Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are All-New Captain America #1, written by Rick Remender with art by Stuart Immonen; Superior Iron Man #1, written by Tom Taylor with art by Yildiray Çinar; and Thor #2, written by Jason Aaron with art by Russell Dauterman. These three issues take Marvel’s biggest Avengers in different directions, with Captain America and Thor emphasizing diversity while Superior Iron Man turns Tony Stark into a villainous tech guru. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
For the last two years, Marvel has made a habit of unleashing waves of new titles with publishing initiatives revolving around the word “now.” It began with Marvel Now! back in late 2012/early 2013, continued with All-New Marvel Now! at the start of this year, and Avengers Now! landed last month, turning attention to characters associated with Marvel’s premier superteam.
Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor are considered the central trinity of The Avengers, and this week sees major changes for the three characters in their respective solo titles. Following the events of Rick Remender’s first volume of Captain America, Steve Rogers has been stripped of the super-soldier serum that kept him young and fit, forcing him to pass the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson, formerly the high-flying superhero The Falcon. And after this summer’s mediocre crossover event, Original Sin, the burly blond male Thor has been deemed unworthy of carrying his hammer, Mjolnir, opening the doors for a new female Thor to rise in his stead.
The change for Iron Man isn’t quite as drastic as those for his fellow Avengers, but like Thor, Tony Stark’s character shift is the result of yet another mediocre event: Axis. (It really hasn’t been a good year for Marvel crossovers.) Following the mass personality inversion caused by one of Scarlet Witch’s spells—giving heroes the mentality of villains and vice versa—Tony Stark is now a bigger asshole than ever before, taking advantage of San Franciscans’ desire for physical perfection as a means to expand his wealth and influence. It’s a status quo shift heavily inspired by the success of Superior Spider-Man, which reinvigorated Dan Slott’s Spider-Man run by putting Otto Octavius’ mind in Peter Parker’s body, combining Dr. Octopus’ thirst for power with Spider-Man’s sense of moral responsibility.
All-New Captain America and Thor may have restarted their numbering, but they are very much continuations of the stories from the previous volumes, not surprising considering the books haven’t changed writers with their relaunches. That said, writers Rick Remender and Jason Aaron do strong work making these new runs as accessible as possible for incoming readers, largely by accentuating action while dropping bits of exposition along the way.
The first issue of All-New Captain America is almost entirely dedicated to an extended action sequence that is beautifully illustrated by the new art team of penciller Stuart Immonen, inker Wade Von Grawbadger, and colorists Marte Gracia and Eduardo Navarro, highlighting how Sam Wilson’s aerial expertise switches up Captain America’s fighting style.
Last month’s Thor #1 delivered plenty of rousing action courtesy of artist Russell Dauterman and colorist Matthew Wilson, but spent much more time catching readers up on the new status quo for the male Odinson (the new name for the now-unworthy former Thor). For the big introduction of the new Thor, this week’s Thor #2 considerably elevates the ass-kicking quotient, revealing a new Goddess of Thunder who hasn’t lost any of the power of the former male persona.
Those disappointed by the lack of female Thor in last month’s first issue—she didn’t appear until the final pages—will be pleased to know she’s firmly placed in the spotlight with the series’ second chapter, although her human identity is still being kept a secret for now. Based on hints in this week’s story and letters column, I’d guess the new Thor is Roz Solomon, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent introduced in Aaron’s Thor: God Of Thunder. The character shares a name with Jack Kirby’s wife, and it would be a nice tribute to the Thor co-creator—whose family recently reached a settlement with Marvel Comics following a five-year legal battle that almost went to the Supreme Court. (As part of that settlement, Kirby now receives a co-credit in all the comics featuring characters he helped create, including this week’s Thor, All-New Captain America, and Superior Iron Man.)
Jason Aaron is building up an epic battle of the 10 realms, and his first arc on the new Thor title moves that storyline forward as Malekith, the king of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, teams up with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim to attack Earth. This type of wide-screen fantasy action needs an artist who can really capture a sense of scope, and Marvel takes a gamble by giving this responsibility to an artist that is still fairly new to mainstream superhero comics. Dauterman broke onto the scene in 2012 with his art on Grace Randolph’s Boom series Superbia, but his career has really taken off in the last 12 months with short, but very memorable runs on Nightwing and Cyclops.
That latter series with Greg Rucka was where Dauterman showed his skill for capturing the cosmic sci-fi fantasy aspects that are at the heart of so many Marvel characters, and he’s only getting better and better with each project. The Olivier Coipel influence in Dauterman’s artwork makes him a great fit for the world of Thor (Coipel’s run on Thor stands as one of the artistic high points for the series), but there’s also an influx of art nouveau elements in the linework that bring an added sense of femininity to the visuals. These include delicate outlines around Thor’s luxurious blonde hair, which swirls around her head as the goddess soars into action, and flowing ribbons of smoke and lightning, which help create a sweeping sense of motion on the page.
The art nouveau elements provide a refreshing softness that contrasts with the moments of hard-hitting action, a dynamic that is further reflected in Matthew Wilson’s lush color palette. Wilson is a veteran Marvel colorist with significant Thor experience after working with Chris Samnee on the must-read Thor: The Mighty Avengers series written by Roger Langridge, one of the best, most accessible Thor stories in the character’s history. Wilson brings an intense energy to Dauterman’s artwork, using the contrast of hot and cold tones to highlight force. One of the issue’s coolest moments is when Thor unleashes Mjolnir on two Frost Giant dogs, an image that traces the hammer’s path with a streaming hand-lettered sound effect from Dauterman that Wilson colors with a burning orange and neon pink that pop against the cool blue background.
