Monday, December 17, 2007

Ultimate X-Men #89

It’s Ultimate Shadow King time! Storm’s been having vivid dreams of late, which have captured enough of her imagination to inspire her to begin programming them into the team’s Danger Room simulations. But when the dreams chase her from the subconscious realm and begin invading her mind while she’s awake, the team starts to take notice.

Author Robert Kirkman is taking these characters to a place I’d rather he didn’t. This issue is so convoluted, so full of revisionist history and needless elaboration that I actually began counting the pages until it was finished. This month’s chapter has not one, but two battles with giant, repulsive, lumpy monsters with deep ties to major characters who had coincidentally forgotten all about them up until the moment they met. The supporting cast comes and goes at random, often giving every indication that they intend to help out, but then mysteriously vanishing when the action grows heated. I don’t know how many ways I can say it: this is just a genuinely awful example of writing. Poor dialogue, zero understanding of the characters, a villain so stereotypical that he’s nearly cloned before the end of the issue… the list just goes on.

As an artist, Salvador Larroca has had far better days. When I followed his work with Warren Ellis on New Universal, I found that the pedestrian qualities he gave to the lead characters worked perfectly with the story Ellis was putting together. He explored the effects that the sudden acquisition of intergalactic powers would have on an everyman, and Larroca’s work served to further humanize those otherwise-normal individuals. On Ultimate X-Men, though, he brings that same approach and it fails miserably.

He wasn’t asked to bring any enormous, power-enhanced fist fights to his previous work, and now I can see why. When the writer imagines an impressive display of mutant abilities unleashed, Larroca delivers an underwhelming, oddly-positioned layout that draws more attention to the meager environment containing the action than the mutants participating. His work looks terribly rushed, his characters inconsistent and unfamiliar. Storm looks like she’s been punched in the face a few times, and the Beast must be a poster boy for HGH because while he was big in the past, he was never this ridiculously muscular.

Not only that, but the visual originalities that set the Ultimate squad apart from their 616 counterparts have been almost completely eradicated. There’s nothing that, at a glance, would clue me in that this Wolverine is any different from the one I see every month in New Avengers. He’s a short, stocky, hairy old war veteran again, not the youthful warrior with questionable allegiances that he was when the series began. That’s a shame, too, because if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need right now, it’s another incomprehensible continuity of X-Men with nothing to set them apart from their peers.

That last sentence really says it all. Ultimate X-Men was once counted among my favorite books, since it was initially bucking against each of the trends that had handicapped the main continuity X-books. It was a fresh take on characters that I’d enjoyed in the past, a clean slate, a chance to do it all over again and get it right. It’s maddening that the series has spiraled downward to the point that it’s repeating the mistakes of its forefathers before it’s even reached its one hundredth issue. This is terrible. Skip it at all costs.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1

She-Hulk #24

The She-Hulk has left her legal career in the dust and embraced her more physical gifts, taking on a new career as a bounty hunter. Strangely enough, her employer has hedged his bets by pairing her up with a super-powered partner: Jazinda, a Skrull with a healing factor. The very concept of a major character cooperating with one of the shape-shifting aliens is interesting to me, especially considering the shit storm that seems to be brewing over in New Avengers and The Illuminati... but that’s a story for another (not too distant) day.

Peter David’s relationship with the character is evident from the first page. He has a firm grasp on Jen’s personality – what frustrates her, what brightens her day – and that makes her a much more approachable, identifiable character from the outset. It’s a pity that he doesn’t bring that same devotion to much of the supporting cast. Jazinda, the aforementioned Skrull partner, is very cold and distant… but much of that can be written off to her alien nature, of which she reminds us almost every time she speaks. The same can’t be said of the cardboard cut-outs that populate the rest of this world. The characters directly involved in the She-Hulk’s life, especially those in the RV park where she lives, are parodies of a parody. About half of this issue is dedicated to their development, and I don’t think they’re any stronger at its conclusion than they were when they were first introduced. If anything, they’re even more of a cliché.

