Slowly but surely, Marvel is doing for jumping on points what this bear did for bears jumping on trampolines.
Marvel’s latest promotion is amazingly in tune with new comic book reader needs. When you purchase one of Marvel’s all-new Marvel NOW! jumping on issues (new creative teams, new story lines, and a funky “24.NOW” issue number), you get the first volume of that same series free as a digital collection.
I’m… I’m impressed. Whereas Marvel’s initial forays into jumping on points felt like flawed good intentions (I haven’t looked at the sales figures, but I always felt like a “point one” issue felt too transitional for a reader to sink money into), giving away the first volume of the series legitimately catches up new readers in a way they’ll enjoy. Plus, with slightly older digital trades generally priced in the $8-$12 range, it’s a great value.
The only real question left is which free digital collections are the best and most worth your time. While I’d encourage you to pick up the series you’re most interested in regardless of past success, I’ve listed out all the available collections below in order of least to most favorite.
Captain America – Issue #16.NOW – On-Sale 02/05/14
One of the challenges in writing a solo Captain America title is that comic book readers know much of what to expect. When he’s not off saving the universe with the Avengers, America’s super soldier is typically caught up in political espionage, global warfare, and adjusting to life as the oldest man in the world not named Logan.
While plenty of creative teams have given this formula new life (most recently Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting), it’s tough to pick up a new Cap book and not smell something a little stale in the air. (_insert Chipotle joke here, but we’re above that, oh yes we are_)
So in theory, transporting Captain America to Arnim Zola’s Dimension Z and trapping him there for a bonkers escape into survivalist fantasy sci-fi is mildly fascinating.
Not only is Steve Rogers warped well out of his element, but as Captain America readers, we’re given something completely new. At least for old man Cap.
Looking back, it’s less surprising that Remender, perhaps the Marvel Universe’s preeminent Age of Apocalypse acolyte, would create a dystopian wasteland universe named after a longtime Cap villain. It’s a great, fun concept, and had the chance to really infuse new life into a solo Captain America comic.
Unfortunately, the execution on “Castaway in Dimension Z” just isn’t in the same atmosphere as Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force” or most everything John Romita Jr. has touched in his professional life. This is hardly a bad comic, but Dimension Z isn’t as fully realized as other alternate universes. Maybe worse, most of the reading experience is spent just waiting for Cap to find a way out of Zola’s trap, without much emotional investment in the characters and story at hand.
As a whole, I love the chances Remender and the creative team took with Captain America. The book has all-time classic potential, but falls well short.
Iron Man – #23.NOW – On-Sale 03/19/14
The problem with the Marvel NOW! revamp of Iron Man is that for the first five issues, Marvel plays it just a little too safe.
Writer Kieron Gillen is one of Marvel’s secret weapons, and his Young Avengers work (with Jamie McKelvie) is consistently among the highlights in all of comics. It would be easy to blame Greg Land, then, for some of the mediocrity that permeates “Iron Man: Believe,” but ultimately it’s a collective effort. Iron Man’s first five issues aren’t poor so much as they are forgettable.
Even the exciting components, like a released Extremis virus, feel too much like Iron Man 3 movie promo fodder. The stakes are never really comparable to previous Extremis stories, and while Gillen writes a solid Tony Stark, everything here feels tepid, like we’re just waiting for something bigger to happen.
Fortunately, that something bigger does happen, but it comes at the very end of this first digital collection and can’t save it in time.
Uncanny Avengers – #18.NOW – On-Sale 3/26/14
Uncanny Avengers was one of the first Marvel NOW! releases, hot on the plot heels of Avengers vs. X-Men. As such, its first volume has the unfortunate distinction of being bogged down with the weight of that mega-event, and feels much like “Avengers vs. X-Men: The Wake” at times.
While this is crucial and logical for Marvel continuity, it prevents the creative team of Remender and John Cassaday from really hitting their stride until issue #6. While this title has gotten interesting, you’re not getting nearly the full enjoyment out of the first volume.
Still, it’s hard to be too down on any series that features the Red Skull doing the things he does. It’s perverse and absurd in a wonderfully comic book way. Plus, nobody is hitting the parallels between mutant rights and modern day racism and homophobia harder than Remender, as controversial as some of that writing may have become.
Savage Wolverine – #14.NOW – On-Sale 1/08/14
I have to admit, I fully expected the Savage Wolverine to be my least favorite of the Marvel NOW! collections. Frank Cho of “Frank Cho Women” notoriety writing Marvel’s most famous mutant? In a story with Shanna the She-Devil and a mysterious island full of dinosaurs? Uh… can I get a critical nose snub?
And while Savage Wolverine isn’t going to see any Watchmen comparisons any time soon (first!), the first five issues are exactly what they intend to be: good dumb fun.
