Luke Cage Noir #1; Punisher Noir #1 (Marvel)($3.99 each)
By Jeb D.

With the Ultimate Universe enjoying a mostly-pointless (so far, anyway) relaunch, let’s turn our attention to see what’s going on with Marvel’s other outside pocket of continuity: Marvel Noir.
I don’t really know, but I sort of assume that the motivation behind these stories (and much of what’s happening with the MAX line these days) is to try and give Marvel readers a Vertigo-like alternative to standard cape fare, while still keeping complete control of the intellectual property (unlike the creator-owned material that makes up the bulk of the current Vertigo catalog). The fact that none of these series could even ride the running board alongside something like Scalped or DMZ doesn’t mean they can’t have their own peculiar charms.
The X-Men Noir series felt like a mildly amusing “spot the cameo” dress-up game, and the Spider-Man mini is a good adventure yarn (though to get technical, it feels more “pulp” than “noir”).
But those two books always seemed as though giving them the “noir” treatment had a particular point: going from their usual slam-bang spandex to dark, murky crime comics feels like a complete 180-degree turnaround. The question is how much “noir” really needs to be injected into characters like Luke Cage or The Punisher – who, by a strange coincidence, are the two minis under consideration today!
Hollywood’s been in love with the pre-WWII black gangster milieu for a long time (Cotton Club, Harlem Nights, etc.), and while they rarely get the stories right, they’ve still set up a comfortable visual template that artist Shawn Martinbrough brings vividly to life (the standards of the art in these Marvel Noir books is uniformly excellent). 
Writers Mike Benson and Adam Glass, though, feel as though they’re operating more from the Walter Mosley playbook, as Luke Cage, fresh out of prison, is trying to acclimate himself back into his old haunts, encounters some old enemies, and accepts an offer to investigate the murder of a rich white man’s wife. Interestingly, it’s teased that this version of Luke Cage has the same bulletproof skin that the more familiar version does, but it’s not actually demonstrated, leaving open the possibility that it’s more legend than fact.
In the end, the first issue of Luke Cage Noir is about the details: the barbershop as the nexus of scuttlebutt, the drape of suits and the folds in a soft felt hat, and the snap of tough-guy (and gal) dialog:
Cage( to woman in nightclub): “I was admiring your gams while you were dancing.”
Woman: “Don’t get dizzy on me, big fella.”
Cage: “Well, aren’t you tagged to the bricks?”  
Woman: “I’m a queen bee, baby. So just know if you come around my hive, you will get stung.”
If all that’s too overripe for your taste (and I have to admit that I usually expect better from Benson, so this may be Glass’ contribution)… well, you’re probably passing on the rather gimmicky notion of Marvel Noir in the first place, and this won’t change your mind. But if you can enjoy the tongue-in-cheek homage-with-a-twist, it’s a good fit with previous volumes in the series. 
I’m impressed that not even the tanking of the Punisher: War Zone film seems to have dampened Marvel’s enthusiasm for coming up with different versions of The Punisher, and this one’s even got a different name!
Frank Castelione was a terrifying force of nature on the battlefields of The Great War, but he’s back home in The Bronx in 1928, a widower (thanks not to gangsters, but cancer), struggling to bring up his young son Frankie: the product of a mixed marriage (Frank’s wife was Jewish), the streets are even meaner for young Frankie than his peers, and staying out of trouble is out of the question. When Frank throws some mob thugs offering protection out of his store, Frankie can’t believe that his old man can be so ignorant of the need to go along with what he sees as the natural order of things. But Frank isn’t going to be intimidated, and the last panel shows us just who he’s up against now (though how much the name will mean to most of today’s readers, I have no idea). Lending the story an extra layer of mystery is the sequence that shows us “The Punisher” as the title character in a “Shadow”-like radio show, and the ambiguity of just which “Frank Castle” is under the character’s skull mask… if, indeed, it’s either.
Writer Frank Tieri’s old-school tough-guy stuff can feel a little anachronistic in his contemporary superhero writing, but he slips into this era like a pair of comfortable slippers (or do I mean cement overshoes?), and if there’s nothing startlingly original about the “standup guy facing down the mob” storyline, it’s being set up convincingly.
I have to admit that I haven’t seen artist Paul Azaceta’s work before (though I hear good things about Grounded), but his work here certainly bears comparison with what artists like Dennis Calero and Carmine Di Giandomenico have brought to these minis: a gritty version of the pre-WWII USA with muted shades applied to colorful characters. True, guys like Joe Kubert could bring this off from memory, not research, but Azaceta has clearly done his homework. Unfortunately, his best moments come in the book’s opening pages (with the radio announcer’s narration juxtaposed over scenes of the bullet-scarred Punisher preparing himself to go to war, followed by a flashback to Frank’s battlefield exploits), so the book feels as though it loses a bit of steam as it goes along. In the end, well-written though it is, Punisher Noir might be the least impressive of the Noir titles, only because it has to stand in the shadow of the truly hard-boiled Garth Ennis version of the character.
Both books are going to appeal to anyone who’s already bought into the Marvel Noir idea, and do nothing to persuade anyone else to jump onboard. I’m sure you know which of those is you.

