UPDATE, 3/3/2012, 9 a.m.: Via Twitter exchange with Mike Deodato on the division of art labor between him and Will Conrad:

@mikedeodato – FYI: @willconrad didn’t ink me on NA#22. He drew these awesome pages: 5,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17 and I did the rest. Thanks, buddy!:)

@InfiniteMidlife – Thanks, @mikedeodato. I’m curious: did @willconrad pencil those pages with a common inker for the book? I couldn’t see a difference in style

@mikedeodato -@InfiniteMidlife We ink our own stuff.

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Here’s the ugly and sad truth that DC Comics will not want to hear and will ignore even if they do: when it comes to superhero team books, The New Avengers is, bar none, the most consistently good one you can currently put your hands on. From the plot to the characters to the dialogue to the art, this book blows Justice League out of the water… and I say this despite the fact that New Avengers #22 continues the Dark Avengers 2 storyline, which just by existing makes me so crazy with rage that I want to catch a flight so I can chloroform writer Brian Michael Bendis and draw a misshapen Norman Osborn wavy haircut on his lumpy bald noggin.

This issue continues the aftermath of Osborn’s and his Dark Avengers’ public relations assault on our heroes, which has led to a bunch of very expensive power-armored New York SWAT cops (Hey, it’s New York in the 616; let’s assume Mayor Jameson’s reduction of the Moustache Tax hit the sweet spot on the Laffer Curve) waiting outside Avengers Mansion to arrest the crew. Luke Cage, however, has some obvious and understandable issues with police authority, so fisticuffs ensue. Meanwhile, various members of the Dark Avengers are engaged in a race to see who can sneakfuck Osborn the fastest, and some members of the New Avengers have realized that S.H.I.E.L.D. liason Victoria Hand – former right-hand woman for Osborn in the Dark Reign days – might have been giving the team a Victoria Job. Wait, that’s not right…

This is a strange issue of a comic book to feel as strongly positive as I do because there is almost no action in it. There’s one gunshot, one sucker-punch, one or two “Come at me, bro!” almost-attacks, and an “enhanced” interrogation sequence involving Hand and the team that takes a somewhat more tense turn than you would expect from a team of superheroes. Let’s just say that if the army had Dr. Strange, Daredevil and Iron Fist, Guantanamo Bay would be a one-room shack with a revolving door… and even so, I’d still rather be waterboarded than face Doc’s Death Illusion Spell of The Shadow. Yeesh.

And yet I think part of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that I cracked this book about thirty seconds after publishing my review of Justice League #6, and unlike that book, the characters here all ring true. If you’re picking up this book after a long time away from comics, say, because you’re interested in the upcoming Avengers flick, yes: you’ll see a new Spider-Man costume… but you’ll know in about three wisecracking word balloons that this is Spider-Man. This is unlike Justice League, where often the only reason you can tell that the gleefully violent schizo chick with the sword is Wonder Woman is because she’s wearing star-spangled panties.

Is the characterization perfect? No. If you scratch too deeply on some of the scenarios we see here, things are questionable. Would Dr. Strange really use his spells to make someone think they were dying? That’s a tough one… but since the good doctor was created by Steve Ditko, who would likely support setting traitors on fire, I can accept it. Would Spider-Man stand by while it was happening with crossed-armed body language implying, “Yeah – fuck that broad”? That one’s tougher… but when you consider that the questionee is apparently working for Norman Osborn, who killed Spider-Man’s first love? I can see it. There isn’t a thing in this issue that any of the heroes do where you can’t make some logical sense of it… and compare that to Justice League, where recently Batman exposed his identity and took half his clothes off in front of a guy he doesn’t even like.

And every month, I am more and more convinced that artist Mike Deodato should be mentioned in the same breath as Jim Lee, or at least with Todd McFarlane from back before he started spending all his time making toys. Deodato gives good superhero: finely detailed with thin-line inks that never stray into overly-stylized from strongly realistic, with solid action poses that don’t overpower the generally easy-to-follow storytelling. His faces are expressive and clear, and he doesn’t scrimp on the backgrounds in favor of the action stuff… and he does it every. Single. Month (Although to be fair, he shares a co-artist credit this months with Will Conrad, although it’s not clear if Conrad did breakdowns, inks, or general help with the art. Regardless, he played a part, and should get some credit here). Compare that with Jim Lee, who needs four inkers and six weeks to do an issue of Justice League. The highest praise I can give Deodato is that a few months back, this comic did a Point One issue with Neal Adams on art… and when Deodato returned the next month it didn’t feel like a tragedy. This is good, good stuff.

I am on record as flatly hating the idea of yet another Dark Avengers story. And make no mistake, I will be glad when we move on to something a little more original (What’s that? Avengers Vs. X-Men? You mean Civil War 2? Dammit.) . But we are finally at the point in this arc where things are breaking a little more realistically than they did in Dark Reign, and we get a twist in this issue that’s leading me to believe that this thing might move in a direction that makes the whole thing more interesting than it looked at the start.

Am I enthusiatic about this book only because I read it on the heels of the ultimately disappointing Justice League? Well, maybe a little, but even a pity fuck means that you get laid. Put it this way: if you have to choose between one of the two books, this one gives you solid characters, measurable story advancement, and art I would put next to the best in the superhero trade. Check it out.

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