heavy doses of gamma can't help.


The foundation of the story is built on ongoing stories unfolding in two of Pak's other books, Weapon X and Totally Awesome Hulk. From a structural standpoint, the transition is seamless. A narrative that begins in Weapon X #1 starts to culminate in Weapons of Mutant Destruction #1. The key, with respect to the actual substance of the story, is that the culmination only starts. It just doesn't go very far. It's akin to a drag racer that makes a lot of noise, but stalls just as the race commences.

That's not to say the ingredients are there. Pak makes it a point to give the conflict in Weapons of Mutant Destruction #1 larger implications that go beyond his own books. Mutant-killing living weapons, as overdone as they may be, still pose an existential threat to the rest of the X-men. The use of gamma power poses a similar threat to anyone still affiliated with the Hulk. Every character involved has a purpose and a clear motivation in the story. Nobody ever gets involved in a living weapons program for fun. Even Deadpool isn't that deranged.

As the story unfolds, though, there's a sense that it's trying to avoid the familiar tropes associated with conflicts built around living weapons. There's a lot of exposition, not all of which is necessary. There are some mystery elements, which are organic extensions of the events unfolding in Weapon X. However, the very fact they involve living weapons somewhat limits the mystery.

The obscenely poor and exceedingly violent track record of living weapons programs in Marvel Comics doesn't hint at any major twist. In an era where Skrull agents and Hydra agents are overused, twists like that are limited in terms of impact. There's never a sense that Weapons of Mutant Destruction is going to break new ground. It has mutant-killing cyborgs and gamma-powered monsters. For both the X-men and the Hulk, these kinds of stories are aren't exactly as rare as adamantium.

Even though the story has many familiar elements, Pak does manage to mix in some unique details along the way. Teaming Amadeus Cho up with the likes of Old Man Logan, Sabretooth, and Lady Deathstrike adds some much-needed novelty to the story. Unlike Bruce Banner, Cho is less experienced with smashing mutant-killing machines. At the very least, though, Pak gives him plenty of incentive to learn quickly and not hesitate.


At one point, Cho is a little disturbed at the brutality of living weapons programs. Considering how Lady Deathstrike and Old Man Logan barely bat an eye, that's pretty revealing in terms of how common these stories are and how inexperienced Cho still is as the Hulk. From his perspective, fighting mutant killing machines isn't something he does every other Monday like the X-men. His role creates some new dynamics that help make the story feel fresh to a limited extent.

That extent still isn't enough to make Weapons of Mutant Destruction more than the latest in a long line of living weapons programs that need to be smashed and/or stabbed with adamantium claws. The story's reliance on exposition, as well as its slow pace, isn't going to make anyone hulk out. With the way the events plays out, the story acts more as a teaser rather than a culmination. That kind of structure works when a story is breaking new ground. It doesn't work quite as well when it's relying on the kind of living weapons tropes that have played out any number of ways since the disco era.

The concept of Weapons of Mutant Destruction is still sound. The story is, by no means, bereft of value. By most measures, Pak's handling of the story is competent and concise. The characters are spot on and the plot never gets too convoluted. Asrar's artwork complements these efforts as well, creating the kinds of dark, sinister undertones that are to be expected with any story involving living weapons or anyone who has ever had to deal with Lady Deathstrike and Sabretooth.

There's something to be said about a story that's so familiar that nothing short of clowns and Cosmic Cubes can make it feel novel. The concept of living weapons in the Marvel Universe is still one that will make anyone who has ever had to clean up blood stains roll their eyes. It can still make for a fun story though. Like a cold beer for Wolverine, it's a familiar and comforting experience. There will always be a place for stories like that in Marvel.

Final Score: 5 out of 10

X-men Supreme Issue 153: Youth Revolt PREVIEW!


