When Ares joined the Avengers, my initial thought was, "Why?" He didn't seem like a terribly interesting character, and aside from being violent, there wasn't much of a hook to draw me in as a reader. With "The Savage Axe of Ares" one-shot, modeled after Marvel's old black and white anthologies, I'm starting to see that the problem wasn't the character, but rather the setting. Ares may have been an ill-fit for the Avengers, but he works excellently here.
The book opens with its strongest story, "Red Mercury" by Gregg Hurwitz and C.P. Smith. Ares here is less a character and more of a force of nature, forever following two Soviet turncoats who flee East Germany with a secret explosive, planning on selling it to the highest bidder in the Netherlands. Hurwitz's story is straight forward and to the point, but even as you start to see the deadly finale around the corner, Hurwitz keeps the tension high. It's a strong, solid story, accentuated by gorgeous art from Smith. If I didn't know better I'd have it was by John Paul Leon, or maybe Bill Sienkiewicz. I love the wrinkled, sunken eyes he draws on his characters, and the old school Soviet weaponry and tanks that crop up. Ares under Smith is a hulk of a man, a brute stomping his way through the story, and it fits perfectly with Hurwitz's script.
Next up is "The Gods Answer All Prayers" by John Barber and Jefte Palo, which would have fit perfectly into the old 1970s anthology, "The Savage Sword of Conan," that this comic is clearly modeled after. Barber's story of demons and kidnapped princesses is a slightly more mundane role for Ares but, just like Conan, he muscles his way through the adventure, and it's not until the end that we hit the point where the story needed to be Ares rather than Conan or any other generic warrior. It's not bad, but what stood out for me more was Palo's art which is sharp and angular, almost like Kevin O'Neill pitching in on character designs. Palo brings the violence startlingly home here, but it's something that is actually needed for a script like Barber's. Without the violence and gore, the story would lack part of its final punch.
The final comic is Ted McKeever's "Bonebomb Babylon," which sets Ares in modern day Iraq on a search for the Golden Fleece even as he enters another conflict already raging in the area. It seems like a strange combination of story ideas, but McKeever makes it work here. It flows smoothly, and McKeever's art is absolutely dynamite, the best work of his I've seen in ages. Ares looks like an overly muscled thug, and the images of him striding up with smoke and sand swirling behind him are worthy of being framed. McKeever knocks out all the stops for his story, and the end result can't help but please the reader.
"The Savage Axe of Ares" is a fun throwback to the '70s; there's even a brief prose story by Duane Swierczynski and Leonardo Manco to round out the title. Marvel's return to this old black and white anthology format has had its ups and downs, but "The Savage Axe of Ares" is definitely an up. This is good old fashioned violent fun.