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Christmas Hot Ink — Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield?, Northlanders #23, Beasts of Burden #4

ComicsAlliance’s Chris Murphy reviews the biggest — and best — books coming out this week.

STOP ME IF YOU KNOW HOW THIS ENDS – Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield?

If I learned anything from the holiday classic “Jingle All the Way,” a movie which I have never actually seen, it is that the true meaning of Christmas is finding that one special gift that no one else can give because there is a limited supply and you got there before everyone else did.

Appropriately, this is the quandary at the heart of this week’s “Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield?” Steve Rogers is back from being lost in time and then inside his own head, and now would like the most powerful and patriotic frisbee every created by human hands returned to him.

Problem is, James “Bucky” Barnes was doing a pretty good job of handling the shield and the mantle of Captain America while Steve was dead-but-not-actually-dead. And Bucky, who knows a thing or two about being dead-but-not-actually-dead himself, isn’t eager to go back to his old costume, considering its unpleasant associations with all those decades he spent as a Soviet Union brainwashed killing machine.

To say that the Winter Soldier’s outfit has some blood on its gloves would gloss over the fact that there’s probably also blood on the chest, boots, and eye mask. And, let’s face it, odds are the blood probably soaked through to the socks and the underwear, too. So this one-shot kicks off what isn’t exactly a conflict, but is instead two good friends attempting to decide who is better suited to taking on the enormous responsibility of being Captain America.

But first, an angry rant. The first sentence of the recap page, directly below the title, is this: “PLEASE NOTE: The following takes place after the events of Captain America: Reborn #6! Sorry, Folks!“. So Marvel is apologizing for releasing this story before its miniseries is over. Now, an apology would imply the following: Something has been done wrong. Something that, if the apologizer had the power to go back and do again, they would make sure to not do again. Except that it is entirely within Marvel’s control in what order their books are released.If this story should have waited to be told until after “Captain America Reborn” is concluded, then Marvel should have delayed it until after “Captain America Reborn” issue 6 is released. The addition of an apology doesn’t help matters one bit. While the words say “Sorry, Folks!”, what the fact that I’m able to hold a copy of this book in my hands before I get the last issue of “Reborn” actually says is “We don’t really care enough to readjust our schedule to release these books in an order that makes narrative sense, even though we’d be able to do so if we wanted to. So instead we’re releasing it now anyway, because we think you’ll probably still buy it.”

Now, of course everyone knows what’s going to happen, because Steve Rogers has officially been back in the Marvel universe for a while now, meaning that nobody really expected his struggle with the Red Skull over control of his own mind was going to end with the Skull victorious. But even considering how badly Marvel has botched “Reborn” so far, this is certainly a new low.

It puts me in mind of another, lesser known holiday tradition. Some of you may have heard of La Befana, but for those who haven’t I’ll explain. She’s a figure from Italian Christmas folklore, on old woman who was visited by the three wise men on their way to pay respects to the newborn Baby Jesus. When they stopped at her home for the night, they invited her to come with her on their journey. “Befana,” they said, “we’re going to visit the newly born son of God, a child whose birth will alter the course of human history from this moment forward. An event such as this only happens once over the course of several millennia. And we’ve totally got room on room of our extra camels, if you don’t mind the smell of Frankincense. Or Myrrh. Whichever the one is that smells bad.”

But the Befana answered them “No, I’m good here; I’ve still got housework to finish, as is typical and appropriate of a woman of my time and social status. You go on ahead, I have no interest in witnessing an event that will likely be talked about until the universe collapses in on itself billions and billions of years from now.” So they left her there. And when she changed her mind and went to look for the Christ child, he was already gone. So now, every January 6th, she leaves toys and candy for good children as she continues her never ending quest to find Baby Jesus.

And no one cares, because Santa was already there about two weeks earlier and left much better presents. In this case, “Captain America Reborn #6 is La Befana. By the time it gets here, it’s going to be one of the most anticlimactic comics to ever be released. Marvel’s release schedule has turned it into a complete afterthought, the comics equivalent of a crazy old woman in rags throwing around a few pieces of candy that people say we should make a big deal about, but honestly at this point it’s difficult to get our hearts in it anymore.

Oh, right, there was a comic I was supposed to be reviewing. “Who Will Wield the Shield?” isn’t bad, looked at in a vacuum, but there’s nothing special about it. An interesting dynamic is set up, where Bucky wants Steve to take the shield back and yet also knows he’ll miss what being Captain America meant to him. And at the same time, Steve is weary of the difficult life he’s recently re-lived, and has reason to believe it might be better if Bucky kept the shield. But as for who will ultimately hold the symbol? The answer is Steve. Steve Rogers is going to be Captain America, shield and all.

And why is this going to happen? Simple. Marvel’s been taking an interest in this little thing called the “motion picture.” And no, I’m not talking about those “Spider-Woman” episodes you can download to your iPhone. I’m referring to those big budget Hollywood blockbusters that have turned Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Iron Man into much more recognizable names than Marvel had ever dreamed. Thor’s got his turn coming up, and when he’s done the next man up is Cap. The Steve Rogers version of Cap.

So you’d better believe that by the time the film adaptation of Captain America comes out, Steve Rogers will be wearing the uniform and carrying the shield on the pages of the comics at your local comic book shop. Sure, Bucky may get it for a while, but if he does it’ll be a temporary assignment at best. So while the comic’s not bad, when looked at in a wider context “Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield?” is ineffective at creating any sort of tension.

