Astonishing Tales #1

Do you remember "Marvel Comics Presents?" There was the original run of the anthology comic, which debuted in 1988 and lasted a whopping 175 issues. Then, in the fall of 2007, Marvel dusted the anthology title off and gave it another shot, lasting 12 issues before getting killed due to low sales. Well, it's been all of six months since the end of "Marvel Comics Presents" and now it's back, but under the new name of "Astonishing Tales." Tragically, aside from a shiny new title, there's almost nothing astonishing about this new version of an old title.

The high point of the book is actually the last feature, where Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra plunge Cannonball and Sunspot into Mojoworld to become movie writers since all of Mojo's writers have gone on strike. It makes you wonder just how long this story has been in the works (what with the Writers Guild of America's strike having ended in February 2008), and this first installment's story is rather lackluster. Where it stands out, though, is that the first four pages are illustrated by Hickman in a beautiful homage to Bill Sienkiewicz's legendary run on "New Mutants." The characters not only look like Sienkiewicz's art, but even some of Sienkiewicz's visual shorthand cues, like dashed lines leading from one panel to the next as a character transforms, are present. It's easily the most exciting thing about the comic, and it's actually a bit of a disappointment when the book shifts to Mojoworld and Pitarra's average looking art takes over the serial.

C.B. Cebulski and Kenneth Rocafort have the actual lead feature, but it's a lackluster story involving the Punisher and Wolverine fighting Hydra goons in Madripoor. Maybe future installments will bring something different to the table, but this is a story that just feels tired. Maybe it's because even the first "Marvel Comics Presents" story was telling Madripoor stories, but it just feels like a story that's gone back to the same well one too many times. Rocafort's pencils look nice in spots, but I suspect their rough nature will leave more traditional-art-liking fans a little cold.

Still, it's more inventive than the other two stories here. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Lou Kang dust off Iron Man 2020 (and while 2020 may have seemed very far away when the character debuted in 1984, now it's just starting to sound silly) for the first part in a completely unmemorable story, while Christopher Sequeira and W. Chew Chan use the present day Iron Man in an underwhelming story about Iron Man fighting a villain at a special gala. The latter story, with its footnote explaining that it takes place before "Secret Invasion," feels like something that's been sitting in a drawer for a while, but at least it's the only complete story in the entire book, with all three others stopping with a "to be continued" marker.

Paul O'Brien's sales chart analysis of the last "Marvel Comics Presents" that ended in August 2008 showed the book shedding 70% of its sales over those 12 months. I'm a little surprised that Marvel's giving the ongoing anthology title format yet another try, and so quickly at that. If this is the best that Marvel's going to offer up, I suspect that "Astonishing Tales" will not astonish anyone with a swift cancellation. This is a book that felt like it was full of old inventory stories, and that's not going to end up being much of a draw for anyone.

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