Heroes fight monsters and creators get to play in different sandboxes. What’s not to like?
Okay, so Marvel’s first prospective antidote to hero vs. hero fatigue didn’t work out so well.
The soft crossover event from earlier this year, Monsters Unleashed, was meant (so we were told) to be a return to classic superhero punch-ups of the past, in which all the good guys could unite against a slimy, unsympathetic threat. That’s what the fans claimed they wanted, right?
Sales numbers would argue, “Apparently not.” The five-issue mini-series itself garnered mixed reviews and little buzz, and a group of one-shot tie-ins, distinguished from their usual titles by the “.MU” designation, flew even further under the radar.
Now Marvel has collected all eight of those overlooked pseudo-standalones in a single volume entitled Monsters Unleashed: Battleground. Are there some hidden gems within? Is it good?
As with any Marvel line-wide crossover, there’s a lot of Spider-Man in Monsters Unleashed: Battleground, particularly in the first two issues, which actually have a surprising sequential continuity between them. Jim Zub writes Avengers #1.MU, which sees Spidey harangue the Avengers into fighting Maggia in Boston, only to be pounced upon by Leviathons part-way through. The art team of Sean Izaakse and Frank D’Armata turn in some classic superhero imagery, though somehow the monsters aren’t quite as stunning as they could be.
At issue’s end, the ubiquitous arachnid pops right into Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU, thanks to a coven of teen witches who were trying to summon DP’s life partner, the succubus Shiklah. Writer Joshua Corin doesn’t have Spidey’s voice down quite as well as Zub does, and Deadpool’s jokes can be a little strained, but the overall plot is well-crafted and there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The art by Tigh Walker and Rachelle Rosenberg isn’t as clean as what’s seen in the previous issue, but the duo does pull off a pretty mean killer eggplant.
Rising star Jeremy Whitley pulls double-duty, first focusing on the recently-christened Wolverine in All-New X-Men #1.MU. This one’s a bit of a slow slog, although each of the different characters is pretty well-defined, and the art by Carlo Barberi, Ron Lim and Cris Peter is similarly unspectacular, feeling like it’s just along for the ride.
Whitley than breaks out and does a heroic job of salvaging Marvel’s nascent teen team in Champions #1.MU, writing the characters in better and more nuanced ways than regular series scribe Mark Waid does. That goes double for their adversaries, the Freelancers, who read like actual people and not just the usual, capitalist caricatures. The art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt and Frank D’Armata isn’t quite as stylistic as that of Humberto Ramos, and the inks are much heavier, but the overall package is dynamic enough to bring Whitley’s ambitious story to life.
The standout issue of Monsters Unleashed: Battleground is clearly Doctor Strange #1.MU by writer Chip Zdarsky and artists Julian Lopez and the prolific Frank D’Armata. Not only does it boast the prettiest pages of the volume, but the story of Googam trying to regain his pride after Stephen robbed him of his moment is adorable and just the kind of expanding on little plot points that tie-ins are meant to do. It’s even a great introduction to Strange’s current status quo, with a callback to his origin for good measure.
I’ve already run down Uncanny Inhumans #1.MU … in more ways than one … so the less said about that, the better.
The final two entries, Guardians of the Galaxy and Totally Awesome Hulk #1.MU, are both mixed bags. Chad Bowers and Chris Sims craft a truly terrifying tale for Groot, but there’s a strange sparring between Star-Lord and Gamora that might make more sense to readers of the regular series. David Baldeón and Marcio Menyz desperately try to ape the art of Skottie Young, with middling results.
Hulk, by Bryan Edward Hill, does a great job of spotlighting Amadeus Cho, and brings in a fan-favorite monster from beyond the stars. The story’s lesson is sound, although it takes a circuitous route to get there, and the art by Ty Templeton and Mat Lopes will not be for everyone. They do deftly change styles to suit the different parts of the story, however.
The volume is rounded out by a short story surrounding Cho’s sister and cosmic monster-hunter Lady Hellbender, along with some inexplicable variant covers that re-imagine Gwen Stacy as various monsters. Whatever floats the collector boat, I guess.
Monsters Unleashed: Battleground is a surprisingly cohesive collection. Most issues begin with a routine mission for the title characters, before the literally BIG bads show up to make things even worse. It’s a nice device that shows the suddenness of the invasion, but more importantly, it gives glimpses into their regular stories.
Aside from the Uncanny Inhumans stinker, the various creators get to play in different sandboxes and not worry too much about future continuity, accomplishing just what the main Monsters Unleashed book was meant to do — providing a fun, angst-free romp through the Marvel Universe. None of it really “matters,” but who cares? Good stories + cool visuals = fine comic books. ‘Nuff said.