Halloween Reading: The Witching Hour #1

Continuing its recent efforts to revive classic anthologies, Vertigo’s The Witching Hour is a brand new collection of horror from some of the most talented names in today’s comic book industry. Originally published from 1969 to 1978, this iteration of the anthology features nine original supernatural tales of witchcraft and magic across a wide swathe of genres. From sci-fi to speculative fiction, haunting stories of child abuse to campy horror fun, this anthology covers a lot of ground with inventive storytelling and compelling artwork. These witches come from all walks of life, and have something to offer just about any reader interested in some timely Halloween reading.

Stories such as This Witch’s Work by Annie Mok and Emily Carroll and Little Witch by Ales Kot and Morgan Jeske infuse intriguing themes of gender identity and American politics into the genre. This puts an interesting new twist on the role of the witch in modern society, as it reflects on the witch as a marginalized member of society in relation to other marginalized people. Mok’s tale of childhood abuse and retribution is a particularly evocative read, centered on a transgendered witch. It is carried by Carroll’s eerie illustrations, which swing from a soft and otherworldly aesthetic to one of blood and violence with disquieting ease. Kot’s story of a young witch left behind in war-torn Afghanistan by an American soldier strikes a strange and poignant note, developing into an exploration of magic, mystery, and memory.


Other tales, such as Lauren Beukes and Gerhard Human’s spec-fic story Birdie travel to South Africa. This unique read provides a glimpse into the nature of magic and human behavior through a protagonist who communes with seagulls. The science fiction set-up of Mars to Stay by Brett Lewis and Cliff Chiang further explores the theme of human behavior as a team of colonists on Mars slowly dwindle through a series of accidents and strange occurrences. If you’re looking for something a little more straightforward, Legs by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ming Doyle is an engaging account of a witch luring a man to his death. It offers a lot of interesting imagery, with solid scripting from DeConnick and engrossing artwork from Doyle, and I found it to be one of my favorite stories in the anthology.

The standout story in this collection, however, was the closing tale of Rise by Mariah Huehner and Tula Lotay. Starting off with a generic set-up of the young American backpacking across Europe to find himself and have sex with the local girls, this story turns the premise on its head with a lesbian protagonist. When she finds herself lost in the woods during a rainstorm, she seeks shelter in a cave, only to find herself trapped with the ghost of a long-dead witch. Seeking revenge on the local town for her violent and premature death, the witch’s ghost possesses the weary traveler and uses her body to exact her vengeance. This seemingly simple story of magic and possession is brilliantly executed with the help Lotay’s gorgeous pencils and color palettes, affecting a lush and ethereal picture of life, afterlife, and the strange spaces in between. It’s the most stunning story in the anthology, and simply to read.

Overall, The Witching Hour is a fun and thoughtful collection of witchy fiction. These stories strike a strong balance of horror and provocative storytelling, offering a few surprises along the way. With its diverse range of authors, artists and interpretations, this anthology is sure to please. I highly recommend this one-shot, and hope to see more of them next Halloween.

Magen Cubed

Captain America, The Odd War of Dimension Z: A Review

Rebooting after Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on the title, the newly rebranded Marvel NOW Captain America from writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita, Jr. recently wrapped up its first arc, The Odd War of Dimension Z. In a story that spanned ten issues and twelve years, this bold new chapter in Captain America’s enduring saga saw the rise of a surprising new status quo. Steve Rogers finds himself abducted by Armin Zola and whisked away to the bizarre wasteland of Dimension Z, with only the principles he learned from his mother Sarah to keep him going. A stark departure from that Sentinel of Liberty we know, he’s stripped of his usual power and authority, haggard and battle-scarred after over a decade on the run, without the luxury of superhero friends and A-List guest stars to bail him out. Now a single father, he’s charged with caring for his son Ian, the heir he rescued from Zola’s clutches, raising him to the best of his limited ability in the face of constant danger. Suffice to say, this is definitely not your parents’ Captain America.


