Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately. Today’s reviews include recent issues of Miracleman and Mary Jane & Black Cat, some classic Doctor Strange and Aquaman, and some new/classic Bishop stories.
Let us know what you’ve been reading lately in the comments below or by tagging us on social media.
What have I been reading? Well, I’m a little behind on the new stuff, but I am in the middle of a couple of collections.
First up is the Doctor Strange Epic Collection Volume 8: Triumph & Torment. It reprints the first year of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme from 1988-89 and the Triumph & Torment graphic novel co-starring Doctor Doom. I’m not there yet (only through issue #11) but it’s been a fascinating ride. The first four issues come from writer Peter Gillis, penciller Richard Case and inker Randy Emberlin, who spin a slightly goofy tale about Dormammu inhabiting Strange’s body while our hero winds up as a rat. Yes, it does have a Frog-Thor vibe, but for me the attraction was Case’s artwork. This was right as Case was starting Doom Patrol with Grant Morrison, so it was an ideal fit. I mean, I loved Case on DP, but I wouldn’t have minded more of him on this book.
At any rate, Gillis and Case gave way to Roy & Dann Thomas writing and Jackson Guice pencilling for the rest of these regular-series issues. Since Roy wrote a lot of Doctor Strange stories in the early ‘70s, this felt very much of a piece with those, both good and bad. Once again Stephen Strange is irresistible to the ladies, although now he’s pledged himself to Clea, who (for the sake of drama) is stuck ruling the Dark Dimension. Guice’s work is more cheesecakey than I remember, but it too feels a bit retro. I was reminded, oddly enough, of Gene Colan, but brighter and with thinner lines. The Thomases start off with Strange getting drawn into a bad deal for Baron Mordo’s soul, then Morbius shows up and we get the history of Marvel vampires, and an “Acts of Vengeance” crossover brings the Hobgoblin to Bleeker Street. Running through these issues is a backup story about the Darkhold, which means a deep dive into continuity. It’s very readable as comfort food, but I’m looking forward to Roger Stern and Mike Mignola’s Doctor Doom team-up.
Next is Aquaman: Deadly Waters, collecting issues #49-56 of the Sea King’s book from 1970-71. I’m not quite through with this one either, but I did want to talk about the deeply weird issues #50-52. The book’s regular creative team was writer Steve Skeates and artist Jim Aparo, but for these three issues they were joined by Neal Adams doing Deadman backup stories. Basically Aquaman got transported to an alien world and had to find his way home, while Deadman saw what the aliens (and their ally Ocean Master) were up to, and figured out how to stop it. The result was the most psychedelic Jim Aparo art I have yet seen, a few mood-breaking meta moments (“weird telepathy” is depicted as “floating names of DC staffers”), and some unexpected Star Trek references. It wasn’t bad, and it did kind of make sense in the end, but it was just odd. I would love to hear the story of how it all came together.
Finally, I read Miracleman: The Silver Age #4, the latest stop on Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham’s reunion tour. I re-read their Golden Age miniseries from 1990-91 in order to get ready for this one, and boy howdy did it feel like one of those themed Sandman arcs without a lot of Morpheus in it. While it was well-executed, it was also very familiar. Because Silver Age puts the focus on the revived Young Miracleman, it has a different perspective on the societal divisions created by the superheroes’ innovations. Issue #4 finds YM connecting with an ex-superhero while one of the Warpsmiths reports on Earth’s progress, so there’s a hint of a larger plot among all the character work.
Of course, the character work alone would be worth the read. Maybe it’s my reaction to the sometimes-too-cool The Golden Age, but Gaiman and Buckingham have drawn a good bit of sympathy out of YM’s decades-old conservatism. He’s so far out of step with this world that his pushback is believable. I seem to remember that originally, the Silver Age would be followed by the Dark Age, so if that’s what Gaiman and Buckingham are working towards, it’s shaping up pretty well.
So the recent Spider-Man/X-Men crossover, Dark Web is over, and I think we’re all the better for it being done. What should have easily been a grand-slam home run turned out to be more of a bunt — remember back in 2021 when Peter Parker was taken out of commission so Ben Reilly replaced him for a bit, and we had this whole series by Zeb Wells, Kelly Thompson, Saladin Ahmed and others that set up Ben to become this great nemesis for Spider-Man? Like, months of set-up, then Peter returns and we get a new title written by Wells, but we start getting these teasers of Ben’s new persona, Chasm, and “Mwahahahaha! Let me come back and be the EVIL version of Spider-Man!” Honestly I don’t know if that was the intent of the Ben Reilly-led Spider-Man title from the beginning, just like I’m not sure if the WWE ever expected to have Sami Zayn main eventing a pay per view against Roman Reigns when Zayn first joined the Bloodline, but goddamn, bravo for going that route when it became obvious that it was the better path for everyone.
So when Chasm and his big plan finally debuts in this big crossover event with the X-Men, I was expecting something pretty grand, but instead … it was just kind of there. It recycled an old X-Men crossover concept in Inferno, and while the X-Men showed up, I’m not really sure what the point of having them around was. Oh hey, and Venom, too, for reasons I’m not really sure about; all it seemed to do was distract us from the compelling story that Al Ewing and Ram V and company were already telling over in his own title. And did we get much in the way of interaction between Ben and Peter? Not really … the whole crossover just felt light, on content, on emotion, on consequences … they actually could learn a thing or two from the Sami Zayn/Bloodline storyline.
So that brings me to Mary Jane and Black Cat, which I’ve found to be the bright spot in this whole thing. It’s written by Jed McKay and drawn by Vincenzo Carratú and Mike Dowling, and even though Dark Web is over and resolved, we’ve still got two more issues of this miniseries. Was it planned this way, or delayed? I’d have to go back and check, but if you skipped it, it’s definitely worth a look.
