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SYFY WIRE Comics Wire

Comics Wire: The Phoenix rises; X of Swords begins; the end of a Flash era; and more!

By Matthew Jackson
X of Swords Creation cover

Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE's weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what's going on in comics right now. We've got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week's hot new comics, and everything in between.

One of the great things about the Big Two superhero universes is that they're massive, constantly growing sandboxes where creators of every generation get to go to play with toys left there through decades of storytelling, and those toys get reinvented in exciting new ways all the time. One of the bad things about the Big Two superhero universes is that they're massive, constantly growing sandboxes where creators of every generation get to go to play with toys left there through decades of storytelling, and those toys just keep getting dragged back out, over and over again, whether we want to see them again so soon or not. 

Yes, some toys in these sandboxes are more popular than others, and that means that sometimes what was a great idea in one story becomes an overused crutch in another. The Phoenix Force, first introduced during the legendary Chris Claremont run on Uncanny X-Men decades ago, is a very popular toy in the Marvel Universe — and it hasn't always been used in the best ways — which means I'm always at least a little hesitant when someone decides to resurrect it yet again. That said, if I trust anyone to play with one of Marvel's most well-loved toys one more time, it's Jason Aaron, which is why I'm now cautiously optimistic about the next major arc of Avengers

Marvel Enter the Phoenix art

After teasing it a few weeks ago, Marvel revealed new teaser art just last week for Enter The Phoenix, the story that will follow The Age of Khonshu in Aaron's current run on The Avengers, with art by Javier Garron and cover art by the great Leinil Yu. It seems Earth's Mightiest Heroes will once again be struggling over the immense power of the Phoenix, but this isn't another Avengers vs. X-Men. No, this time a group of heroes — including the gang you see above, Cap's Phoenix shield and all — will be battling not to contain the Phoenix Force, but to embody it.

“The Phoenix is back and in its spirit of fiery rebirth, it's seeking a brand new avatar," Aaron said in a press release. "So begins the greatest tournament the world has ever seen, as some of Marvel's most powerful heroes and villains are called to battle for the right to become the all-new Phoenix. All will be transformed. But who will burn?”

That's right, beginning with Avengers #40 in December we get to see Marvel heroes duking it out to become the new Phoenix, which feels like both a riff on the alluring destructive power of the Phoenix Force and a chance to let all these heroes reckon with their own connections to Phoenix stories from the past in a really intriguing way. I'm excited about the Phoenix coming back, which isn't something I necessarily would've said six months ago. 

A heroic fundraiser

We've written frequently here at SYFY WIRE about the impact of The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit that has spent the last two decades providing financial assistance and other relief to comics creators in need due to medical emergencies, financial hardships, and more. In the era of COVID-19, the work the Initiative does is more vital than ever, and thanks to a massive effort from some of the industry's top artists, it just got a massive funding boost. 

A few weeks ago we told you about Hero Initiative's "Batman 100 Project," an art team-up that saw some of the biggest names in comics pencilling try their hand at 110 copies of Batman #75, as they each used a blank sketch cover variant (in some cases more than one) to draw their take on the Dark Knight, his allies and his enemies. The result was a truly stunning portfolio of work from a collective of legends, all of whom donated their art to a Batman Day fundraiser last week, hosted by Heritage Auctions. By the time the sale was over, the Batman covers raised more than $98,000 for the Hero Initiative, according to a press release from Heritage. That's nearly $100,000 to help creators in need, raised directly through the pencils and pens of everyone from Jim Lee to Arthur Adams to Frank Miller and many, many more. 

To see the full results of The Batman 100 Project sale, head over to the Heritage Auctions website. And, if you didn't have the cash to buy some original art but you'd still like to own something from the project, you're in luck. Hero Initiative is collecting the entire project into a book, which will be released in November and is now available for pre-order.

Return to the Labyrinth

Two things are convening right now in the comics world: The ability of the comics page to go as big as possible in a way that even blockbuster movies can't, and the rise of comics creators who grew up on classic stories from the '80s and '90s that those of us who also grew up in that era can't get enough of. In that spirit, after giving us several spellbinding tales from the world of Jim Henson already, BOOM! Studios is going back to Labyrinth this September for a new one-shot. 

Labyrinth Masquerade 1 cover

Written by Lara Elena Donnelly with art by French Carlomagno, Samantha Dodge, and Pius Bak, Labyrinth: Masquerade is BOOM: Archaia's latest effort (after Labyrinth: Coronation) to return to the world of Jareth the Goblin King in a story that expands on the mythology of the film while also retaining the spirit of it. Here's the synopsis:

"You’re invited to the ball of the season! But all is not as it seems with the guests of Jareth’s famous Masquerade, as one of the partygoers slowly awakens to the reality of her topsy-turvy existence in the Goblin Kingdom after Sarah’s escape from the ball. As this mysterious participant puts together the pieces of who she is and where she is, her discoveries could unravel the very fabric of this fantasy world!"