The X-men Supreme fanfiction series is entering a tenuous period. The first few issues of X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided have established a very different, very divided status quo for Charles Xavier, the X-men, and their new competition, X-Force. Led by Cyclops and Wolverine, X-Force opposes the Mutant Monitoring Initiative that Charles Xavier crafted with President Kelly and General Grimshaw. They believe that this initiative means Xavier has compromised his dream and X-Force is trying to preserve that dream. Xavier is just as convinced that the Mutant Monitoring Initiative will benefit humans and mutants alike.

It’s a tough situation, one that has already tested both the X-men and X-Force. The first major arc of X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided, Volatility Sensibility, had both teams clash over a mutant struggling with a potent combination of bad luck and volatile powers. It’s the kind of conflict the X-men have dealt with throughout this fanfiction series and with much fewer complications. From Rogue’s arrival in X-men Supreme Issue 6: Rogue Recruit to Kitty Pryde’s recruitment in X-men Supreme Issue 16: Pryde and Prejudice, these kinds of conflicts are supposed to be easy for the X-men.

That’s not the case anymore, though. The simple act of helping a troubled mutant has become a lot more complicated. Charles Xavier understands this more than most. Cyclops, Wolverine, and the rest of X-Force understand it as well. They just see vastly different implications for the future of humans and mutants alike. In the grand scheme of things, Volatility Sensibility was a minor conflict involving one unlucky mutant, Nitro. Given how much the X-men and X-Force struggled with that issue, it doesn’t bode well for the larger conflicts that lay ahead. Some of those conflicts are already unfolding and within familiar places.

At the end of X-men Supreme Volume 6: Liberation Decimation, the X-men underwent a major shift in their team lineup. Two of the X-men’s youngest members, Iceman and Shadowcat, left the team to join Emma Frost’s Academy of Tomorrow. They made their debut in this fanfiction series back in X-men Supreme Issue 104: School Daze and were supposed to represent a simpler form of heroics, the kind the X-men used to practice during their earliest days. After the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, though, their purpose has changed. The Academy of Tomorrow has become a dumping ground for troubled mutants, much to the dismay of its founder, Emma Frost.

While Emma is fighting the changes to her school with X-Force, the rest of her students are about to take matters into their own hands. As the X-men and X-Force struggle to adopt to the changes imposed by the Mutant Monitoring Imitative, another conflict is emerging within the walls of the Academy. Being veteran X-men, Iceman and Shadowcat are about to don their uniforms again. What they and their younger cohorts in X-Factor uncover will have major implications for X-men Supreme moving forward. Some of the danger will be familiar to X-men fans. Some will be very different. As always, I’ve prepared a preview of just how different/familiar those implications will be.

“Can’t escape like this. I won’t outrun a mosquito, let alone the MSA,” he groaned.

Beak panted heavily, hoping that the discomfort would pass. As it lingered, time was ticking by. For all he knew, Sunfire had informed Emma Frost and Dr. Nemesis. They in turn would inform the MSA. He couldn’t afford to be caught. The only way he stood a chance was if he took another outrageous risk. Looking at the vials of Kick in his suitcase, he could think of only one option.

“Fuck it! Watered down or not, I need a boost,” said the ailing mutant.

With shaky hands, Beak retrieved one of the vials. Through labored breaths, he reached for a syringe that he kept under his bed. Without checking the needle or cleaning it, he drew a full dose. He was prepared to inject it, but he hesitated for a moment.

He remembered what this stuff did to him against Rockslide. He originally took a dose just to make sure it was real. It gave him the strength to lay out a mutant that was bigger, stronger, and tougher than he was. He would need that kind of strength to escape.

“Here goes nothing,” Beak groaned.

He was about to stick the needle in his arm when he heard an ominous snikt behind his door. The next thing he knew, his bedroom door was sliced open and kicked in. It started him so much that he nearly dropped the needle. As he clutched it firmly, he turned to see a very unnerving sight outside his bedroom.

“See how much time we save when we skip knocking?” growled X-23 as she entered the room.

