The late nineties of superhero comics have always been such a fascinating wild west to me. I know so little about this period that is building off the industry’s most significant recession. With so few eyes drawn to it, it’s ripe for uncovering fascinating hidden gems or unreadable stinkers. This year I’ve dug up the series and burgeoning franchise “A-Next” to sink my teeth into. Which category will this spinoff-of-a-spinoff fall in? Let’s find out together, dear readers!
Scripted by Tom DeFalco
Plotted and Illustrated by Ron Frenz
Finished by Al Milgrom
Colored by Bob Sharen
Lettered by Jim Novak
At this point in my series recap, I’ve started to notice a common pattern that DeFalco has established over the last few issues. Since the team expanded in issue four, DeFalco introduces a nexus point in the narrative that splits the team off into two plotlines that weave in and out of each other. It’s something that worked to make things exciting the first few times but the formula feels a little rote at this point and with the plotlines constantly stacking on top of each other, it gets a little harder to follow in this issue. Nonetheless, I persevere.
The issue’s A-Plot (which ties fairly directly from last issue’s) is a tense race to figure out how to save Mainframe from his apparent death. Normally I’m neutral to annoyed on these kind of last-minute-save moments but considering that the character in question is an A.I., and existed thus far by recreating it’s body, it works for me. It’s a great way to keep the pacing on this issue nice and nimble, as DeFalco sets a ticking clock on the time that Mainframe can be sustained without a body. Thus, it’s up to Stinger and her father Scott, the team’s resident scientists, to save the day. Plus, we get to see Scott Lang back in costume! Frenz and Milgrom update the old Ant-Man costume for the M2 timeline, and I love how it looks. It feels almost directly inspired by Kamen Rider and other tokusatsu superhero shoes, with it’s more angular insectoid helmet and armor-like features. Plus, Sharen adds some nice purples as a secondary color which lend even more to that high campy feel.
On the B-Plot you’ve got the Monster in the Basement-style narrative that has been going on for the last few issues and is still not quite resolved here. Frankly, this plot is significantly weaker than it’s sibling, and I found myself confused a lot of the time. The premise is that there’s some kind of psychic/magic force (the nature of it seems to be never quite nailed down?) that creates illusions of past Avengers foes that drive away any intruders. At it’s best is when the illusion is of Blood Axe, a villain that hits quite personally to Thunderstrike as Blood Axe (I thoroughly enjoy typing this name) is the baddie that killed his father. It’s a short scene but it does immediately dispel any false bravado that Thunderstrike had and brings him down to the same level as American Dream and Crimson Curse.
The artists in this section, at least, are having fun with the concept. Frenz and Milgrom are rendering this ghostly figures dripping with ethereal glory, having them swirl up from malleable energy like djinns. Sharen adds an extra layer to this otherworldly quality, giving the figures a fuschia-purple glow that lights up the rest of the characters in the dark room with an eerie glow. The coloring dips a little too hard into early Photoshop gradients and lighting, but gives these characters an almost action figure-like quality that feels so indicative of this era. I like it. There’s a few more dramatic developments in this plotline. The key reveal is that the illusions are created by a captive Scarlet Witch, in a genuinely shocking scene that shows her captured in some kind of stasis pod. The implications that this was a collaborative effort from her and Tony Stark are super interesting but don’t do a whole lot for this issue in question. Earlier, however, Scarlet Witch seemed to take an interest in Crimson Curse, who reveals her name as Aerika Harkness, a family name that should be familiar to recent MCU fans. There is a lot of unfortunate usage of the word Gypsy thrown around which dates this comic big-time. That, coupled with the fact that we still seem no closer to this unknown ancient threat is a little frustrating, and almost feels like DeFalco is padding the series out somewhat.
Back to the A-Plot (which is unfortunately tangled up in these flashes to the Avengers basement), the Ant-Family have shrunk down into Mainframe’s armor to deploy the armor into a sort of recovery mode that will take it to the nearest Stark satellite, recover it’s memory and form a new body. Cassie and Scott are similar enough personalities that they have bounce off each other well with fun dialogue. Frenz and Milgrom also have them adventuring through some very sleek sci-fi trappings. It almost feels like a cyberpunk version of Ditko’s Dark Dimension, with lots of abstract shapes and lines forming sporadically appearing platforms. The environments push this chaotic feel just enough that they are interesting without being too confusing.
In the end, Cassie manages to talk to Mainframe’s essence in a genuinely cute scene, and the pair manage to launch the armor and themselves into space to a Stark satellite. Tension is created one more time as the pair worry whether they will run out of oxygen before another Mainframe is built, which keeps readers invested right until the last moment. Mainframe is rebuilt, however, in a scene that takes place over two largely silent pages, with robot arms assembling the armor skeleton first before finishing it off with a fresh coat of paint. It’s a very satisfying assembly moment in which Frenz and Milgrom get to flex just how much thought they’ve put into this character design, and Novak goes ham on machine sound effects, like an ever-present VVVVMMMMMM and lots of KLKT, KLACK and VRRTs. It’s a nice little finishing moment, despite being hampered by the constant switching back and forth between plots, and I’m glad to see Mainframe back and able to finally bare his artificial soul to his teammates.