Fortunately, her work environment is at least a little more entertaining. The day-to-day problems of a super-powered bounty hunter aren’t as overdone a subject as those of her trailer park neighbors, and the story benefits when its attention is focused there. Still, the writing isn’t rocket science, even in these scenes, (nor did I expect it to be) and the series is such light fare that I don’t think it would be out of place in the Marvel Adventures line of kid-focused books. It’s like an after-school special with green skin and lots of puns.

Shawn Moll’s pencils throughout this issue remind me a lot of Gary Frank, and that’s not just because Frank shared a lengthy stint with Peter David on Marvel’s other green-skinned ongoing series, The Incredible Hulk. Both artists have a mildly unsettling, excessively straightforward approach that I frequently find to be very stale. Both have the potential to prove me wrong, as Frank did during most of his run on Midnight Nation and Moll does in a few sporadic instances here, but neither is what I’d call a top-level artistic talent. They both tell the story they’re given, but neither goes out of their way to specifically enhance or elaborate upon it.

This is a much slower-paced issue than those that preceded it, something of a break in the action, presumably to allow readers a chance to catch their breath. It’s too bad, then, that there’s really only one character in the book that’s deserving of closer inspection. I can’t fault Peter David for trying to elaborate a bit, expand the world around the She-Hulk, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. This is one of those times. Flip through this if you’ve got the time and the inclination, otherwise you aren’t really missing anything.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4

Mighty Avengers #6

The pro-registration team of Avengers, consisting of Iron Man, Ms. Marvel and The Sentry, among others, has been struggling to deal with the latest version of Ultron for about six months now. And, while that’s given the story an important sense of magnitude, a collision on a grand scale, it’s also begun to drag on. What started as a high-impact threat to the heroes (the villainous robot has taken over Iron Man’s armor, slaughtered the Sentry’s wife and launched a series of nuclear warheads at the mainland United States) is now beginning to feel a month or two overripe.

Brian Michael Bendis has been using Mighty Avengers to explore and repurpose the concept of the thought bubble since the book’s inception, and this has definitely worked to bring the series its own unique flavor. While these frequent peeks into the Avengers’ psyches usually work as a gateway to deeper characterization, they do occasionally reach the point of oversaturation. In the heat of the battle that opens this issue, for instance, every single character on the page is given one, and they aren’t always necessary. For every truly imaginative use of this practice, there are two or three cutesy one-liners that only serve to disrupt the story’s flow. I appreciate his ingenuity, don’t get me wrong, but when his gimmicks start to get in the way of good storytelling, Bendis needs to know how to reign them back in.

On the positive side, those relentless thought balloons are really one of the only flaws in this series. I would’ve rather seen the Ultron saga wrap up last month, but when it does finally reach its conclusion at the end of this issue it’s a pretty good one. BMB is outstanding when he’s working with an ensemble cast such as this, and this issue in particular is a great example of that. He knows when and where to use each member of the team, how to capitalize on their strengths and uncover their weaknesses, and that makes for a wonderful team environment. No one character is over-emphasized, nor is any face underused. Each hero has a distinct role to fill on this team, and at the end of the day no matter how much their survival may be thrown into question, they find a way to work together and get things done.

Frank Cho’s artwork is one of a kind. His characters have a tremendous amount of depth and weight to them, considering the very clean style he employs. His renderings are so carefully laid out and plotted, his Avengers so individualized and recognizable, that he really doesn’t need any dynamic shadows, excessive speed lines or extra details. His linework is extremely minimal, but the legibility and appeal of the book never suffers as a result. He really is a huge part of what sets this series apart from its anti-registration sister, New Avengers, and I think readers are beginning to recognize that. His style may not be for everyone, but nobody can argue its consistency nor its legibility.

Of the two Avengers books on the market, this one is the more understated. Where New Avengers has the heavy hitters – Wolverine, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange – this series is much more of a classic lineup. Iron Man leads a set of characters who are more tailor-made to a team atmosphere, and so that collaboration and one-for-all attitude drives the series in the place of the marquee names. This first story arc has been a wild ride, even if it has taken its time in crossing the finish line, and while it isn’t the greatest book on the market today, it’s still some damn fine reading. I’m recommending it as a buy for the time being, although I do have some concerns about how long Bendis can keep me interested when I don’t typically have a lot of time for its core characters.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.5

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin #4

As a historic look back at the first-ever meeting between Iron Man and his arch-nemesis, Enter: The Mandarin has promised to reveal previously unknown details about the villain’s relationship to ol’ Shell-Head. Set in the early days of the Marvel Universe, this series tries to merge a harsher modern outlook with a more traditional scenario.