I was pleasantly entertained throughout this collection, in small part to Cho’s inclusion of long-time Hulk & Herc genius Amadeus Cho (no relation… to my knowledge).
All New X Men – #22.NOW – On-Sale 1/22/14
Despite the pedigree of Uncanny X-Men, the Brian Michael Bendis led All-New X-Men has been declared Marvel’s flagship X-book. In a world of somewhere between 12 and 1,348 X-books, this is oddly meaningful.
It’s easy to see why Marvel would go all-in on All-New X-Men, too. Bendis is teaming here with artist Stuart Immonen to bring the original 5 X-men to present day Marvel. “If only they could see what they’ve become” the mantra repeats throughout these five issues.
And while it’s a fun concept that allows for a LOT of missing Marvel elements (Jean Grey, Angel, a wimpy Cyclops), this first volume blows past the time-space continuum conundrum a little too recklessly. Not to get all timey-wimey, but shouldn’t bringing the original 5 X-Men out of their own timeline and into the present day completely disrupt the Marvel Universe?
Nonetheless, this first volume is a largely intriguing story, that I expect has gotten better over time. Issues one through five, though, are middle of the pack.
Avengers – #24.NOW – On-Sale 12/24/13
As we near the end of 2013, Jonathan Hickman writes at least two of my favorite books of the year, East of West and Manhattan Projects.
Hickman has been impossibly prolific (he also wrote Marvel’s Infinity event this year), and Avengers somehow doesn’t suffer for it. It’s not his best work by any means, but he still brings his massive brain and penchant for elaborately constructed concepts to the table.
The result is an Avengers book that truly breathes new life into the team and the very concept of the Avengers. Hickman can be very heady at times, so expect to have some of this hit you like Grant Morrison reading excerpts of Thomas Pynchon. And expect to feel impressed with Hickman’s new direction for an Avengers world.
Nova – #13.NOW – On-Sale 02/19/14
In so many ways, Nova plays out exactly like you’d imagine an origin Nova movie would play out. The troubled teen bullied at school, the difficult relationship with his parents, the seemingly nonsensical prospect that there’s something in the stars…
And yet, Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness craft such an entertaining, well-paced origin story that it’s just five issues of fun. Who cares if you see all the beats coming 5 pages before they hit – this is an all-new Nova the human rocket and the story involves Rocket Raccoon and Gamora!
Uncanny X Men – #19.NOW – On-Sale 03/19/14
Whereas All-New X-Men is trying a little too hard to do everything, Uncanny X-Men is in a sweet spot of concentrated focus that allows Brian Michael Bendis to really highlight one specific team.
Uncanny tracks Cyclops and his band of mutant revolutionaries, fresh off their disastrous role in Avengers vs. X-Men. Bendis is able to play nicely off the continuity of that mega-event here and capture a team split between mangled anguish and fresh childlike confusion. The additions of the new young mutants are particularly effective, and help recapture the comedic tone you’d expect from a school of gifted youngsters.
Guardians of the Galaxy – #11.NOW – On-Sale 1/29/14
In the lead up to their mega blockbuster hit movie, the Guardians of the Galaxy are about as fresh and unexplored as any characters in the Marvel Universe can get. Yes, they’ve been driving some excellent Marvel cosmic stories for years, but for the average comic reader there’s still an element of “Wait, there’s a talking raccoon?” to these stories.
That’s part of what makes this first volume of Guardians of the Galaxy stories so exciting. The other is that Brian Michael Bendis gets that Marvel fans like Marvel characters included in their books. It may seem obvious, but he’s shown it time and time again, and Guardians of the Galaxy does a nice job integrating not only a certain shellhead, but also key figures of the Marvel cosmic universe.
All in all, this is a fun opening salvo, and a great way to get to know the Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time.
Thor: God of Thunder – #19.NOW – On-Sale 02/12/14
When it comes to Marvel’s absolute best title of the last two or so years, Thor: God of Thunder has some competition. You could find legitimate arguments for Hawkeye, Daredevil, Young Avengers, and Wolverine & The X-Men.
But when it comes to the Marvel NOW! first volumes available as free digital giveaways in the coming months? Thor: God of Thunder is the runaway favorite. This is one of the coolest, most brilliantly complex Thor stories in years.
As you’d expect much of the credit goes to Jason Aaron for the concept, and for the story-telling chops to interweave three ages of Thor (past, present day, and future). The component that really sets the book apart, though, is Esad Ribic’s art. Ribic captures a violent Norse tone perfectly and presents a book that looks unlike anything in the Marvel catalogue, flying in the face of homogenized digitization.
If you jump onto only one Marvel NOW! series, I highly recommend the first volume of Thor: God of Thunder.