Switching gears from the typical action-adventure and espionage themes of the series, Remender takes a sharp turn into the realm of fantasy and science-fiction. He and Romita develop Dimension Z quite well, a hellish wasteland populated by strange beasts and Zola’s genetic experiments, its jagged horizon peppered by artificial structures and Zola’s looming citadel. The inks of Klaus Janson and the color palettes of Dean White flesh out this world of metal spires and spindly mountain ranges, rocky gorges and endless deserts, making for a unique read that’s visually more Arzach than Avengers. Over the course of the story, this changes Steve, a victim of Zola’s experimentation in an unpredictable wasteland of monsters and mutants. He begins to let go of the memories and experiences that had previously defined him, adapting to survive the unsettling landscape of Dimension Z. Through violence and art, warfare as well as fatherhood, Remender depicts Steve’s twelve-year evolution in fascinating ways.

Prior to his abduction, Steve had fallen into a rut. Exhausted from the endless flood of hackneyed villains and terrorist plots, he was lost under the weight of his role as Captain America, having sacrificed his own happiness and sense of identity to live up to his legendary namesake. We see that in his relationship with longtime on-again/off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter, whose marriage proposal Steve meets with a weary mixture of passiveness and obligation. Over time in Dimension Z, however, separated from everything he knows, he begins losing the Captain America identity that he’s built, the wall of service and duty that overshadows every other aspect of his life. Even as he still carries the shield, it again becomes the symbol of strength it was originally intended to be, and less the burden that’s cost him so much. Remender does something quite interesting in showing the development of Steve, and the resurgence of his fundamental identity over that of his all-encompassing alter ego.

The core of this book, the germ of Steve’s transformation, and the unifying theme throughout, is Steve’s CAP5relationship with his mother. In Remender’s version of Cap’s origin, Steve is the son of Irish immigrants during Depression-era Brooklyn, a sickly boy terrorized by his abusive alcoholic father. It’s only through watching his mother stand up to his father that a young Steve learns the moral code that would later dictate his entire ethos: Stand up to bullies wherever you find them. Never back down. Flashbacks to several key moments in Steve’s turbulent childhood are present throughout this storyline, as Sarah’s teachings keep her young son going, despite the insurmountable odds. When his mother eventually dies of pneumonia, she leaves the orphaned Steve with the strength to survive without her. The idea of having the mother impart this knowledge and strength to the son is not a convention one often encounters in superhero fiction, as this is a genre where the relationships of fathers and sons are privileged above most others. It’s an interesting emphasis in his backstory, as this unique mother-son dynamic is paralleled through Steve’s relationship with Ian.

Steve, having stumbled into parenthood, is in no way equipped to deal with raising a child, let alone by himself. Ian is a rebellious young boy with a lot of questions, about his past, his father, and the future. Their relationship is complicated, and sometimes quite messy, too. As a father, Steve wants to impart to Ian all the things that his own mother taught him, but this is a far different world than the one that he left behind. For this, Steve’s often critical of himself and his inability to meet all of these challenges the way he would like to. He makes mistakes, he has regrets, but he’s still hanging on. In this way, he’s become like his mother: Trying to instill the strength of will in his son that his mother had in him, but accepting that hiding behind his mother will only bring him more pain. Through Ian, Steve is finally shocked out of his malaise to accept that there are things larger than the heroic persona that he had forged in his mother’s memory. Ian gives him something to live for beyond his ideals and, despite his perceived shortcomings as a father, Steve conquers that emotional baggage that’s been holding him hostage all these years.

