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Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1

Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1 by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Something like 20 years after ARCHER & ARMSTRONG first premiered, Valiant decided to reboot the series with Fred Van Lente at the helm. They couldn’t have chosen better, as Van Lente brings his trademark intelligence, imagination, and snarky humor to the series. It’s a wild ride through history, conspiracies, and the occasional immortal assassin, but Van Lente keeps things light, even when the fate of the world is at stake, which makes for a fun, brisk read. Filled with compelling characters, a lot of action, and fascinating world-building, ARCHER & ARMSTRONG will keep you cheering, laughing, and gasping, sometimes all on the same page. Highly recommended.

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X-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana

X-Men: Magik: Storm & IllyanaX-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite member of THE NEW MUTANTS was always Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’s little sister, a.k.a. Magik. Aside from my obvious adolescent crush on her, I was drawn to her mix of mutant and mystical abilities. Sure, she can summon “stepping discs” that allow her to teleport anywhere (and sometimes even through time), but she also has a cool “soulsword” and magical armor and a repertoire of spells at her disposal! Coupled with her constant internal battle against the dark, demonic side of her nature, how could I NOT be obsessed with her?

I read this four-issue miniseries when it first came out in 1983-4 to learn how she got those mystic powers during her years in Limbo with the demon Belasco. Trailers for a movie adaptation of THE NEW MUTANTS reminded me how much I liked the miniseries, so when I found a used trade available for a reasonable price, I snatched it up and dove right in. I was not disappointed! The story still holds up as an enjoyable, gothic adventure through a dark mirror-world of magic and demons. Back in the day, I found the alternate versions of the X-Men Illyana encounters in Limbo, twisted by Belasco’s dark magic, to be deeply disturbing, especially Kitty Pryde’s transformation into an unhinged human-cat hybrid. Today I found them equally disturbing.

Only two things keep me from awarding MAGIK five stars. The first is that the writing is ridiculously overwrought, particularly Belasco’s dialogue. This is not unusual for comic books, especially comics in the 1980s, but as a more discerning reader now it really stuck out for me. Second, it feels rushed. Had the miniseries gone for six or eight issues instead of only four, it wouldn’t have had to rely so much on exposition told through narration boxes across the panels and would have had room to show us more of what Illyana was experiencing in Limbo. It would have allowed time pass a little more organically, too, even with Limbo’s strange temporal properties.

Overall, this was a very fun read, and one I’m glad I revisited after all these years. Illyana Rasputin will always hold a special place in my dark little heart, and so will this miniseries!

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The New Mutants: Demon Bear

New Mutants/X-Force: Demon BearNew Mutants/X-Force: Demon Bear by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE NEW MUTANTS was one of the few comics I read regularly back in the early to mid-1980s (along with X-MEN and ALPHA FLIGHT), so with a film adaptation on the horizon I thought I’d revisit one of the comic’s best-known story arcs. I’m sure I read it in issues back in the day, but I was surprised how little of it I remembered. For example, I remembered all the members of the New Mutants except Magma, whom I had completely forgotten existed! I was also surprised to see just how small a role Dani Moonstar plays in the overall story, despite the Demon Bear being her personal nemesis. After the first issue, Dani spends the rest of the time in the hospital while her teammates battle the Demon Bear on her behalf. These aren’t necessarily bad things, by the way, just things I didn’t remember. The story is actually quite exciting!

It’s also a reminder of what an efficient writer Chris Claremont is. Not only does he pack an epic, mystical battle into just three issues, he also takes the time within those issues to set up significant future plot lines. We briefly see Rachel Summers, the daughter of an alternate-future Cyclops and Phoenix, looking for Professor X at the mansion before her story takes off in the pages of X-MEN. We also get a few interludes setting up Warlock’s imminent arrival on Earth, including a small cameo by the Starjammers and Binary, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, the Captain Marvel we know from the MCU. As for Bill Sienkiewicz’s art, I remember thinking at the time that it was “weird,” but now I think it’s pretty great. I also appreciate that he draws our young heroes as realistic teenagers rather than giant-boobed pin-ups like other artists.

This volume also features two re-appearances of the Demon Bear in later issues of X-FORCE, but neither adds much to the story, in my opinion, although it’s nice to catch up with an adult Dani Moonstar in the first of them. Overall, I found THE NEW MUTANTS: DEMON BEAR to be a highly enjoyable blast from the past (with no bigger blast, perhaps, than seeing Storm’s 1980s mohawk again!). I don’t think I was fully conscious of it at the time, but THE NEW MUTANTS spoke to me in a way no other comics did because the characters were all around my age at the time and shared many of my insecurities, which helped me see that those insecurities were universal. I’m older now — much older — but the New Mutants still have a special place in my heart, and I enjoyed spending some time with them again.

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Breeding Ground

Breeding GroundBreeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Sarah Pinborough’s magnificent thriller BEHIND HER EYES a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so when I found a copy of BREEDING GROUND, one of her early horror novels for now-defunct mass market publisher Leisure, I snatched it up. BREEDING GROUND is definitely “paperback horror,” with all the good and bad that entails, but Pinborough is a talented writer who lifts this novel above others like it with her skillful use of voice and characterization. I don’t think it’s as good as her later novels — some of it is clumsy, many of the interpersonal conflicts feel forced — but you could say that about any writer’s early work, and BREEDING GROUND does show a lot of future promise. It may not stay with you or get under your skin like BEHIND HER EYES, but it’s an enjoyable monster romp if you’re in the mood for one.

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