Having given up the Age of Ultron series after the first couple of issues, I've not been bothering with the tie-ins. But the buzz around this book over the last few days sent me back to the comic shop, and I'm so glad it did.
The art, by veterans Butch Guice, Tom Palmer and Rick Magyar is stellar, with imaginative yet clear compositions, well-individuated characters and sharp finishes. The emotions on the faces of the good guys really sell the idea that it's the darkest of days, while Ultron's robots mimic a pleasing madness. The colours of Frank D'armata notch up the drama, and Clayton Cowles' letters are clear and complementary. The entire art team works well together, making a great case for a regular gig. There's a splendid cover, too, courtesy of Nic Klein - action-packed, but not cluttered, and just screaming 'Britain'.
It's the script, though, that makes this issue really special. Al Ewing, who also handled the Avengers Assemble Black Widow spotlight, makes 20 pages feel twice that size, filling panel after panel with meaty drama and believable humour. Captain Marvel is Ewing's point of view character, and I bet regular Carol Danvers writer Kelly Sue DeConnick is cheering his efforts - he captures Carol's grit, wit and intelligence, both strategic and emotional. Her opening encounter with new character Computer Graham ('I'd just like to say, I didn't call myself that') is a mini-masterclass in combining character with exposition.
Graham himself is a quiet chap with the power to communicate with, and even enter, machines, influencing them. He's not the showiest of heroes in battle, but is potentially very useful when you're facing an evil AI.
The other new character, Magic Boots Mel, is a pupil at Braddock Academy, the school Captain Britain runs, according to the new Avengers Arena book (the series is obliquely referenced, without it getting in the way of this story). The mystic football boots - the story goes with soccer, pah! - she wears means she never misses a shot ('any kick, any distance - back of the net every time'). It's a weird power, but older British readers (ahem!) will be thinking Billy's Boots, a vintage comic strip. And she's not the only homage character, with Computer Graham influenced by one Computer Warrior. Finish this review, then pop over to Freaky Trigger for the scoop.
One homage that immediately leapt out was the image of Ultron's minions marching down the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, a compositional salute to this famous Dr Who moment - imprinted on my childhood mind by the UK's Super-DC reprint monthly - and one the show itself recreated in recent years.
Former MI-13 teammates Captain Britain, the Black Knight and Excalibur all receive care and attention from Ewing, making me hope Marvel gives him a shot at a UK-set superhero book. Ewing's skill with authentic dialogue isn't wildly surprising, him being a Brit and all, but I've rarely seen one of my countrymen so immediately at home in the Marvel Universe. He understands the milieu, the characters, the conflicts and finds new things to say about them.
One thing I really like is that the heroes here aren't battle-scarred, and world-weary, unlike the Avengers in the main Age of Ultron series. No, they're exactly the same as when we saw them last, right down to Carol's current medical problems. This makes it easier to accept the story as occurring in the 'real' MU, not some alternate, easily erased corner.
Ewing also writes a fine fight, with Carol's opening sortie with the drones moving from Tottenham Court Road to the British Museum a few streets away in thoroughly entertaining manner, thanks in equal part to Guice's intelligent, fluid layouts.
Then there are the little touches that just make me smile, such as the bombastic introductions as each character has a defining moment ('Faiza Hussain IS Excalibur'), and the shout-out to our excellent, under-threat National Health Service.
I've said a lot about this issue, but not really. There's so much to enjoy - the little moments, the big beats and how they meld to produce a fantastic story that can be enjoyed without having to follow the event title. I'll read this one again and again, as a discrete gem of a superhero comic. The heroes haven't yet overcome Ultron, but the readers have already won.