THEY MOST ASSUREDLY DO NOT COME FROM THE LAND OF THE HO HO HO – Northlanders 23

Every December the twenty-fifth a jolly bearded man from the north braves the snow and the cold to bring presents to the children. “Northlanders” 23 tells a story that is kind of like that. Sort of. It certainly tells a story that uses many of the same elements. Cold northern climates. Bearded strangers coming for a visit. Wooden vessels filled with surprises. People desperately waiting for something good to happen.

Writer Brian Wood and artist Leandro Fernandez simply take those ideas and go in a different direction. Admittedly one that will probably give small children nightmares if they were to read it. But let’s stop kidding ourselves here. If you really think about it, shouldn’t a bearded man who wears red, laughs constantly, and waits for you to go to sleep before he comes into your home be just a little bit frightening?

Add to that the fact that the guy clearly has either super speed or temporal manipulation powers, Highlander or Wolverine like immortality, and the most potent bag of holding ever created, and you have to start to worry about what would happen if he ever snapped one day. What could be more worrying than that?

The plague. I’m going to guess that a horrible disease ripping through your small, isolated, paranoid community in the middle of winter and killing those you love, is probably worth worrying about more than an Irredeemable Santa scenario. When you add in the fact that you’re living in the dark ages of the 11th century and the scientific debate over what’s causing all the infection is about as civil as the climate change debate of today, the situation gets worse. And that’s what is facing the characters in “Northlanders”‘ current arc, entitled “The Plague Widow.”

Now in its third of eight issues, Wood and Fernandez have succeeded so far in creating a nerve-wracking drama in which simply surviving to the next day is a challenge for every character. As a village on the Volga is stricken with plague, the town’s populace is split. On one side there’s Boris, a man of God but also a man of reason. Understanding the basics of how the disease spreads, Boris has convinced the town’s leader to expel the sick outside its wall and then shut off the town, isolating it from contamination until the plague passes.

On the other side is one of the village’s most powerful men, named Gunborg, which I believe was also the title used for the film Terminator when it was translated into Old Norse. Gunborg doesn’t trust Boris’ explanations and is worried that cutting the town off from supplies will cause everyone to either freeze or starve to death, plague or no plague. And caught in the middle is Hilda, wife of one of the village’s merchants, who inherits her husband’s authority when he dies of the plague and must care for her surviving daughter.

As the latest issue opens three ships have appeared on the iced over river. With their crews likely all dead of plague, Gunborg sees a surprise gift and concocts a plan to sacrifice a few of his men in order to salvage the vessel for needed supplies like wood and wool. But when they start to unwrap the unexpected present, what turns out to actually be inside is a horde of half-mad plague-infected warriors who attack the village. Which is up there with that pink bunny suit from “A Christmas Story” as far as unasked for gifts go. The defenders are left in an unenviable situation, in which they must not merely fight the invaders off, but also avoid any physical contact with their attackers lest they run the risk of catching the disease and being exiled.

“The Plague Widow” is less than half over, and already it’s a promising piece of drama, with a slow burn of desperate survivalism punctuated by sudden bursts of danger. I’m excited to see where this one goes over the next five issues.

A DOG IS A LOT OF RESPONSIBILITY, HOWEVER SOME DOGS ALSO HAVE A LOT OF RESPONSIBILITY – Beasts of Burden 4

If you have a child and are still in need of picking up a last minute gift this holiday season, let me make a humble suggestion. Get them a puppy. Everyone loves puppies. Even people allergic to puppies love them. What we recognize as allergies are merely a symptom of an excess buildup of love attempting to escape the body through the pores, to avoid so much love building up that it causes the heart to violently explode out of the chest cavity.

But there are some things you should consider before buying an adorable puppy for your beloved child. First, you’ll need to decide whether your home is better suited to a large or small dog. Then, you should spend some time with the dog yourself, see how comfortable it is with people, whether it’s too shy or too excitable. And finally, you should expose your potential new dog to a paranormal spirit and see how it fares. Because frankly, if your new puppy can’t hold its own in a fight with a ghost, you can find a better one.

As evidence in support of this argument, I point you to issue 4 of “Beasts of Burden.” The final issue of this miniseries written by Evan Dorkin with art by Jill Thompson follows another adventure of the mostly canine band of ghost hunters appointed to protect the town of Burden Hill. Having faced a monster toad, spirit dogs, and possessed rats the concluding episode sees them pitted against the most dangerous animal of all.

And I mean the obvious answer there, not something fancy like a Tyrannosaurus in an oversized hoverbike with chainsaw teeth and a shoulder-mounted laser cannon. The book’s still the same mix of light-hearted comedic banter, adorable artwork, and the occasional chills inspired by the horror elements. Issue four ends the first series of the title, but does so in a way that sets the groundwork for further issues, possibly with a more connected story arc the next time around. This book certainly seems to have the potential to become another regular series for Dark Horse, and the only better gift this time of year would be a puppy.

Seriously, though. Where the hell is my puppy?

THE BEST GIFT COMICS GAVE TO ME THIS WEEK –

The latest issue of “Detective Comics” is outstanding, again. I won’t go into further detail on that, I’ve done it often enough in the past, but there is one thing about it I wanted to point out. The first two page spread in “Detective” 860 is the most concise summary of the mission of both Kate Kane and Bruce Wayne that I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, and I love this book.

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