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If one constant in the multitude of parallel universes exists, it’s this: There’s never a slow month in the realms of comic books. February 2015 proved no exception, and The Escapist‘s Comics and Cosplay team is here to highlight our personal favorites. And while we’re showcasing a little less than last month, in no way does that mean they’re of lesser quality.

Marvel’s new Star Wars continuity is well underway, with Darth Vader #1 introducing the dark side of the new EU. The critically acclaimed Saga just reached its 25th issue, and Southern Bastards returned after its brief delay. Of course, there’s all kinds of superheroes – Spider-Gwen kicks off her new series, Black Vortex unites X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, and Secret Identities suggests all heroes have monsters under their masks. We even look at the top-notch Starlight and Trees trade paperbacks, collecting each critically-acclaimed series for the first time. And we read many, many more.

But let’s begin a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

darth vader 1

Darth Vader #1

There are two kinds of Star Wars stories fans can’t get enough of – those of plucky underdogs who succeed against all odds, and those of all-powerful villains destroying everything in their path. In case you had any doubts, Darth Vader is the second type of story. This isn’t Anakin coming to grips with his dark side, or mourning his family. This is Darth “Lord of the Sith” Vader carving a terrifying – yet satisfying – path of destruction across the galaxy, holding back just enough to not mimic Force Unleashed.

Set between the events of Star Wars #1 and #2 (referenced in the next entry), Vader is just realizing his long-lost son is alive – and a hero of the hated Rebellion. Crossing paths again is inevitable so Vader makes a secret deal with Jabba the Hutt to ensure it’s on his terms, not Emperor Palpatine’s. Meanwhile, Vader has to consider that the Emperor no longer trusts him after the Death Star’s destruction, prompting him to investigate what Palpatine is hiding from him.

Those are the plot points, but where the book really shines is its action and pacing. Even Vader simply entering a room is clearly a tense, nerve-wracking experience for everyone involved – something Salvador Larroca captures perfectly without any dialogue. But hands-down, the best moments are the opening scenes of Vader in Jabba’s Palace. This is a Star Wars fan fiction sequence wonderfully imagined as a canonical, all to reinforce one thing: It never goes well when a Skywalker enters Jabba’s presence.

Darth Vader is best read alongside the Marvel Star Wars series, considering the overlapping storylines. But if, for some reason, you only pick this book? Rest assured that you won’t be disappointed.

Favorite Moment: Every single moment in Jabba’s palace.

– Marshall
Image Source: Comic Book Resources

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Star Wars #2

After reading both Star Wars #2 and the first entries in Marvel’s new Darth Vader comic, my favorite part of Marvel’s new interquel continuity is the multi-layered portrayal of Darth Vader that’s emerging. While he’s still coming across as a nigh unstoppable juggernaut, Jason Aaron is writing the book in such a way that we’re seeing a lot of what’s going on behind his iconic mask. Best of all, he’s doing it subtly. We’re getting lots of Vader having these quiet moments of thought and realization that, in some cases, show us his emotions without even saying a word. I love that kind of stuff.

It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that Star Wars as a comic has been really entertaining. Granted, we’re only two issues (plenty early enough for things to go haywire) but Aaron has thus far done a great of job of emulating the style of the original trilogy. The characters speak and feel the way they should and he smartly seems to be focusing the book on the positioning of gears taken straight from the films. I should also say that Issue 2 just boasts from great action. Say what you will about the inherent silliness of the AT-AT, it’s still badass to watch Han Solo and Princess Leia blast Stormtroopers with one.

Favorite Moment: “Mother of moons. I’m…I’m sorry, my lord. I didn’t realize. GRRK.”
– Stew
Image Source: Star Wars

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Saga #25

I dove deeply into Saga this month, reading the award-winning series from its start to its latest issue over just a few days. Saga is the story of a galaxy-spanning conflict, driven by the winged and technologically advanced people of the planet Landfall, and the magically gifted and horned people of its moon, Wreath. It’s a brilliant example of science fantasy, blending familiar elements of spell casting and enchanted rings with space travel, blaster weapons, advanced medical technology, and the mundane realities of raising a child. The central characters, Alana and Marko, are each former soldiers in the war between Landfall and Wreath. The marriage of a Landfall citizen, Alana, to a Wreather, Marko, threatens the carefully crafted and stoked narrative of hatred between the two worlds; soon the pair and their newborn daughter, Hazel, are targeted by both sides.