Besides Ian, one of the more fascinating characters that Steve encounters along the way is Jet Black, Zola’s daughter and Ian’s older sister. Jet is an accomplished warrior with unique powers that give her an advantage on the battlefield. When we first encounter Jet she’s just a child, a witness to Zola’s experimentation on Steve and Ian’s abduction as Steve breaks free and escapes. Soon, raised on cruelty and violence, Jet grows up the formidable successor to her father’s realm, determined to retrieve her stolen brother and kill Steve. While her initial, vaguely romantic interest in Steve feels a bit shoehorned in, Remender manages to salvage Jet and Steve’s peculiar relationship. In having Jet come around as an ally, abandoning her father’s quest for power to help Steve escape Dimension Z, Jet fills a strange new role in Steve’s life once they emerge on the other side.

CAP4The ten-issue arc comes to a head as Zola, planning to return to Steve’s dimension with an army of mutants, abducts Ian and leaves Steve for dead. Steve, already infected with the same techno-organic virus that Zola plans to unleash on Earth, storms Zola’s citadel to rescue his son, despite his ravaged condition. Steve is able to persuade Jet to his side, having seen the true extent of her father’s madness and becoming a critical player in stopping him. Ian, who’s been brainwashed into accepting Zola as his father, rejects Steve and tries to kill him. Just as Steve is finally able to get through to Ian, Sharon appears, having traveled into Dimension Z to rescue Steve. Seeing what she thinks is a hostile target, she shoots and kills Ian. Steve is completely destroyed by this, but, with no time to grieve, pulls it together long enough to take Sharon and Jet into one last battle with Zola.

Compounding Steve’s loss and grief, Sharon stays behind to destroy Zola and his citadel, buying Steve and Jet enough time to get through the quickly closing portal to Earth. Steve tries to go back for Sharon, having already lost his son, but there’s no hope. As the portal wreaks havoc on time-space in Dimension Z through the use of some intriguing imagery on Romita’s part, Jet takes Steve’s hand to lead him through the portal with her, emerging on the other side in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. While Steve has aged twelve years in Zola’s personal Hell, it’s only been a day since he vanished, leaving the reader with the cold realization that Steve has spent more time in Dimension Z than he has our modern world. As Jet tries to herd him to safety, surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar place, Steve stumbles out of the subway and collapses on the sidewalk, crushed by his grief. He’s lost his son, and with him all of Steve’s hope for the future; he’s also lost Sharon, and with her his connection to the life he no longer figures into. If Steve Rogers no longer belongs to our world, what does that mean for Captain America? Who is Captain America going to fight for now?

This is an arc that posits more questions than it answers, and that’s what makes it so engaging. There are no CAP3easy conclusions or neat little bows on this one, as Steve must find a way to reconcile the last twelve years and deal with his grief. The epilogue suggests that we may not have seen the last of Dimension Z, as the war between the indigenous Phrox and Zola’s mutant army rages on in Steve’s absence. Another warrior bearing Captain America’s shield and principles emerges to lead the Phrox armies to victory. We can only assume that Ian somehow survived his apparent death, or Zola used some kind of trickery to convince Steve that Ian had betrayed him. In any case, seeing how this plays out, and what Steve would think if he knew what happened while he was away, could be quite interesting if Remender chooses to follow-up on this thread in the future.

This isn’t a perfect story, by any means. Remender’s narration and dialogue has quite a few soft softs throughout, prone to fits of overly operatic scripting that feel dated and sometimes cheesy. The artwork suffered from some inconsistencies on Romita’s part in the first few issues, especially with the cartoonish anatomy of Steve and the other neighborhood children in the flashbacks sequences. There are also a few missteps in Jet’s addition to the main plot that fail to fully explain her powers until after the conclusion of the arc, leaving the reader with a few puzzling moments through issue #11. However, given the strength of the art and storytelling, these are just a few qualms that fortunately don’t detract from an overall enjoyable reading experience.


Pledging to change the status quo of Captain America forever, The Odd War of Dimension Z lives up to its promises. This storyline offers some unique insights into the Steve Rogers we know and love, and changes his characterization in bold and heartbreaking ways. This certainly isn’t your parents’ Cap, but I’m fascinated to see where he goes from here.

Magen Cubed

Retro Comics: The Vision and The Scarlet Witch #12, Double Sized Climax!