What will be the mystery at the heart of Masquerade and will it lead to even more Labyrinth comics? Find out when the one-shot hits comic shops this December, just in time for the Jareth superfan in your life to get a nice Christmas present.

This week's comics: X of Swords begins, the end of an era for The Flash, and more!

Flash 762 cover

That's the news. Now it's time to talk about the comics I got excited about this week.

X of Swords: Creation #1: It's been more than half a year since X of Swords  — the first major X-Men crossover event since Jonathan Hickman relaunched the line with Dawn of X — was first announced, and now the story is finally launching. If you've been paying attention to the X-books, particularly Excalibur, you probably had an idea of where this story was going, but much of X of Swords proper has been shrouded in mystery, so much so that even the solicitation copy for each chapter is only a handful of words that mean almost nothing out of context. So, now that the first issue of this massive crossover is here, was all the mystery and build-up worth it?

Thanks to Hickman, writer Tini Howard, and the incredible work of artist Pepe Larraz, the answer is a resounding yes. This is a comic wielding extraordinary levels of ambition from the outset, even by X-Men standards, and it has the potential to reframe these characters and the world they inhabit in exciting new ways.  I'm not going to spoil the major stage-setting developments of the issue for you, in part because Marvel has been so careful to keep them secret, but largely because this is a book that works best if you just allow it to unfold before your eyes, watching the layers peel back on a tale Hickman, Howard, and various other X-creators have been laying the groundwork on for months. It's a story with roots embedded deep in a kind of secret history of mutantkind that's capable of dropping major surprises while also feeling like it's always been there, which is the kind of thing Hickman in particular has long been a master of. In his hands, the Marvel Universe truly feels like an infinite living thing, full of dark corners we've somehow never seen illuminated, and the big ideas at work here make all the sense in the world through that lens.

What really gives X of Swords the potential to be something special, though, is a thematic through-line that I have to give a lot of credit to Howard for, because she's been so persistently and elegantly building it up in Excalibur: The merging of magic and mutantdom. The genetic roots of the X-Men as "Children of the Atom" have always made them feel like sci-fi characters in the eyes of a great many creators and fans, but there's no reason they can't also work in the realm of sweeping fantasy, and the setup of Krakoa as a realm all its own with its requisite allegiances was a perfect gateway to that kind of exploration. With the launch of this event, the epic fantasy version of the X-Men franchise truly comes into its own, and it's a glorious reinvention of characters who still feel like themselves even as they're stepping onto a grand, sword and sorcery stage. This is a bold, thrilling new realm for the X-Men to walk in, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.

The Flash #762: We've talked about a major superhero beginning. Now, let's talk about a major superhero ending. This week, writer Joshua Williamson wraps up his epic run on The Flash, a run that ran for four years and a little more than 100 issues at a time when such lengthy superhero runs are increasingly rare. It's a run of comics full of exuberance, big ideas, and boundless energy — in other words, a superhero epic very much suited to The Flash and his speedster legacy, and with the help of the legendary Howard Porter, Williamson brings it in for a landing with grace, heart, and a few surprises along the way. 

Issue #762 is, of course, the end of the "Finish Line" saga that saw Barry Allen struggling against Eobard Thawne and his Legion of Zoom, so of course you can expect the conclusion to that showdown in these pages. But "Finish Line" is an arc that's about more than a final battle with an arch-nemesis. It's also about the enduring, at times convoluted legacy of The Flash, what that means, and why it endures despite decades of retcons, reboots, deaths, rebirths, and more. Over the course of the final arc, Williamson brought back old favorite speedster characters, found new uses for old ideas, and paid tribute to decades of Flash storytelling that came before him, and somehow it all comes together here in a way that doesn't feel rushed or crowded or even overcomplicated in that thrilling but frustrating way that Flash comics sometimes are. It just...all feels right. 

How? Well, the key to the endurance of Williamson's run may have been the unending ambition of his storytelling, but that wasn't the only reason we kept reading for so long. Yes, we'll remember this run as one filled with big ideas, from Godspeed to Negative Flash to forces beyond the Speed Force and much more, but that's not really the secret to its impact. No, what worked here is Williamson's innate understanding that The Flash has always been the scrappy, tireless marathon runner of DC's pantheon. From Barry Allen's final run in Crisis on Infinite Earths to the remaking of the timeline in Flashpoint to the trials of Rebirth, The Flash has always been a hero who's put the DC Universe on his back and carried it through good times and bad. No matter which hero is wearing the suit at any given time, Flash is the guy who doesn't stop, because he can't, because he cares too much. It's that, that sense of neverending devotion and love to being the Fastest Man Alive, that permeated Williamson's run, and that's why we'll remember it. Cheers to the entire Flash team on a truly epic race.