Co-creators Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan take regular pauses in the publication of Saga, allowing Staples to continue to illustrate every issue and cover. Staples’ art is stunning; her wildly creative character designs give Saga its unique feel, and her masterful sense of scale draw you in to the smallest hug or out into the vastness of space. Staples also colors the series and hand-letters Hazel’s narration, giving the series a unified look. The series returns from its latest brief hiatus with issue #25, picking up from the unusual team-ups that coalesced in issue #24. Circumstances have split apart the central couple, Alana and Marko, and forced them into dangerous situations, including an alliance with a former enemy and unstable revolutionary. Elsewhere in the galaxy, assassin-for-hire The Brand teams up with Gwendolyn (Marko’s ex-fiancée) and former sex slave Sophie, putting the hunt for Alana and Marko on hold while they seek out a cure for The Will, another mercenary. Around it all, the galactic conflict is coming to a boiling head, and a new faction emerges.

The universe of Saga is populated with a diverse, fantastical cast: spider-like bounty hunters, sentient ghosts and seal-like beings, humanoid robots with screens for faces. The cornucopia of species in Saga puts Babylon 5 to shame, and it features a variety of races, genders, and sexualities. It tackles difficult subjects, exploring the worst sides of war while at the same time not sugar-coating the cost that choosing non-violence has for its protagonists. Post-traumatic stress disorder, sexuality (from the uncommon to the fantastic to the boring), illness, drug use, and violence are all a part of this story, so consider this a firmly adult book. If that’s piqued your interest, new readers can pick up the first 18 issues of Saga in the recently-released Deluxe Hardcover collection. It’s worth reading from the very beginning.

Favorite Moment: “Watch yourself, boy. Our “alliance” is an increasingly temporary one.”
– Marla
Image Source: Image

the multiversity mastermen

The Multiversity: Mastermen #1

On Earth 10, the age of superheroes began when a Kryptonian rocket landed in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Eighty years later, the Nazi Empire has achieved world peace at an unthinkable cost, leaving the world’s greatest hero – Overman – remorseful for countless mass genocides. While most of the League is unwilling to acknowledge the past, Overman’s loyalties are tested when Uncle Sam’s Freedom Fighters return – armed with weapons from another universe – to make Metropolis pay for its crimes.

The Multiversity: Mastermen could have been an adequate as a what-if tale with heavy pulp sensibilities, like the cover implies. It even would have worked fine as a Nazi-inspired version of Red Son. But Grant Morrison went a step farther, using his worldbuilding talents to craft a surprisingly rich Earth 10 – a world where superheroes downplay “the Hitler years” while still trying to be the good guys. It also might have the best art of any Multiversity book, especially during the sequence where Overman invades 1950s America.

Mastermen still addresses The Multiversity‘s dimensional invasions, but that’s firmly in the background – this book is a great read that stands fully on its own two feet. In fact, Mastermind left me craving a second issue more than any previous volume – the bleak world and premise are so intriguing it could have been a full mini-series. At least with two more issues of The Multiverse remaining we’ll find out what happens to Earth 10 very soon.

Favorite Moment: “I was only gone for three years. What have you done?”
– Marshall
Image Source: Pop Matters

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Ms. Marvel #12

Kamala Khan’s twelfth issue brings Loki to New Jersey, just in time for Valentine’s Day! Bruno’s struggling with how to deal with his feelings for Kamala, and the God of Mischief arrives just in time to dole out some Asgardian love advice. It’s an adorable and fun issue, and a nice break following the culturally biting storyline of The Inventor, which wrapped up in issue #11. Asgard is concerned about The Inventor’s activities, and they send Loki along to root out any remaining supporters of the mad clone that might still be at Kamala Khan’s New Jersey high school. Loki’s fighting for good now, but his methods of extracting information from teens at a Valentine’s Day dance are rather unconventional.