The story involves Mary Jane (who has powers now — did we know that before this?) and the Black Cat getting recruited by Magik’s old friend Belasco to steal his soul sword from this big, evil tower in Limbo, which would allow him to once again take over the realm he once ruled. (There’s some throwback here to that original Illyana/Magik storyline that saw a little girl get aged into a teenage magical demonic bad ass in the pages of Uncanny X-Men and the Magik miniseries). There’s also some tension between our two leads, given that Felicia has recently struck up a relationship once again with Peter and MJ doesn’t know about it. And it turns out that Belasco isn’t the only one looking for this sword — there are plenty of other factions from Limbo and beyond looking for it as well, and you can see that the creators had some fun in determining who they would be (one is Hydra, while another is a group from Heven, the 10th Realm that Angela is from). Oh, and S’ym, the big purple demon who used to pal around with Magik is there, and makes for a fun ally/foil to our heroines. While the fact that everything in Dark Web felt so unconnected became a hindrance to my enjoyment of it, the fact that this isn’t that closely tied to it actually works in its favor.
Now why the hell isn’t Sami Zayn champion?
Who even is Bishop these days?
I can remember a time when he was the new, exciting character for the X-Men, a guy from a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) who worked for the future cops of the X.S.E. and traveled back in time to catch his greatest enemy, only to find himself in the era of his heroes: the X-Men. It took him a while of readjustment to this not-so harsh and cruel time, but he eventually earned his place as an X-Man. Where he differs from also time-displaced soldier Cable is in his need for action to save the future; in Age of Apocalypse he is the only one to know this is just an alternate timeline mini-event and fights to restore his past/our present/their past – look, it’s time travel, everything gets pretty confusing. The man keeps getting zapped from a horrible future/time/place back to reality and yeah, that’s going to drive a man of action like Lucas Bishop to leap more than he looks. Crazy enough to try and kill a child to prevent another crisis from happening? Sure, but that’s where I have a hard time reconciling Bishop back into the fold. Bishop War College by J. Holtham and Sean Damien Hill seem to be hitting the same problem I have: this guy is way too intense to hang out on Krakoa.
Apparently, he takes it upon himself to create the titular War College to train the youth of Krakoa to be soldiers and yeah, this is sounding real familiar. His methods are too harsh! The kids just don’t understand! His unorthodox methods make him untrustworthy! He and his students meet on the level of he’s just doing his best and they are too, just some real Cable-era New Mutants/X-Force vibes. Then the Fenris Twins show up! Andrea and Andreas von Strucker were dead last I checked but death has no meaning or context in the Krakoa era so sure, why not. They are working for Orchis, the evil pro-humanity organization that every acronym’ed Marvel operation from SHIELD to AIM to Hydra is a part of, and getting into Krakoa through an underground secret entrance that the Quiet Council had on their list of ‘Things to Take Care of’. The War College and Orchis collide underground and leave us with a cliff-hanger: not only are the kids Bishop was training trapped underground without their powers, but Bishop and the time-controlling Tempo seem to have been blasted to another timeline where… Scott and Jean are African-American? Possibly, it’s a cliffhanger splash page, they could be in Wakanda for all I know. But what does all this mean?
I have no idea why this book exists, but I’m not mad that it does. With all the Sins of Sinister and grander plots at large in the Krakoa era where it feels like if you miss an issue you’re completely out of the loop, there’s a comfort to a book that’s kind of an old fashioned throwback to a classic X-Men era: the kids are in trouble and have to work together while their mentor is unavailable. I don’t feel that you have to have been reading ages of X-Men comics to get into this brand new #1 issue and it may entice some old fans into trying out this new era of X-Men. My one big reservation is Bishop and if his name is big enough and interesting enough to put on the front cover to sell the book. Considering how much his character has changed throughout the years, I can’t say we’ve all been clamoring for his latest adventures.
Marvel thinks so because he’s also the star of X-Men Legends #6 by Whilce Portacio and Brian Haberlin: here, we have a flashback to Bishop relating his tale of how he got to the future from Uncanny X-Men #287 and how it all was his fault. An interesting retelling of his first appearance ensues: where originally Bishop and his XSE comrades were in hot pursuit of the time portal creating Fitzroy and the criminal mutants he released, now there was a grander plan at work. Back in Bishop’s time, innocent mutants were being kept in prisons along with the dangerous criminal ‘Lifers’ that the XSE was putting away, so he was the one to devise an escape plan with known backstabbing and untrustworthy people. In an attempt to do good, Bishop fell into hubris that he could outfox the organization he worked for and the devious elements that had corrupted it. The story is well told from Bishop’s perspective as hindsight is indeed 20/20 for time travelers, and Portacio’s haunting shadows are a great element of Bishop casting doubt on his past actions.
In an interview with Marvel.com, Portacio notes that “when Karl [Altstaetter] and I created Lucas Bishop, we built in our heads, a world for Omega Squad to exist in. […]In the original incarnation, we didn’t have much time to show any of that. Here in these two issues, Brian [Haberlin] and I are able to give the audience a beginning glimpse of some of the detail of the world that Bishop left behind.”
Which is true; while Bishop and the world of his future has been explored in other books, this is the first time we’re seeing one of his creators take the time to expand on a story that honestly wasn’t given that much time back in its day. Portacio and Haberlin are doing a great job of reconciling the man Bishop was then to the man we know today and considering X-Men Legends #7 will continue this story, I think my question of “Who even is Bishop these days?” should be well and truly answered.