Joe Casey’s writing here is hot and cold, and opens with a terrific fight / chase scene that would be equally at home in one of the Die Hard movies. But when the fight’s over the story immediately changes gears, segueing into a stale, word-heavy conversation with SHIELD. It’s become something of a Marvel cliché that any appearance by one of the agency’s operatives leads almost immediately to an excess of dialog, stopping the tale dead in its tracks, and that holds true with this issue. Fortunately, Casey limits the conversation to just a few short pages before returning to more entertaining material. Stark’s technological “test” in front of the agency’s geeks midway through the issue is a particularly cool scene, though, as he transforms himself from a stiff corporate suit into someone with honest technological know-how in front of the grunts. It’s nice to see Tony tested like this, because his modern character is treated with such instant reverie that he’s rarely given the chance to prove whether he deserves that kind of instant respect or not.

Artist Eric Canete has a great flair for the dramatic, both for the poses his characters strike and the environments in which they strike them. He works a very loose, rough-around-the-edges style that is breathtaking during the spontaneous motion of an action scene, but can be every bit as attractive in slower, quieter situations. His choice in camera angles is frequently outstanding, and works to further emphasize the amazing range of motion that’s present in almost all of his work. When Stark flees on foot from the Mandarin’s brainwashed, gun-toting son, I could swear the panel itself is shaking around on the page. His style is righteously cinematic during these moments, both picturesque and explosive. He isn’t afraid to allow negative space to eat up a third of the panel, if its presence will lead to a better composition and a more exciting pose.

But where Canete’s general layouts are very strong, the same can’t be said for many of the details of his contributions - his work on faces, Tony Stark’s in particular, could use a lot of work. I guess something like that may not be such a big deal when the lead character is behind a mask for most of the series, but as a largely armorless issue, it’s quite evident here.

Despite my nitpicks and criticisms, this is a surprisingly entertaining tale. The Mandarin is treated with so much respect that the reader can’t help but take his threats seriously. He’s granted such a pompous, self-assured air that I was reminded of the conceded grace of some of the best Disney villains. And, though I’d forgotten in the year and a half since Civil War altered his public perception, it’s still a lot of fun to pull for Iron Man in a battle. Enter: The Mandarin has a few wrinkles, but it’s still a rewarding experience. Borrow this from a friend if you get the opportunity.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Punisher: War Journal #14

The Punisher has been messing around with Spider-Man's rogue's gallery lately, specifically the Rhino, so it was probably only a matter of time until he crossed paths with the web-slinger himself. Sure enough, the two met last month and came to blows, with Spidey restraining the Punisher just in time for the son of Kraven to get the drop on them both. Now Rhino's being held in Kraven Junior's superpowered "zoo," the Punisher is back at square one and god only knows what's happened to Spider-Man.

Writer Matt Fraction is someone I'm still trying to get a firm handle on. I loved his work when I first discovered it in his creator-owned Last of the Independents, but haven't been as impressed by his recent, more mainstream work. War Journal has been his playground since his arrival at Marvel, and it's certainly been through some ups and downs. The current story is more of an up, fortunately, and though it covers a lot of territory I never felt bogged down or overwhelmed by the events. Fraction has a talent for telling an intriguing story without a mess of words, and that makes his writing very easy to read and enjoy. It's not going to explore any deep, dark intellectual corners, but it's at least very entertaining — like a strong summer blockbuster. It's smarter than a simple guns-blazing 'splosion fest, but it's never too smart.

Scott Wegener's artwork matches the lighter tone of the story fairly well, although he has regular moments of weakness. His clean, thick-lined style serves the fast pace of the action scenes very well, and he knows how to bring motion to the page without overdoing things. He has an original take on the characters that's fun to witness, especially in the animal-inspired villains that populate Kraven's prisons. He knows his way around the Punisher (although Frank's always wearing his prolific skull-imprinted top, even in broad daylight) and knows how to highlight the difference in size between a muscular boulder of a man and an average civilian.