“Point taken. I’ll save it for bathrooms and Emma Frost’s office only,” said Hellion as he followed her.

“I think we got the message across,” said Iceman, his body now covered in an ice shell, “Barnell Bohusk, we need to talk.”

“By talk he means drop the needle be smart,” said Shadowcat, who wore a new variation of her X-men uniform.

In an instant, the Beak’s discomfort was overshadowed by dread. His outburst on the softball field wasn’t exactly subtle. In a school with two former X-men, this made him a target in more ways than he expected.

There was nothing subtle about this intrusion. The team arrived in full force. X-23 led Hellion, Iceman, Magma, Shadowcat, and Colossus right to Beak’s room. Along the way, they linked up with Sunspot, Cannonball, Surge, Mirage, and Metldown. They were all in their old X-Factor uniforms, including their masks. If this was as volatile as they were led to believe, then they were going to confront it as a team. Such a strong show of force put Beak in an even more desperate position.

“Don’t let the costumes fool you, Beak. We’re not here to fight,” said Cannonball as he emerged from behind.

“Listen to him,” urged Iceman, “You’ll save us all a world of trouble.”

“Trust me, you want that,” said X-23 in a threatening tone, “I can already smell what’s in that syringe! It’s Mutant Growth Hormone, isn’t it?”

“How…how do you know about that?” demanded Beak.

“That’s for me to know and you to forget,” she barked, “Now do your limbs a favor and drop the damn needle!”

Her commands were harsh, more so than X-Factor would have liked. Iceman, Shadowcat, and Colossus couldn’t help but cringe. It was exactly the kind of provocation they didn’t need.

“It’s just like working with Wolverine again,” commented Colossus.

“Oye, this won’t end well,” groaned Shadowcat.

“Ten bucks says he doesn’t give up the needle,” said Meltdown.

“No deal. I can see where this is going,” said Sunspot.

X-23 wasn’t about to wait for an answer and Beak wasn’t given much time to consider it. As she clenched her fists in anticipation, Beak closed his eyes and jammed the needle into his arm, injecting the drug in the process. As soon as the reddish fluid entered his system, it had an immediate affect.

“Oh no you don’t!” growled X-23 as she lunged for Beak.

“No Laura! Don’t!” exclaimed Hellion.

There was no stopping her. The former living weapon followed her battle-hardened instincts, lunging towards Beak in an all-out attack. She had every intention of subduing him regardless of the wounds it would incur. However, she wasn’t the only one acting on instinct.

Just as X-23’s claws were within inches of Beak, he got up and revealed that the extra dose of Kick had a more profound effect. He made this effect painfully appearance as he took a deep breath and let out an ear-splitting screech that was coupled with a concussive wave of force.

“GO AWWWWAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYY!” he roared through the sonic assault.

“Arrgghhh!” X-23 cried out as she was blown back by the force.

“My ears!” exclaimed Surge.

“That’s a new trick,” groaned Mirage.

“Just like old times indeed,” groaned Iceman.

The powerful noise was incapacitated X-Factor. They were all forced to cover their ears and fall back. In addition, they had to get out of the way of the concussive blast. Beak’s roar was so loud that it blew a ten-foot hole in the wall, breaking lights and shattering his own desk in the process.

Hellion tried to divert some of the shrapnel with telekinesis while catching X-23. This didn’t prevent some from incurring some light wounds in addition to the assault on their ears. It was an impressive show of force from a mutant who wasn’t known for it.

“Damn! That’s more like it,” said Beak upon halting his assault, “No way that shit was watered down.”

“What? Is he saying something?” exclaimed Cannonball, still rubbing his ears.

“I think he just told us to piss off, but I’m not sure,” said Shadowcat, whose ears were bleeding.

Shadowcat, Iceman, and Colossus struggled to reorient themselves along with the rest of X-Factor. Their ears were reeling, but they didn’t need to hear in order to understand what was going on. They could see what was happening with Beak.