This issue features artist Takeshi Miyazawa, the new fill-in artist for the series. Miyazawa’s style is delightful. The action in the background of his panels brought me to tears laughing – don’t miss his subtle and hilarious facial expressions throughout this issue. In particular, Loki’s face throughout is a joy. Loki’s presence also underscores how Ms Marvel manages to effortlessly place its New Jersey superheroine firmly in the broader Marvel universe. It’s clear as a reader how Ms. Marvel fits into the Marvel Universe, without requiring you to be following every other Marvel book or to be regularly scouring wiki articles for context. Wolverine’s cameos as a grizzled, wise mentor, Lockjaw’s introduction as guardian and sidekick, and Medusa and the Inhuman’s tangential presence all make Kamala’s place in the universe clear without demanding a wide level of Marvel knowledge, and it uses that distance to tell compelling, personal stories about Kamala’s growth.

It barely feels like it’s been a year since I first fell in love with the new Ms. Marvel. Since that first five issue arc drew me in, I have been excitedly following Kamala Khan’s adventures every month, and recommending the series to everyone I know. As a modern super hero series, Ms. Marvel tackles the themes that first drew me to comics – by way of The X-Men – as a child. Stories about feeling different, about friendship, justice, growth, adulthood, power and the responsibility that comes with it, are all skillfully presented with just enough optimism and enthusiasm from writer G. Willow Wilson. Ms. Marvel was easily one of my favorite comic series of 2014, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down in 2015.

Favorite Moment: “I can’t believe I let you drag me to this patriarchal capitalist display of fake affection.”
– Marla
Image Source: Comic Book Resources

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Thor #5

While his work on Southern Bastards might suggest he was born to write about football and corruption in the deep south, Jason Aaron’s seemingly endless talent for directing the denizens of Asgard has me thoroughly convinced the man was made for Thor.

Thor #5, for instance, strikes a nearly perfect balance of action, fun characters moments and necessary plot construction. Opening shortly after (male) Thor officially relinquished Mjolnir and his name to the mysterious and newly transformed female Thor, the book begins with Odin furious over his inability to figure out exactly who the new thunder god is. It’s a question that’s equally vexing the old, disgraced Thor who spends much of the issue drinking away his sorrows while pondering her identity.

The best parts of the comic though, come from female Thor herself (we’ll have to figure out a better method of discerning between the he and she), who starts off in a fight with Absorbing Man and ends in with a deep conversation with Freyja. The former is filled with some delightful jokes made very much at the expense of those comic readers who raged over the new series gender-bending. The latter is just a really well-written conversation. Between the two of them we’re shown different facets of a character that was likable from the get-go and is just growing more and more enjoyable as time goes on.

Honestly, there’s not much I can say here except that you should really be reading Thor. It’s been solid since issue 1 and if Jason Aaron’s work on the fantastic God of Thunder series is any indicator, it’s only going to keep getting better from here.

Favorite Moment: “That’s for saying feminist like it’s a four-letter word, creep!”
– Stew
Image Source: Comic Vine

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Spider-Gwen #1

In an alternate Marvel universe, Gwen Stacey was the high school student bitten by a radioactive spider, not Peter Parker, and now she protects her city as Spider-Woman. Freshly back in her own version of Earth following the universe-hopping Spider-Verse storyline, the new ongoing series starts off with Spider-Gwen facing down The Vulture. Hoping to dispel the rumors of being a menace to the city (gee, J. Jonah Jameson doesn’t change much across the multiverse, does he?), Gwen hopes that taking down the latest super powered villain in the city will prove that she’s one of the good guys. Between cracking jokes, managing a complicated relationship with her police officer father, and dealing with the crumbling of her former band, The Mary Janes, Gwen is hitting all the classic tortured teen notes you expect in a Spider-book.

