X-Men #30 (Marvel): If you bothered to notice that the name of this arc is the “Blank Generation,” you could probably guess it’s a Brian Wood joint. Not only does the writer seem to push his characters to discover their identities, but by extension he sometimes seeks to clarify the identity of his own generation. Here, that’s represented by the way he quickly introduces proto-mutant DNA which could rewrite the entire history of the X-Men, subverting their origins in the process. I feel that the high concept of this book is basically Storm leading a small strike team in the form of the Authority meets Planetary, in fine WildStorm fashion. They’re aboard their tricked out ship, not unlike the Authority’s Carrier, teleporting globally to investigate anomalous incidents hidden from the world at large, not unlike Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer. It’s not that these are blatant swipes or anything, just subtle influences of Warren Ellis and the WildStorm “what could have been,” which maybe imprinted on Wood’s own DNA. The ideas have gravitas, you get the sense Wood did his trademark research here, from the inclusion of small “likes” such as the Mutantes Sans Frontieres organization, to the Ellis-ian sci-fi bits like the way their stealth cargo ship is powered green (and I certainly hope Wood comes up with a name for it, because all great ships have a name, from the Millennium Falcon, to the Authority Carrier, The X-Men Blackbird, or Malcolm Reynolds and Serenity). David Lopez is not an artist I was familiar with, but his work is simply fantastic, and I think instantly underrated. Dude should be a star that everyone knows. There’s so much slender detail and consistency running throughout the work. It’s almost like if you crossed, I don’t know, a smaller scale John Cassaday with someone like JH Williams III. Storm has never been one of my favorite X-characters, but between her confident leadership and best-ever aesthetic, I’m suddenly a fan. Lopez’s characters all have something unique to them, something ethnically distinct, and I was deep into the book before I even realized that 4 of the 5 team members are women. That’s something we probably need more of. It’s important to note that not only does Lopez depict them differently, with different visuals, but Wood does the same with their personalities. And none of them play the stereotypical roles of interchangeable window dressing, damsels in distress, or ruthless robotic killer types. These are all strong women with something special to offer. This might sound hyperbolic, but I think it’s true for me. In the last 20 years, the best X-Men books are probably Whedon & Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men, Remender & Opena’s Uncanny X-Force, and now Wood & Lopez’s X-Men. How the heck did that just happen? Grade A.
Conan The Barbarian #5 (Dark Horse): Something you might forget with everything else going on is that this arc, "The Argos Deception," is basically a heist story at heart. Early on, and I’m not sure if this is true of Howard’s original or something Wood has added, there’s definitely some social commentary about socioeconomics and class standing about the Messantian 1%. I think I still prefer James Harren’s art to Becky Cloonan’s, that first shot of bloody Conan sitting in a dark cell really typifies everything about his style. I like the rough textures and the mood it’s able to evoke. His art is also a more subtle creature, rewarding a slower pace, like the almost imperceptible smirk on Conan’s face when the “mysterious lady” (ha!) proposes a contest of champions. The ultimate fight is something else. In the middle of this rigged, unfair-on-both-sides affair, you realize that Conan might not be the smartest guy, he might not be the strongest guy, he might not even be the fastest guy as he suggests, but he’s certainly the most cunning, and that’s always his advantage. It’s his ability to read people and situations, and be perceptive, that saves his bacon more often than not. I think some people have complained that the script is a little heavy with omniscient narrative text, but I don’t mind it. I enjoy the voice and the aesthetic of the old typeface that Kurt Busiek even used in his run. It’s like it’s become something of a Dark Horse house style for the Conan property. I think I might have spotted a small mistake! Is “lime” actually the right word when they’re talking about throwing a shovelful of something into a grave? I always thought it was “lye” that was the corrosive alkaline substance that aided and expedited a body’s decomposition? Lastly, let me again just heap praise onto Dave Stewart. Notice his use of red in this issue, the way it punctuates certain actions, you’ll know them when you see them, there’s so much going on artistically between Harren and Stewart, emphasizing perspective and speed, it’s really a master class in how the entire creative team works together seamlessly to create effect. Grade A.
Ultimate Comics: X-Men #13 (Marvel): Brian Wood jumps into the Ultimate Universe and does his best to turn the aircraft carrier on a dime and right the good ship after Nick Spencer’s odd conglomeration of unwieldy plot threads finally got away from him. Wood makes some quick moves, centering the drama back on a strong female lead like we knew he would – this time the fan favorite character Kitty Pryde. He jettisons Johnny Storm, aka: The Human Torch – who’d been running with the crew – because he’s not technically a mutant anyway. Before you know it, Kitty’s decided to leave New York City (which looks more like the NYC of Wood’s DMZ, with forces divided and resembling an active war zone), tosses away her silly Shroud guise, slaps on an X-arm band with her stripped down crew of Rogue, Iceman, and Wolverine’s son Jimmy Hudson, finds a new identity for herself, and heads to the American Southwest to fight Nimrod Sentinels who are trying to exterminate her entire species as an outlaw resistance fighter that the government will surely label the greatest mutant terrorist of her time. We know this because Wood opens with that shocking statement. Fuckin’ A, this book! It's going places with speed. Paco Medina seems to be keeping up for the most part, art ranging from quite good and distinct to some spots that are a little wonky and generic, but we can probably blame that on the fill-in guy. Compared to Wood’s other X-Men book this week (a phrase I didn’t expect to be saying), this is probably less high concept sci-fi and a little more grounded in militant subversion, exercising different parts of the brain, and I’m excited to see where it goes. Grade A-.