Dauterman does outstanding work emphasizing the strength of the new Thor in his art; her stance is very grounded, and she’s put in the type of forceful action poses that are the norm for male superheroes, but stand out in an environment where women’s bodies are still regularly exploited. (There has been a significant shift in this over the past year in most of the solo female series at Marvel and DC, but there’s still no shortage of artists who focus on cheesecake in their representations of women.) By the end of this issue, the reader is left with the impression that the new Thor is total badass, and that’s one of the easiest ways to make the superhero audience accept a new version of a character.
That may be why Rick Remender also chooses to focus his first issue of All-New Captain America on Sam Wilson in action, pitting him against Hydra agents and Batroc the Leaper, who is given a slick new redesign by Immonen. (Don’t worry, the mustache is still there.) The approach of Remender’s script for this first issue is very much in line with what he did when Steve Rogers was the lead of the book, establishing Sam Wilson’s past in flashback and his character motivations through narration while showing his current action-packed adventures as Captain America.
The opening flashback is where the reader learns how the focus on Sam changes the perspective of the book, and Sam’s experience growing up as the son of a Harlem preacher is considerably different from Steve’s childhood as the son of Irish immigrants struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Whereas Steve’s father was an abusive drunk who showed him the kind of person he didn’t want to become, Sam’s father instilled in his son a strong moral compass and a dream of hope for a better world, a dream that he can potentially make a reality as the new Captain America.
The rest of the issue shows Sam making his way through a Hydra base with the help of Steve Rogers’ adopted son Ian, who has taken on his father’s old Nomad identity. Remender is working with one of the best, most versatile artists in comics with Immonen, and whether he’s staging pulse-pounding action or detailing emotional moments in Sam’s past, his art elevates the scripts every step of the way. Immonen and Von Grawbadger have developed an exceptional creative relationship working together at Marvel Comics, and his meticulous inks bring incredible texture and depth to Immonen’s linework.
Gracia colored this art team on All-New X-Men, and he continues to exhibit a firm understanding of the balance of gritty realism and superhero spectacle that makes Immonen and Grawbadger’s work so impactful. There’s a level of fine detail in Gracia and Navarro’s rendering that grounds everything in reality, but he doesn’t shy away from bright flashes of color that enhance action beats, dictating rhythm by switching between different shades across the entire rainbow spectrum.
There’s plenty of action in Tom Taylor’s script for Superior Iron Man, but the plot is primarily rooted in the tech climate of San Francisco, with a central concept that involves Tony Stark developing a techno-virus “designed to transform you into the very best ‘you’ you can be,” a virus that is delivered via an app. That means perfection only comes to those that have access, expanding the gap between the city’s elite and the lower class. A study released by Brookings Institution earlier this year revealed San Francisco’s wealth gap has been growing faster than any other city in America, and Taylor’s story cleverly addresses the class disparity of the West Coast metropolis in a way that blends superhero sci-fi with political commentary.
Tony is the king of San Francisco after he bestows this gift upon its people, but like any wise tech guru, he knows that once people are hooked on something they got for free, they’ll start paying to keep the service. The first issue ends with Tony taking back his gift and charging each app user $99.99 per day to renew the service, the kind of devious move that resonates strongly because so many readers have had to deal with this situation from real-world tech companies, although the stakes are taken up a notch when people are paying for perfection instead of Candy Crush.
Like Superior Spider-Man, part of the fun of these villainous heroes is seeing how the rest of the world reacts to their personality change, and this first issue positions Pepper Potts as Tony’s primary opponent while also bringing in Daredevil and She-Hulk. (Reminder: There’s a spectacular new issue of She-Hulk this week concluding the three-part trial pitting Daredevil and She-Hulk against each other in court. Not only is it a great story for Marvel’s super-attorneys, but it also shows how well Charles Soule understands Steve Rogers’ character.) Even with the modern tech angle, there are a lot of conventional superhero elements in this first issue, which play to artist Yildiray Çinar’s strengths.
Superior Iron Man’s production design by Summer Lacy, Nelson Ribeiro, and Irene Y. Lee is heavily inspired by the sleek, clean aesthetic of Apple (missed opportunity: calling the book iRon Man), but that doesn’t carry over to the interior artwork by Çinar and colorist Guru-eFX. Çinar delivers classic superhero visuals in the vein of George Perez or John Byrne while Guru-eFX provides colors that have that artificial sheen reminiscent of the early days of computer coloring. As a result, the visuals come off as dated, working against the forward-thinking script instead of reinforcing its ideas.
The main question with new directions like the ones in All-New Captain America, Superior Iron Man, and Thor is always how long will they last? Usually, these changes stick around until the characters appear on the big-screen again, returning their comic-book interpretations to versions that will be more familiar to any new readers gained by the films. Because of this, people are cynical about these different takes, especially when they earn the kind of mainstream attention that a black Captain America and female Thor have received. Are these just cheap stunts to gain attention or do they mark real steps forward for diversity at Marvel Comics? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, these new directions are taking readers to some very fun places.