The artist's storytelling is frequently difficult to follow, though, and his speedy, under-detailed illustrations often look like they were rushed to meet a deadline and incomplete. It's all right to limit the amount of lines on any given page — artists like Mike Mignola have been doing it successfully for years — but that luxury must be backed by a strong layout and precise, consistent modeling before it can work. Wegener isn't quite at that level, and several of his pages required a second and third look before I could even figure out what was supposed to be going on. He has moments where I think he's maximizing his potential, then others where I'm sure he's got a long way to go.

I suppose it's understandable that Marvel would want a cleaner ongoing series for this character, since Garth Ennis's Punisher is definitely not for everyone, but the differences between that book and this one are significant. Naturally, you can't have the Punisher blowing people's heads off with a shotgun in a non-MAX title, but Frank should still be preparing for his work with the same mindset, that same military precision. Instead, it's like he's a different character. He doesn't case a joint before he barrels in with a small armory strapped to his back. He makes the same kind of mistakes that he'd take advantage of in the mature-themed Ennis book. It looks and feels like the same guy, but he's been partially lobotomized.

And that's really my biggest qualm with War Journal. The writing is inventive and explosive — you're never more than three or four pages from the next punch or muzzle flash — but it doesn't fit the mold established by the Punisher's other book. This is fine light reading, and if Frank weren't doing what he is in another series, I'd probably be able to look past a lot of these inaccuracies. I guess as an alternate-continuity take on the character, I'd say this is worth borrowing. It's got a lot of bright moments but it also has some issues with consistency, so just remember to temper your expectations.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

Ultimate Iron Man II #1

Picking up where the previous series left off, Ultimate Iron Man II is, naturally, the tale of Tony Stark and his development and initial field tests of the Iron Man armor. As is typical of the Ultimate Universe, this take on the character is a little different than the same old story: this Tony is a very young man, trying to make his way out from under his father's long shadow. He needs the suit to be a success, not just for personal satisfaction but in order to have a chance at survival in a ruthless corporate climate.

Fortunately, young Stark and his coworkers provide a rich, well-developed cast of characters and author Orson Scott lets them do their thing without much interference. He knows how to establish someone's intelligence without stuffing their dialog full of big words and technical jargon, which is wonderful to see in action. A lot of time a genius' intellect shines twice as brightly in the way they carry themselves during adversity and criticism, and that's where these guys are really in their element. When the government shows an interest in Stark's robotic suits, Tony and his friends aren't intimidated by the men in black, they stand firm under that scrutiny and emerge as stronger individuals because of it. But that doesn't mean they're all business, either. From the few glimpses we get into the suit's development cycle, it's immediately evident that they're all completely and utterly psyched about this project. They can't wait to show off some of the armor's new features, and that gives them a specific emotional attachment to the plot.

The writer's placement of this story in the recent past — about 10 years prior to the current events in the Ultimate universe — presents a unique opportunity to enrich and broaden characters who have already appeared in other titles within the universe. Dr. Molekevic for example, from early Ultimate Fantastic Four continuity, is a prominent member of Stark's staff. He's still years from becoming an evil, villainous mastermind, but even now, the seeds are being planted for his eventual turn. It's that attention to detail and the big picture that's helps shift this book from just another re-imagined heavy hitter to something worth taking note of.

Pasqual Ferry's artwork is gorgeous throughout the issue, showing hints of Bill Sienkiewicz in his simplified, yet complicated character models and touches of Moebius with his fantastic techno-organic backgrounds and environments. He keeps the pages surprisingly clean and legible without sacrificing any detail or flair. In a series that's primarily focused on a robotic suit of armor, both of those tendencies can be lifesavers. By sketching a detailed, seemingly lifelike representation of the Iron Man armor, he gains some credibility by helping readers suspend their disbelief a bit. But, at the same time, by keeping the page clear of debris he saves the layout from feeling too weighty and complicated. This is a book that's beautifully authentic, but also easy to follow.

