"Astonishing Tales," the apparent continuation/relaunch of the failed "Marvel Comics Presents" experiment ("failed" in the sense that it didn't generate a large enough readership to continue, and "failed" in the sense that for every good bit of story it produced, it threw a whole lot of mediocrity at the wall), is perhaps a bit stronger than its predecessor, but only because of a single story: "Mojoworld," by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra.
On its own, "Mojoworld" is a three-star story, far from perfect, but taking some risks that the other stories in "Astonishing Tales" refuse to take. "Mojoworld" is one of the three continuing serials in this comic -- along with a Punisher/Wolverine team-up by C. B. Cebulski and Kenneth Rocafort, and an Iron Man 2020 saga by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Lou Kang -- and its premise is suitably ridiculous for something set on a planet ruled by that corpuscular maniac known as Mojo. In the story, Sunspot and Cannonball have been forced to create a series of movies for Mojo -- eight movies in one month, without the use of their powers. It's the superhero version of that quickly-abandoned reality show "On the Lot," but with more inside Marvel jokes and allusions to films like "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Weird Science," and "The Princess Bride." It's extremely goofy and it knows it, and it's a side of Hickman that we haven't seen a lot of in his other comic book work: the absurdist with nothing to say but a drive to entertain. And it features the Seth Fisher-style art of Nick Pitarra, who packs every page with tiny details and almost makes "Astonishing Tales" worth reading.
Unfortunately, the rest of the stories in this issue are terrible, forgettable, or both.
Cebulski's Wolverine/Punisher romp is nothing more than the two characters shooting at (and stabbing!) monsters while trading less-than-witty comments or reflecting on the events in unfunny yet jokey interior monologues. It seems to aspire to that kind of b-movie quality -- like something on the Sci-Fi channel at 10:00 on Saturdays -- but there's just nothing substantial to the story, and Kenneth Rocafort draws the whole thing like it's a sketch for a Camaro mural, circa 1983. And why does letterer Troy Peteri uses a font that looks like Simone Bianchi's handwriting? Who knows. But it doesn't help the comic at all.
The Goodbrey Iron Man 2020 story is less memorable -- and less fun then the Wolverine/Punisher one. While they both seem to want to mindlessly entertain, the Arno Stark tale is just a dull series of events without even the cheesy flash of the Rocafort art in the first story. No, this Iron Man 2020 story is a trifle that will probably never be collected -- unless Marvel runs out of reprint material and the Arno Stark Omnibus hits the shelves -- and that's no great tragedy.
But the worst of the bunch, by far, is Frank Tieri's one-shot little story about Shiver, a kind of Rolandesque character that's part "Gunslinger," part wild west Ghost Rider, and part Punisher. The Marco Turini art isn't the problem -- its dreamlike in a haunting kind of way -- but the Tieri script is wretched. It simply pits Shiver against one opponent after another, providing narrative captions that read, "You will walk the Earth until…" and then a whole bunch of pseudo-solemn profundities. That same formula, repeated again and again until the story ends, by which time we're all glad that, while Shiver may continue to walk the Earth, we won't have to read about it anymore.
There's certainly no reason to read "Astonishing Tales" #5 unless you want the Hickman story, but that might be a good enough motivation for picking it up. Then again, that's the only story that might end up collected somewhere down the road -- the X-Men stuff tends to find its way to the reprint shelves, and Hickman will surely become a big enough name at Marvel to deserve more reprint attention -- and at $3.99 an issue, buying this just for Hickman story may not be your best bet.