Preview Luke Cage Noir #1 – Preview Punisher Noir #1



Daredevil #500 (Marvel)($4.99)
By Jeb D.

Can it really have already been three years since Brian Bendis handed the reins of this title over to his former Caliber Comics stablemate Ed Brubaker? At the time, the transition from Bendis/Alex Maleev to Brubaker/Michael Lark felt like one of the smoothest I could recall; the resulting three years of stories confirmed the rightness of the choice (even to the point of Marvel keeping DD out of Civil War so that Brubaker might spin his tale uninterrupted). And now, having blended Bendis’ dark noir version of Matt Murdock with some of the swingin’ superhero action of ol’ Hornhead’s bygone days, it’s time for Brubaker and Lark to pass the book along to successors Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre.
It’s a different sort of transition, though, and I wonder if it has anything to do with Brubaker and Diggle being professional colleagues, rather than long-standing friends. Bendis was happy to drop Brubaker into the middle of what, for most series, would be a cliffhanger (Matt exposed and in jail), and let his successor dig his way out. In Brubaker’s final issue, though, he seems to be laying the groundwork for a more conventional “new beginning” for Diggle.
Issue #500 wraps up the storyline that began once Brubaker had Matt out of prison, rounding up most of DD’s principal allies and antagonists for the showdown we’d known was coming, with some terrific art, in alternating sections, from Lark and Stefano Gaudiano, Klaus Janson, Chris Samnee, and Paul Azaceta (who I just met for the first time in the Punisher Noir series, and who I look forward to seeing more of). There’s more background on the cheerfully gruff Izo, a Milla moment, double-dealing and redemption, and the requisite number of ninjas (i.e., a lot). I won’t spoil a lot of story detail except to say that, thankfully, there are no “senses-shattering” deaths, and that most of the key pieces remain on the board for Diggle… but with a new perspective that I suspect will allow the new team to put a very different spin on the characters than Bendis and Brubaker have, without violating what they’ve done.
Naturally, this being an anniversary issue, it’s jam-packed with stuff, some of it pretty darn good, some of it… less so.
Following the main story, we get a preview of the Daredevil edition of the upcoming Dark Reign: The List miniseries (whose purpose, I have to admit, I’m not really clear on). Diggle’s script is illustrated not by De La Torre, however, but by Billy Tan, who I not only regard as a bit overhyped for his talent in general, but who is about 180 degrees the opposite of what I want from a Daredevil artist: this just looks like warmed-over 90’s Image (if there was more water in the story, it’d be a dead ringer for David Finch’s work on Ultimatum). But the setup could be a promising start to Diggle’s run; I suggest having someone read the script to you while you imagine it being drawn by someone better suited… David Aja, maybe.
As in the David Aja who next illustrates a new short story by veteran DD scribe Ann Nocenti. It’s a nice little sequence that takes place as Matt tries to recover from a particularly brutal encounter with Bullseye, and Aja’s pencils again make me wish that he’d get the book fulltime (he did a great fillin early in Brubaker’s run), or at least return to Immortal Iron Fist.
There’s a pinup gallery with some familiar names (Romita Jr, Maleev, Quesada, etc.), but two in particular are worth noting: Geoff Darrow seems to be drawing the same story that Frank Quitely did for his famous splash page in issue #50, and Brian Bendis demonstrates that he’s capable of more than the balloon-headed characters of Fortune and Glory.
Also included is a reprint of  Daredevil #191 (Frank Miller’s swan song) and the by-now obligatory microscopic cover gallery. And while the issue offers cover choices from Darrow and Alex Ross, among others,  I love Marko Djurdjevic’s wraparound alternate.
Given that Ed Brubaker’s Marvel work has tended to weave long threads seamlessly into years’ worth of storytelling, it’s kind of a nice change of pace to see one of his epics come to a stopping-place, for the characters to catch their collective breath before Diggle and De La Torre take over.