In addition to a new skill, the drug he just injected was giving him a new appearance. The veins in his neck and arms weren’t just throbbing. They were growing. His muscle mass increased three-fold, going from a somewhat scrawny teenager to a heavily muscled young man. In addition to his muscles his skin changed in a profound way, forming a thick layer gray feathers. This layer of feathers extending to his face, making it so he looked like a perfect half-man/half-bird.

The once obscure mutant was seething with a new rush of energy. This change in his body and his powers quickly filled him with a new mentality. He was no longer the feeble freak that his parents threw away. He was his own creature and nobody was going to push him around any more. With X-Factor still dazed, he secured the remaining doses of Kick and closed his suitcase.

“I didn’t want to make a scene, but I’m glad you guys made it necessary,” Beak taunted, “You have no idea how hard it was to get this shit.”

“Whatever you’re planning, I’m pretty sure it’s a mistake,” said Iceman.

“Says you!” scoffed Beak, “This stupid initiative gives you guys plenty to look forward to. But for guys like me, I got nothing! I don’t give a damn if it is breaking the law. I’m making my own law from here on out!”


As I develop the story around a divided X-men, there will be numerous plots and conflicts to manage. This may very well be the most complicated this fanfiction series has ever become. I knew in the early days, going back to X-men Supreme Volume 2: War Powers, that the stories I had planned would add complications. I’ve tried to minimize them so that X-men Supreme doesn’t become as bloated as the X-men comics. It has been difficult and X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided marks my biggest challenge to date.

As such, it’s vital that I continue to get more feedback from readers. I need to know whether I’m managing this challenge well or screwing up completely. Whether you’re a die-hard X-men fan or just a casual observer, I want to hear from you. This site has been subject to an annoying amount of spammers lately. I’d like to hear from actual readers so I don’t have to sift through so much crap. Either contact me directly or post your comments directly in the issue. I’ll try to find a way to filter out the spam. Until next time, take care and best wishes. Xcelsior!

Jack

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Red Queen Chronicles: Phoenix Part 3 is LIVE!


It's the beginning of summer. It's hotter than Emma Frost's panties as a diamond exchange. It's the time of sun, beaches, and bikinis. In other words, it's the perfect time of year for my sexy side-projects.

Since the unexpected success I got with "Spider-Man and the Prostitute," I've had plenty of projects to keep me busy. I've since expanded that world with "The New Red Queen" and the various spin-offs I've done from that. With someone as sexy as Mary Jane Watson running the show at the Hellfire Club, of all places, the potential for sexiness is virtually unlimited. There are so many sexy ideas to explore and I'm about to cap off another.


In the latest round of the Red Queen Chronicles, I've had Mary Jane and Emma Frost recruit Cyclops and Jean Grey to their ranks. So far, the process has been a bit messy, but sexy as hell for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who read the first two chapters. The final chapter should help cap things off in the most fitting, sexy way possible. Whether you're a Cyclops/Jean fan or just fans of sexy stuff like this, you'll find plenty to enjoy.


Again, I appreciate the strong response I've gotten with this and all my recent Red Queen stories. The more support I get, the more motivation I have to keep this sexy series going. I will announce right now that I do have another spin-off in the works. After that, though, nothing is set in stone. It depends on the response I get to this story and the next one. If there's still sufficient demand, I'll keep at it. Like I said, the potential for sexiness when it comes to Mary Jane Watson is unlimited. Nuff said!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

United, Divided, and Spited: Secret Empire United #1

The following is my review of Secret Empire United #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Every tyrannical regime in history usually learns the hard way that governing people is hard. People are erratic, petty, melodramatic, greedy, and every other quality associated with Lex Luthor. United them under a common state, guiding them down what tyrannical leaders think is in their best interests, tends to morph into a prolonged test of unending frustration. In a world populated by mutants, Inhumans, and teenagers that build suits of armor from trash cans, even Captain America is prone to such frustration.