The alternate-universe version of Gwen Stacey first appeared in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, sporting her much-loved hooded costume. Fan response was so strong that Marvel announced that the character would live on in a new ongoing series. Writer Jason Latour and artist Robbie Rodriguez have brought to life a dynamic and witty hero that has won me over, and that’s no small feat. I’ve felt a longstanding apathy towards the Spider-Man segment of the Marvel universe for many years. Maybe it was burnout from the slew of origin movies, maybe it’s the occasionally oppressively long history of the character, but for a long time I just haven’t gotten excited about a Spider-book, despite Spider-Man being a regular part of my childhood. Reading Stew Shearer’s reviews of Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man made me curious, but Spider-Gwen is the first book in the Spider-family that has really grabbed me in the last two years. It breaks away from the established universe, but familiar faces are present, linking Gwen’s world to the familiar Marvel world. Frank Castle (who you may know as The Punisher in the main Marvel universe) makes an appearance in issue #1, and Daredevil, a longstanding ally of Spider-Man, is expected to appear in Spider-Gwen in a much more villainous role. It’s a refreshing take on the bitten-by-a-radioactive-spider story, and honestly it’s exciting to see new life given to a character whose original role in the comics was to be murdered as a plot device to give Peter Parker another grief-based motivation for action. If, like me, you’ve been struggling to find a reason to pick up a webslinger story, Spider-Gwen #1 is definitely worth your time.

Favorite Moment: “Okay, not my best, sure. But c’mon, ‘Death from a Butt’ is a pretty sick burn.”
Image Source: Comics Alliance

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Secret Identities #1

Have you ever wondered why superheroes wear masks? The default answer is that it’s to protect their loved ones, but Secret Identities has another theory – heroes have something to hide. Perhaps it’s innocent, like the team jokester’s failed comedy career. Or it’s a little darker, like the speedster with two wives on opposite ends of the continent. Or it’s completely pitch black, like the hero who sacrifices sexual predators in his basement.

Secret Identities‘ Front Line seems like the perfect superhero team, but they harbor information that would destroy their hard-won trust and credibility. They’ve maintained their public images so far, but that’s about to change thanks to Crosswind – a new team member who’s actually an undercover mole. The end result is a book that mixes classic superhero conventions with modern-day intrigue. There are lots of great little touches too, like how the Front Line formed to stop an alien invasion of Toronto, Ontario. Sure, I personally appreciate the Canadian shout-out, but it’s more interesting to see international superheroes who really don’t spend all their time in the United States.

On top of that, Secret Identities‘ scope is enormous, covering everything from science-fiction, to street crime, to politics that could let Secret Identities go in countless directions. Whatever its creators choose, I for one am excited to see what happens next.

Favorite Moment: “And family depends on each other, even if they don’t approve of each others’ business.”
– Marshall
Image Source: The Mary Sue

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Ant-Man #2

A little ways back we published one of these comic recommendation thingies (a little official behind-the-scenes terminology for you) and someone in the comments asked why we hadn’t given any love to Marvel’s new Ant-Man comic. For my part, I hadn’t read it yet. That said, after I finally picked up issue 1, I really wish one of us from the Comics and Cosplay crew had given its due. I say this bcause Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man, in its first two issues, is proving to be a fantastic and unique addition to Marvel’s catalogue.

The core of its quality? How small (no pun intended) it keeps things. This isn’t the story of an Avenger or some cosmic trotting hero fighting to save the world from cosmic force of ultimate evil. It’s the tale of a super-powered Dad trying to be a good father. And while some might balk at that as the basis of a superhero comic, it serves as the foundation for some wonderful character moments that you’d probably never see in something in something grander like Thor. It’s just a really enjoyable, warm book that delivers fun action, excellent dialogue and moments you won’t get anywhere else (baddies in bear suits and gold spewing Nazi robots anyone?)

Favorite Moment: “You got a killer robot in the basement that spits out Nazi gold?!”
– Stew
Image Source: Comic Book Resources

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Help Us! Great Warrior #1

Writer and illustrator Madéleine Flores has been telling the tales of Great Warrior through her web comic for years, and this month the sword-wielding, cake-loving, bow-wearing Great Warrior joins Boom! Studios with an ongoing comic series. Help Us! Great Warrior is irreverent, joyfully violent without being gruesome, and as bright as any Saturday morning cartoon.
There’s no need to be familiar with the web comic to enjoy Help Us! Great Warrior, and Flores successfully transitions the single-page joke style of Great Warrior’s beginnings into a funny, cohesive first issue. Comedy can be challenging in comics, but Flores has a great sense of panel placement and timing, delivering clever little jokes in between epic battles. Self-confident, powerful, and ready to kick butts, the eponymous Great Warrior protects her village from demons and other myriad threats, even though she’d rather be attending a party with all the villagers and a lovely three-tier cake.