1986 was a busy year in the personal lives of Marvel’s vast stable of heroes, seeing everything from the birth of Cable to Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor to the wedding of Bruce Banner and Betsy Ross. That same year Avengers alumni Scarlet Witch and Vision have their twin sons, Billy and Tommy, in the finale of The Vision and The Scarlet Witch limited series. This seeming domestic bliss, however, wouldn’t last, leading to events that would have lasting consequences in the Marvel Universe for decades to come.

As we later come to find out, Vision’s marriage to Scarlet Witch was part of Immortus’ plan to prevent Scarlet Witch from ever having children. A mutant of devastating magical ability, Wanda Maximoff is a nexus being with the power to shape her universe, and her children could very well warp the foundations of reality itself. Unaware of this plot, Wanda’s desire to have a family with her husband would cause her to unknowingly draw on dark magical forces from the demon Mephisto to have Tommy and Billy. The demon would eventually reabsorb them, snuffing them from existence, and cause a chain of events that would lead to Wanda’s madness and the cataclysms of House of M and M-Day. In this issue, however, which concludes the arc of Wanda’s pregnancy, none of that is on the horizon. Written by Steve Englehart with artwork by Richard Howell, this unique limited series ran from 1985 to 1986, and was the second series to feature this prominent couple’s extracurricular adventures.


As the title suggests, this double-sized issue follows the day of the birth, as Vision and Wanda excitedly prepare for the arrival of their first child, a boy they plan to name him Thomas. Going into labor six days earlier than anticipated, Wanda is quickly whisked off to the hospital for much of the issue while danger looms outside. Guest appearances include Wonder Man, Magneto and Doctor Strange as supernatural complications arise in the form of Nekra, Grim Reaper and Brady Kent in a subplot centered around Nekra’s raising the dead. Both sides of the extended Vision-Maximoff family brawl outside of the hospital to stop Nekra’s plot while Strange delivers Thomas, only to realize that Wanda’s having twins in a pleasant surprise for the new parents. They name their boys Billy and Tommy, and conclude on a joyful note surrounded by friends and loved ones as the young family settles in to begin their new lives.

A highly nostalgic read, this is a story that certainly shows its age. Englehart’s script is very dated, with the kind of cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plotline you would expect from a mid-‘80s title. That said, it’s an endearing kind of cheese, appropriate for all-age readers and free of the edge and attitude that later came to consume superhero comics in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Seeing an entire limited series about the personal lives of heroes is also interesting and worth a look, if only for the kitsch factor. I’ve always been a fan of family-oriented storylines, and for that reason this series doesn’t disappoint. As far as the artwork is concerned, Howell’s pencils reflect a pretty predictable ‘80s aesthetic. While fairly average, he does offer a few visually interesting panels here and there, especially in the scenes with Doctor Strange’s solo adventure before arriving to deliver the twins.

While having read a lot of the reborn Billy and Tommy, all grown up as the heroes Wiccan and Speedster in the pages of Young Avengers, I wasn’t too familiar with the source material surrounding their origins. Going back to read this series, and especially this issue, sheds some light on their backstories and makes for a fun reading experience. While a cute and enjoyable little story, it does ring a little melancholy in retrospect, knowing how their not-births and not-deaths drive Wanda to a madness that nearly destroys reality in the future. Still, it’s an amusing read with a unique premise and lots of nostalgia value. If you’re looking for a light read and some nice backstory on this impact moment of Marvel history, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch limited series is worth digging up.

Magen Cubed

Secret: A Fascinating Title, If You Don’t Mind the Wait

Featuring a puzzling world of murder and corporate espionage, one of the most fascinating books to come out last year was Secret from Image Comics. The brain child of writer Jonathan Hickman with art by Ryan Bodenheim, this unique book follows a seemingly unconnected series of events surrounding Grant Miller, an ex-intelligence operative working for a private security firm. There’s a murder in London, a break-in at a high-profile law firm, and an accountant giving away company secrets after being tortured during a home invasion. What does it all mean? Well, I don’t know. That’s the point. Just how these events intersect is the mystery of the book, as Miller navigates a quiet and subversive world of spy-games and murder, all pointing to a widespread global conspiracy of shadow governments and secret organizations.