Secret Empire pulls back the proverbial curtain, revealing a conspiracy wrapped in an agenda sparked by a retcon. The biggest secret not related to Tony Stark's biological parents comes out. Captain America has been a secret Hydra agent the whole time and puts himself in a position to take over. He does so with an efficiency that would give hippies and tobacco lobbyists alike nightmares. Short of a grassy knoll, it has everything conspiracy theory enthusiasts could ever want.

However, taking over the world is actually the easy part. The fact it takes Hydra so long and requires a Cosmic Cube says a lot about their efficiency as an organization. It also doesn't bode well for their ability to actually manage what they conquer. The pages of Secret Empire are already setting the stage for a clash to overthrow Hydra's new favorite patriot. Secret Empire United #1 opens a new front in that battle, one that's sure to complicate Hydra's efforts.

Jim Zub and Ario Anindito go out of their way to create some real-world parallels, giving the new Hydra-dominated nation a bitter border dispute. Given the sheer breadth of Hydra's power and influence, there aren't many nations that could actually threaten it. However, a nation full of mutants run by both X-men and their former enemies definitely would give any nation pause, Hydra or otherwise.

New Tian is presented as Hydra's solution for managing a sizable population of super-powered mutants. It's a small, semi-sovereign state where mutants and mutants live in limited harmony. It's actually very limited because the catalyst for the story is basically a script in racially bias police, albeit the opposite of what mutants are used to. It's both fitting and relevant. It highlights issues that are plucked right from the news and hashtag movements. While it's sure to spark divisive political debates, complete with outrage on both sides, it establishes and important dynamic for the issue.


Given how fascist states usually deal with minorities, it's surprisingly pragmatic. The Hydra-affiliated Steve Rogers understands that going to war with mutants rarely works out for anyone. It often ends with heroes fighting heroes and at some point, cosmic forces get involved and Tony Stark will try to shoot it with an oversized gun. That's not good for the stability of any nation, fascist or otherwise.

It's not a perfect solution, but it creates the perfect setup for a story that effectively doubles down on the conspiracy dynamics that guide the narrative in Secret Empire. It's a gamble, but it pays off in a big, satisfying way in terms of actual substance. It's a story that involves secrets, real-world issues, a prison break, and a fight that includes Deadpool. By the ever-changing standards of Marvel, it checks more boxes than most.

At the heart of that story are secrets and agendas. Captain America wants his Hydra-led empire to succeed and he prefers to do it without going to war with mutants. Mutants also want to improve their lot in the world. They've lived most of their non-Hydra lives in constant fear of Sentinel attacks, racial bigotry, and living weapons programs. Under Hydra, they have a chance to live in a state where they're the majority and they get preferential treatment by the cops. Even if it means living in a world dominated by Hydra, it still counts as an upgrade to them.

However, they're still a minority that shares a border with a Hydra-run nation. If the history of the real and fictional world has shown anybody anything, it's that minorities and fascist regimes don't get along. It creates bitter disputes, fosters even greater racism, and even sparks full-blown world wars. As everyone learned in Avengers vs. X-men, a war with mutants has no real winners in the long run.

That backdrop in Secret Empire United #1 helps make the events that play out feel real and dramatic. It's not just that there are parallels to draw between the story and the news that plays out every day on social media. It's easier to relate to the high emotions involve. Seeing characters like Sunfire decry a fascist state or listening to Hydra's leadership rail on strengthening the border carries more dramatic weight.


There are so many other cases of one group of super-powered people whining about another. In fact, that makes up the vast majority of Marvel's major conflicts. Secret Empire United #1 stands out by providing a real, relevant context to the situation. While it may inspire more political whining on social media, it makes for a much more compelling story and in an era where almost anything can spark political whining, that's a fair price to pay.