This first issue is packed with big, bright colors and full page-spreads. Flores’ style is simple, efficient, and lovely. Every line and splash of color has a reason to be there. Her style is influenced by manga, and she told Comics Alliance in an interview that Rumiko Takahasi, Naoko Takeuchi, Yoshito Ususi, and Mitsuru Asachi are all influences on her art.

Help Us! Great Warrior is great all-ages series, and it joins Boom! Studios’Lumberjanes as another great comic written and illustrated by women and featuring female protagonists.

Favorite Moment: “Wait! Come back!” “Nope.”
– Marla
Image Source: Comics Alliance

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Starlight Trade Paperback

Starlight was easily one of my favorite comics from 2014. A limited series written by Mark Millar, it chronicled the late-in-life adventures of Duke McQueen, a hero who once freed an entire planet only to return to Earth and have no one believe him. Now an elderly man mourning the recent death of his wife, he is shocked when he steps outside of his door one day to find a spaceship waiting and young, pink-haired boy calling him back to action. With the world he once saved again in peril, he’s given the choice to leave Earth and embrace his heroic past one more time.

While I was disappointed that Starlight was so brief (I didn’t realize it was only six issues at first), I was still deeply impressed by its brilliant combination of classic space opera with the genuinely emotional story of an old man trying to prove to he’s still worth something after years of the world telling him he’s not. Action packed, funny and illustrated with gorgeously bright art, it’s a book that I would call an absolute must read for sci-fi and comic fans in general. If you haven’t picked up Starlight yet, this trade should be at the top of your list.

Favorite Moment: “Yeah, they’re soft and scared and easily pushed around… But they grew up hearing that I never lose and you feel a little braver when you’re standing beside a legend.”
– Stew
Image Source: Comic Book Resource

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Southern Bastards #7

It’s been a long wait since the last issue, but Southern Bastards #7 is absolutely worth it. When we last visited the young Coach Boss, he’d suffered an injury that was emotionally devastating while seemingly putting an end to his football career. This chapter reveals that it will, but not yet – and not in the way you’d think. Boss is still too stubborn to limp away from his first football season. It would almost be inspirational if we didn’t know he’ll eventually become an absolute monster.

But at this point, his life as a crime boss is still creeping in around the edges. First he needs to experience a full football season, a reunion with his father, and the continued oppression of an entire town. Despite it all, Boss has become one of the best players on the Craw County team but his spiteful hometown still won’t let him do anything with his life. When the last story arc ended, I wanted nothing more than to see what happened next with Earl Tubb’s family – now I’m feeling glad Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are taking the time to show how we got here.

All that’s left now is for Boss to become the coach and a hardened killer. I’m suspecting both will happen at about the same time.

Favorite Moment: “Don’t you ever fuckin’ come here again, Daddy.”
– Marshall
Image Source: Vixen Varsity

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Trees Vol. 1

I really should have read Trees when it launched in 2014. What was I thinking – it’s Warren Ellis returning to rich science-fiction via an ongoing series, for God’s sake. Now I’m kicking myself, because it’s so good it would have been a major contender for my five favorite comics of the year.

The good news, however? Now the first eight-issue storyline is collected in a single book, which I’m convinced was the best way to read it after all.

Trees is set a full decade after massive alien structures landed on Earth, took root, and proceeded to ignore the rest of humanity. Outside of occasionally belching acidic waste onto their surroundings, these “trees” do absolutely nothing to help or harm humanity – but their simple presence has changed society in remarkable ways. A young artist learns this in China’s “special cultural zone”, where people of all sexual orientations live freely. A woman forced to accept protection from a fascist gang discovers she has other options available. A Somalian president uses the trees to achieve military victory with devastating results. And in remote Svalbard, researchers discover the first terrifying hints of the Trees true purpose.