SECRET1Sound good? It is. If you’re looking for something a little different, with a slick design and intriguing execution, I highly recommend this book. Fans of Hickman will appreciate its complexity, a fresh counterpart to the multifaceted and surreal alternative histories we’ve seen in the pages of Manhattan Projects and East of West. Fans who know Bodenheim’s work on Red Mass for Mars and Halcyon will love its sleek visual aesthetic, heightened by the captivating color choices of Michael Garland. But there’s a catch: There have only been three issues in the last year.

Beginning in April 2012, this peculiar mix of espionage fiction and corporate intrigue saw just two issues. By the end of the summer it went on a year-long hiatus due to a series of production snags. The book, which had gained quite a bit of buzz and critical interest, was considered abandoned by readers. In the meantime, Bodenheim seemed to vanish from comics, and Hickman continued with other projects, such as Manhattan Projects, East of West, God is Dead, and championing Thanos’ return to the main stage in Marvel Comics’ timeline-shattering Infinity event. In August, the long-awaited third issue of Secret finally hit the shelves, as Miller dealt with the fall-out of the London murders. While an intriguing issue that explores Miller’s complex web of professional and personal relationships, I can’t help but keep my expectations low, even as I hope for more from this strange little world Hickman has cooked up.SECRET2

However, as an original and innovative work of spy fiction, Secret does a have lot going for it. It’s a plot-driven title with a wealth of subtly, as Hickman delivers another slow burn in exploring the complex networks and associations that tether the key players. His principal characters quietly develop in the first three issues, illuminating the peculiar fishbowl they operate in through tense nonlinear flashbacks, tinged with contrasting degrees of violence. The scripting is slick and cool, with compelling dialogue and a sharpness of tone that keeps things from turning glib, alluding to deeper relationships than what are being shown on the page. Hickman, true to form, doesn’t give anything anyway, and instead leaves the reader to ponder. You might not know what’s going on, but you’re always left wanting more. This isn’t James Bond or Jason Bourne, or any other familiar spy tale, and the title is far better for it.

SECRET3The real draw of the book is its visual execution. Hickman, Bodenheim and Garland collaborate wonderfully together to create a unique and cohesive reading experience issue to issue, even with the interruptions. Bodenheim’s use of thick, emphatic lines bring us into settings that are at once familiar and unnatural: Offices, parks, cafes, places where characters meet in private to discuss the nature of their business. These environments are often empty but for the principal characters themselves, establishing palpable tension and loneliness that almost feels claustrophobic from panel to panel. The panel compositions and page layouts are often slightly unexpected at times, affording the reader varying perspectives and playing with the chronology of events in clever ways, linked together by evocative undercurrents brimming with well-developed tension.

This is made most effective with Gardener’s subtle, selective use of color. His muted green, brown and purple tones wash over grayscale scenes in a pulp-inspired haze, affecting a cold and distant tone that removes the reader from the act, relegated to the margins to simply guess what’s really going on. The austerity of tone is then completely abandoned as emotionally heightened moments run wild in vivid oranges and reds. Flashbacks are emphasized by the richness of blood or lipstick to highlight the visceral nature of memory, providing small slivers of insight into the minds of the internal lives of the characters. All of these elements, from scripting to artwork to color, come together in an innovative package that leaves you guessing long after you’re done.

So if you’re on the lookout for a fresh, sleek title with a rich narrative and engaging artwork, pick up Secret. This is a title that swings for the fences, even with the interruptions. I can’t guarantee this book will resume a consistent release schedule, but, when the work is this good, maybe it’s worth the wait?

Magen Cubed