The Autumnal #1Fall is officially here, which means it's time for spooky stories (or, if you're like me, even more spooky stories than you already consume in the other three seasons), and thankfully we've got more than a few new comics on the way in the coming weeks to help us celebrate. If you're looking for a place to start, though, I can't think of a better one than The Autumnal, the new horror limited series from writer Daniel Kraus (the acclaimed novelist behind The Living Dead making his comics debut) and artist Chris Shehan. 

The first issue has all the elements of a perfect horror setup. It follows single mother Kat and her daughter Sybil as they leave Chicago and head to the quaint little town of Comfort Notch in New Hampshire, where Kat's estranged mother has just passed away. Though she's haunted by memories of her family and her upbringing, Kat sees Comfort Notch as a potential place for a new beginning, and Sybil sees it as a magical new realm far removed from her urban childhood. As soon as they step off the bus, though, mother and daughter find Comfort Notch is not quite as welcoming as they may have imagined, and it's not just because there may be a monster out in the trees. 

Slow burning horror stories are tricky to pull off, because no matter how long you wait to spring the scares on people you still have to make the whole thing feel spooky from the first page. It's here that Shehan rises to the occasion with absolutely gorgeous, haunting, beautifully paced pages that layer in a sense of dread while also playing with the immense beauty of New England fall foliage. That juxtaposition is no accident, of course, but the execution is key, and Shehan delivers in every panel. As for the script, Kraus proves that he loses absolutely nothing in moving from novels to comics. His ability to build dread through character work, to create instant investment in the personalities on the page, and to layer in wit and theme and emotional power through dialogue all remain intact here. The result is a truly masterful debut issue that all builds to a last page reveal which insures you won't want to miss issue #2. 

An Unkindness of Ravens #1: If you're after something spooky that's perhaps a bit less intense, or you're just so ready for spooky content that you want more than one spooky book this week (and hey, I can't blame you at all), BOOM! Studios has you covered with a new series from Dan Panosian and Marianna Ignazzi. 

An Unkindness of Ravens begins with the premise that the Salem Witch Trials didn't kill all the witches, in no small part because many of the real witches were deliberately misdirecting public fear to save themselves, to endure and preserve their power. Cut to present day, when a girl named Wilma arrives in a small New England town called Crab's Eye and finds herself instantly embroiled in both a conflict between high school cliques and the case of a missing girl who looks exactly like her. Wilma just wants to try and settle in and get a fresh start, of course, but the spooky girls known as the Ravens have other plans for her.

The result in this first issue is a wonderfully entertaining blend of high school drama, intrigue, and magic that feels like the start of something much grander thanks to the blending of Panosian's dark prologue art pages and Ignazzi's clean, wonderfully expressive pages in the story proper. An Unkindness of Ravens leads off its story with a wickedly fun first issue that's part The Craft, part Riverdale, and all a perfect entry into your Halloween season pull list.

Miles to Go #1: Good first issues come in a lot of forms, depending on the genre and the exact intent of the creators, and I celebrate all of them. I'm particularly fond, though, of first issues that make me feel just a little off-balance, like there are secrets just out of my reach, waiting to be revealed if I just stick around a bit longer. It's a difficult feeling to capture, but when I find it you can bet I'm going back for seconds, because it means the creative team managed to show me a story I truly feel like I can't predict. 

That happened with Miles to Go #1, the first issue of a new series from writer B. Clay Moore and artist Stephen Molnar about killers, secrets, and cycles of violence that come back to haunt generations of one family. The story follows Amara, now an adult with a daughter of her own, who has a dark past of brutality that included working on assassinations when she was just a girl. Though she's more focused on her daughter now, Amara's past is still full of darkness, including her ties to an old mentor who seems to be a loose end that someone else is eager to tie up. 

Like I said, this is a debut that makes me feel just a little off, like I'm looking at a puzzle that's not quite coming together in my head yet, but that's exactly the point. Thanks to a wonderful structure, a breathless pace, and art that feels both emotive and a bit whimsical, particularly when dealing with violence, Miles to Go becomes a story that makes you eager to find the next piece of the puzzle, because you get the sense that Moore and Molnar know exactly what they're doing. We're in the hands of gifted storytellers and we just have to understand that they're telling this story in their way. That sense of swagger throughout the issue, plus a hell of a last page, means you'll be on the edge of your seat waiting for the next chapter.

And that's it for Comics Wire this week. Until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:

"You gotta be one of the good guys, son: 'Cause there's way too many of the bad."

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.