A story that fosters that kind of dramatic weight is strong enough on concept alone. However, Zub and Anindito really overachieve by crafting a concise, action-packed narrative, complete with a satisfying twist at the end. It's not the kind of twist that involves Cosmic Cubes or deals with Mephisto either. It's just a resolution that feels so perfectly appropriate, given the context of the situation and the over-arching themes of Secret Empire.

By nearly every measure, Secret Empire United #1 exceeds the expectations usually associated with tie-in issues. It's not simply a shameless plug for a larger story that creates one too many holes. It tells the kind of story that offers just the right kind of impact for a specific kind of story. It's essentially a targeted narrative, one that hits its mark in all the right ways. That, in the grand scheme of things, is still worth inspiring more angry political rants.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Friday, June 9, 2017

X-men Supreme Issue 152: Volatility Sensibility Part 2 is LIVE!


There’s a difference between the right decision and the prudent decision. That’s something the X-men deal with all the time in the comics, movies, and cartoons. The X-men Supreme fanfiction series is no different. Whether they’re caught in the middle of a war with the Shi’ar or trying to save the lost city of Nova Roma, the X-men have had to made more than a few hard decisions. In every occasion, their guiding principles came from Charles Xavier’s dream of peace and understanding. Now, in the evolving conflicts of X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided, those principles have become obscured.

It’s a critical and tenuous moment for this fanfiction series. The X-men are divided, but the world still needs them to make these hard decisions. Charles Xavier is trying to pursue a different dream with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Cyclops and X-Force are trying to preserve what remains of Xavier’s old dream. They cannot and will not compromise their principles. Now, in the events of Volatility Sensibility, they won’t have a choice.

X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided is in the midst of its first arc. It’s also the first major conflict since the X-men split in the events of X-men Supreme Issue 148: New Divide. A young mutant named Nitro find himself at ground zero of a potentially explosive situation, both literally and figuratively. A combination of bad luck and poor decisions on his part have made him a target of both the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and a group of petty criminals to which he is indebted. It’s up to the X-men and X-Force to try and resolve this situation before it literally blows up in their face.

In previous volumes of X-men Supreme, the decision would be relatively easy. Helping distressed mutants is what the X-men do. Whether it’s someone struggling with their powers, like Rogue did when hers first manifested, or helping a mutant like Gambit, who found himself in a tricky situation back home, the X-men make it a point to protect mutants. Under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, complete with the constant scrutiny of President Kelly and General Grimshaw, it’s not so easy anymore. Helping Nitro might also mean turning him over to the government or sending him to prison. That puts the X-men in a tough position while giving X-Force an opportunity to intervene.

Who is right and who is wrong in this instance? Will Xavier’s new methods win out? Will Cyclops and X-Force prove him wrong? It’s the first major test for the X-men and X-Force in X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided, but it will certainly not be the last. It is, however, as explosive as it gets. Whether they want to save Nitro or the innocent people he may hurt with his powers, they’ll have to make those hard decisions soon. What they do and don’t do will set the tone for the future of this fanfiction series. Make no mistake. Volatility Sensibility will have significant implications and it starts with this issue.

X-men Supreme Issue 152: Volatility Sensibility Part 2

There’s plenty more to come with X-men Supreme. This first arc of X-men Supreme Volume 7: United and Divided is meant to set the tone for the kind of conflict you’ll see between the X-men and X-Force. Now, I’ve followed the X-men comics as closely as most other X-men fans and I know that divided X-men has become somewhat taboo in recent years. I hope to go at it from a different perspective here in X-men Supreme.

As such, it’s very important that I continue to get feedback from readers on this fanfiction series. I especially want to hear from those fans who were as disappointed as I was with how the whole schism issue was handled with the X-men comics. I want to handle it better here in X-men Supreme and I need feedback to ensure I’m succeeding. Either post your comment directly in the issue or contact me directly. Either way is fine and I’m always happy to chat X-men. Until next time, take care and best wishes. Xcelsior!

Jack