I’m not sure what’s coming in future volumes. but these self-contained arcs are riveting, beautiful, and sometimes tragic tales of ordinary people in the shadow of uncontrollable forces – and how they choose to deal with it. Don’t wait any longer on this book – check out Trees now.

Favorite Moment: “I don’t know if I’m in love with you. I don’t know what that feels like. I don’t know if I’m wrong. I don’t know what this is. I just don’t want it to stop.”

– Marshall
Image Source: Comic Book Resources

lazarus 15

Lazarus #15

Lazarus delivers a cinematic and chilling end to its latest arc, “Conclave”. Writer Greg Rucka has set up all the pieces in the mounting conflict between Carlyle and Hock, ending in what seems now like the inevitable: a trial by combat. Forever Carlyle, the battle-ready protector of her family, also known as a Lazarus, must face off against the Bittner family’s Lazarus, Sonja. Hock’s machinations all seem to be leading him to a brilliant success, pitting Forever against her newest friend and straining the barely-born and largely secret alliance between Bittner and Carlyle. With no more words to be said, artist Michael Lark shines in this issue as Forever and Sonja fight for their lives over 13 pages of outstanding combat.

We first met Sonja back in issue #11, and now we get to really see her longsword (which I spent some time gushing over back in September) in action. The core of this issue the incredible duel between Sonja and Forever, and it brings me a very particular joy. Historical European Martial Arts – in particular, 14th and 15th century German longsword and wrestling techniques – is a recent hobby for me, and interest in this type of sword fighting is growing in popularity worldwide. Check out the Swedish competition Swordfish for an idea of what I’m talking about. The fight in this issue features so many practical, realistic techniques that I was gleefully celebrating each panel even while fearing for Forever and Sonja’s lives. Both Lazari make use of a realistic disarm that takes advantage of the weak point in your grip between thumb and forefinger as well as using the pommel of the sword to lever it out of its’ wielder’s hands. When Sonja overswings, Forever takes advantage of the fact that by swinging too far, Sonja’s sword isn’t presenting a threat. Forever places her hand on the blade of the sword, using a technique known as “half-sword”, which is especially useful when fighting in armor because it allows greater control of the sword’s tip. Forever and Sonja clash in close to each other, employing wrestling moves (a particular favorite of mine when swordfighting) and getting in a few good punches. It’s a satisfying, visceral fight that recognizes that every part of the sword is meant to be used, and it absolutely tickled the sword-geek in me.

The dystopian future of Lazarus is a brutal place, and Forever’s experiences at the Conclave have permanently changed her view of it. Hock isn’t finished with his efforts to bring down Carlyle, and his final gambit is likely to throw the family into chaos. I’m sure Forever will come out fighting – but fighting who?

Favorite Moment: “I have no choice.” “We never do.”
Image Source: Comic Book Resources

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The Black Vortex #1

In the few years that I’ve been reading comics regularly I actually haven’t read that many big events. There was Battle of the Atom, but besides that I’ve avoided most of the major crossovers. You can blame it on my following a somewhat eclectic collection of series. I only read a few DC books and the majority of my Marvel comics are either based in the X-Verse or tend to be less involved in the big, universe changing shenanigans that readers love or love to loathe.

All of that said, I’m actually feeling really pumped about The Black Vortex.The event centers around the titular Black Vortex, a mysterious artifact that can give anyone cosmic-level superpowers. With a collection of nasty villains out to claim it, the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy have to team-up and confront a difficult ethical question. Should they use the Vortex to boost their own powers so they’ll be better poised to take down their foes?

I’ll be honest and admit that this isn’t the best comic I’ve read all month. That said, it’s still really good, had some fun moments (the Guardians playing D&D) and left me feeling really positive about the potential overall potential of The Black Vortex as an event. If you have any interest in getting into a fun a team-up involving two of the best of teams in the Marvel Universe, this is a good chance to jump on this horse before it gets too far away from the gate.

Favorite Moment: “For my move, I kill the game master.”
– Stew
Image Source: Comic Book Resources


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