Preview Daredevil #500



[Raided] Batgirl #1 (DC)($2.99)
by Graig Kent

Who is the new Batgirl? Spoiler Alert!  Even the “spoiler alert” spoils the surprise as The Spoiler, Stephanie Brown takes on the mantle of the she-bat.  Steph had promised her mother and her ex-boyfriend (ex-Robin, Tim Drake) that she’d give up her vigilante antics as the Spoiler, but in a fit of semantics she continues on her crusade for adventure in the role bequeathed to her by a frustrated Cassandra Cain.  With Gotham currently undergoing a growth spurt in vigilantism, the new, less capable Batgirl has called attention to herself from all angles, none of it favorable.  The new Batgirl series provides a Spider-Man-style learning-to-be-a-hero scenario, while also embracing the DC Universe’s story stock-in-trade, legacy, with former Batgirl Barbara Gordon also playing a prominent role in the series.  Writer Bryan Q. Miller has put together a surprisingly engaging and accessible take on the character, and is joined by artists Lee Garbett and Trevor Scott, who give the book a nice spit-and-polished looked, with a sunnier disposition than most Bat-titles.


[Raided] Brave and the Bold #26 (DC)($2.99)
by Graig Kent

The last of the Brave and the Bold team ups integrating the Milestone Universe heroes into the DCI, preceded by Static/Black Lightning and Blue Beetle/Hardware, is the perhaps least assuming, but by far the best.  Of all the Milestone titles back in the 1990’s, Xombi was the only series not based on superheroes, but instead on magic, the supernatural and science-gone-wrong, and its writer John Rozum broke way left of the then-trendy X-Files mold venturing into more esoteric, David Lynch-ian territory. It was a truly inspired book, embracing weirdness like few mainstream books outside Morrison’s Doom Patrol at the time did.  It’s been years since I last read the series but Rozum returns to the character here instantly reminding me how much I enjoyed the title, and providing new readers enough to get a sense of who the character is and his unique place in a world of heroes. Opening the story with a truly intense dosage of horror, the Spectre wreaks his vengeance on a despicable man in Dakota.  But the man’s ghost continues to wreak terror on Earth, the Spectre’s overlords binding his hands to do anything more. Xombi is called in on the case by a paranormal investigator case by his friend to help, leading to a confrontation with the Spectre and the evil spirit. Though the final page provides a rather bland epilogue, it’s otherwise a terrific done-in-one issue, illustrated in a mixture of styles by Scott Hampton.  With John Constantine firmly relegated to the Vertigo realm outside the DCU reach, Xombi and his rich cast of cohorts could make a nice substitute.