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Pipeline, Issue #463

BENDIS CARRIES ON. . .

THE NEW AVENGERS: SECRETS & LIES is the third hardcover collection of the revamped Brian Bendis-penned series at Marvel. This one collects NEW AVENGERS #11-15, as well as the opening short story from GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-WOMAN #1. Make no mistake about it -- Spider-Woman is the star of this collection, though Ronin comes a close second.

The book is divided into two storylines. The first is a good old-fashioned ninja fight stampede, allowing David Finch to show his chops in drawing outrageous action sequences. The second is the new secret origin of Spider-Woman, giving Frank Cho the chance to draw lots of breasts. It's not quite as lurid as it seems, as Bendis crafts a character here who is conflicted and questionable, right to the bitter end of the story.

The first story is filled with ninjas, Hydra, Spider-Woman, The Clan Yashida, the Silver Samurai, and more. Scenes alternate at first between the chatty Captain America setting up the Avengers to intervene in a potentially combustive situation in Japan, and the antics of Ronin in Japan, working swiftly and quietly to defuse a volatile situation. This is measured storytelling, not needless decompression. The second part of the story becomes a more traditional superpowered fight, as the Avengers take on the ninjas and more from the rooftop of Stark Enterprises in Japan. Finch gets a chance to show off his artwork and storytelling capabilities. Bendis keeps things lively throughout this round, with plenty of great quips from Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and even Captain America. It's keeping in character and all worth a chuckle.

It does point to a shortcoming of the Premiere Edition hardcover format, though. Word balloons on the far right side of the left page and the far left side of the right page are easily lost in the binding. It's an ages-old problem, but it doesn't look to me like Marvel is taking special care to push the art on the pages out from the center of the book. With the double page spreads in the book, I can understand that. But there are a few balloons you really need to open the pages wide to see clearly. They've done a better job in the oversized hardcover editions so far, but the premiere editions are a little murkier.

The second storyline outlines Spider-Woman's recent history, giving old-time readers a chance to see how she got her powers back. Newer readers -- or, at least, those not associated with her history at all, like me -- get to learn her origin. It's a dark and twisted tale that's filled with tough decisions and hidden motivations. In the end, it leaves plenty of great questions lingering for future plot lines. More than that, it includes the return of Nick Fury (sort of), J. Jonah Jameson making a deal with the Avengers, and the team's outing to the media. There are lots of great Marvel moments in the story, and it's definitely worth a read.

Frank Cho handles art duties for the two-parter. It's strong stuff for him, but he's still stuck at the middle-shot, eye-level point of view. He doesn't mix things up all that often, owing to his comic strip background. There are no dramatic worm's eye or bird's eye point of views in here. It's all talking heads (and shoulders and chests) from a discrete distance. I'd like to see him experiment with more angles and take more chances in his storytelling approach past rectangular panels in tiers. While I'm a big fan of that in a day and age of needlessly diagonal panels that call attention to themselves (John Byrne), or artists who appear to just throw panels onto the page in the hops it works in the end (Leinil Francis Yu), I'd still like to see more variety.

NEW AVENGERS: SECRETS & LIES is a $20 hardcover, and it's available in stores today. It has more story than the second volume, and competes with the first book for the most twisted plots and characterizations. Yes, I mean that in a good way.

LARSEN KEEPS ON CHUGGING. . .

THE SAVAGE DRAGON #125 is out this week, and I've had the chance to sample it ahead of time. It's a 64 page full-color slugfest of a comic for just $4.99. Most books this size would be a dollar or two more, but this one avoids that fate by including reprints from a variety of sources. The Dragon/Glum stories from the 2004 IMAGE SUMMER SPECIAL, the last attempt at restarting NEGATIVE BURN, and the IMAGE HOLIDAY SPECIAL are all present here.

Along with that comes 44 pages of brand new DRAGON goodness complete from Erik Larsen's slightly insane mind. The first fourteen pages are your usual lead story. Dragon has a fight in the city streets. Dragon acts moody around his friends. Dragon has another fight. There is not a terribly happy ending. The second story is "The Fly," and it's the kind of thing that only Larsen would dare attempt, though it would be a great concept for a 24 Hour Comic. Using one repeated panel of art six times a page over 24 pages, Dragon tells the story of a fly hovering over the broken body of a man in the hospital. It's a running monologue of one character for 144 panels. Larsen cops to using it as a "creative exercise" in the letters column at the end, and I think that's a fair assessment. Had this been an issue of the title on its own, I think a lot of people might have felt gypped. Including it in a supersized book like this, surrounded by lots of more traditional stories, makes it more palatable. In the end, I think a lot of people will think the experiment went on about ten pages too long. I enjoyed the outrageousness of the attempt enough to forgive Larsen this one.

The third new story is another Glum tale, "A Wish Granted," which is as funny as the other Glum bits in the book. I'd like to see Larsen do an entire issue of just short Glum stories. They're some of his strongest work in recent years, honestly, and easily accessible to non-DRAGON readers. The SIN CITY-esque "A Very Glum X-Mas" still cracks me up.

One other lenience you must grant Larsen is his lettering. At this point, he's doing everything in the book on his own, minus the one page "Comic Bits" from Chris Giarrusso. That includes all the coloring and lettering. He's been off to a brilliant start on the coloring. While there's still the occasional panel where the colors flatten the depth instead of adding to it, he's much more hit than miss, over all. He's even mastered some advanced techniques very quickly, such as coloring pages to make them look like a comic colored and printed in the 60s. The lettering will take more patience, though. While it does give the book a slightly 80s-indie look, it's not the cleanest work in comics. It's clearly hand-written, with shaky balloons, uneven lines of text, and variable tail shapes. On the other hand, he could work this to his favor. Not too many letterers ape Dave Sim's work today, and that's some of the most expressive lettering in comics from the last three decades. No computer could accurately replace it in a font or two. Larsen has moments where he experiments with modern accepted conventions for lettering that work. He needs to do more of that. Eventually, he'll learn to tone down all the bold-faced lettering that's colored in with gradient effects, but when he does, he'll have some powerful tools at his disposal.

For long-time DRAGON fans, this issue will be a treat. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that it's a great jumping on point for new readers. The lead story makes sense on its own, but likely wouldn't have much impact on a new reader. On the other hand, the humorous short stories -- and even the longer "The Fly" story -- could appeal to a much broader audience. Those pages outnumber the main story by a bunch. For only $5, it's a fairly good sampler of where Erik Larsen's head is at today. It's just not designed to be a new starting point just yet. I get the feeling that we'll get one of those entry points in the upcoming months, though. I'll let you know when I see it.

THE HITS KEEP ON COMING. . .

I'm trying very hard not to read into this situation, but I can't help but wonder. Maybe low sales on the individual issues scared NBM away from printing the collection? Maybe NBM's current publishing plan is to stick with the political books in lieu of more translated works that don't come from Lewis Trondheim? Maybe Kanan is testing the waters at Image? I don't know.

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