My primary complaint was that I had trouble accepting the lead character as Tony Stark, at least visually. Where I'm used to Tony as the mature, suave, middle-aged inventor, here he looks unusually young and unproven. That's not something I can fault the artist for, since this is written as a flashback tale, and in that respect the story also works very well, so I can't blame the writer. Still, it's something that bothered me — like watching a famous role played by a new actor. Even though Pierce Brosnan made a fine James Bond, there were plenty of moments in Goldeneye where I had to keep reminding myself who he was supposed to be portraying. The motions are right, the personality is there, but it just doesn't seem like it's the same character because I'm so used to seeing him in a certain way.

As somebody who didn't read a word of the first series, I found Ultimate Iron Man II very easy to climb into and immediately understandable. The bulky "previously in" blurb is somewhat imposing and lengthier than it really needs to be, but even if you're the kind of reader who skips that stuff, you won't feel lost or overwhelmed. A sharp, entertaining story and some very good artwork make this one a buy in my opinion.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8

X-Men: Die by the Sword #5

When I read the summary of the previous issues, I knew almost immediately that this was going to be a bumpy ride. To the surprise of no one, writer Chris Claremont has managed to combine two teams of dull, discarded fringe X-Men into one mammoth, convoluted, excruciating crossover. Not only that, but he's managed to up the ante by surrounding them with a supporting cast that's possibly more difficult to comprehend than the heroes! When the focal characters in a book are so obscure that the writer has to resort to introducing them in detail before the opening credits, that's never a good sign.

This issue is all the proof you'll ever need that Claremont's days as a writer should have ended with the 1980s. Every piece of dialog is shouted. The ongoing narration boxes, which often number into the dozens on any given page, are trying so hard to make the story seem historically important that they actually manage to achieve the opposite effect. They keep citing this distant, supposedly epic battle between Captain Britain and a mindlessly destructive alien force as though it were the stuff of legend, when in truth it's the first time I've ever heard of it. It just doesn't work.

Yet, despite all of that rhetoric, the narration fails to clue new readers in on what exactly is happening. When Captain Britain is in trouble and his teammates seem ready to come to his aid, something somewhere crashes to the ground and suddenly the entire team is pointing to it as proof they can't possibly be of any help to their leader. What?! Was I supposed to understand what just happened? Evidently so, because no explanations are forthcoming.

On the artistic side, penciler Juan Santacruz does not fare much better. His work is well below average, often difficult to follow and without any touch of personality or creativity. His characters have no emotion, and they all have tiny, tiny hands. His style is painfully dull, which compliments the terrible storytelling to form some kind of unholy union of filth. He seems to have no interest in what's going on with the story (not that I can blame him for that), and that's fairly obvious from the unfinished feel of his contributions.

Years ago, when I was on a big Wolverine kick and Adam Kubert was the regular artist, every once in a while they'd change his credit from "penciler" to "breakdown artist." I'm sure there's a technical reason for the change, but whenever I saw that little shift in title, I knew it would be accompanied by a swift nosedive in quality. Santacruz's pencils in Die by the Sword are right on par with Kubert's "breakdowns" in those issues of Wolverine. It looks like he quickly sketched a very rough initial layout, forgot to correct the numerous flaws in perspective, sent it off to the inker and called it a day. If you're looking for a few upskirt illustrations of Blink, though, you'll get what you're after within the first three or four pages. That seems to be the one detail he went out of his way to complete.

This is a horrible, horrible book. Cover to cover, it's hideous — it's tough to look at, thanks to Juan Santacruz's ugly pencils, and Chris Claremont's storytelling certainly isn't easy to read. If there's one positive I can attribute to the series, which wraps up in this issue, it's that it doesn't busy anyone important to the core of Marvel's universe. It's a bad series featuring a cluster of bad characters in a bad situation. Skip this. Please, please skip this.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1

Monday, December 3, 2007

Silver Surfer: In Thy Name #2

Of all of Marvel’s heroes, the Silver Surfer leads perhaps the most solitary, adventurous lifestyle. Since his expulsion as heir to Galactus, he’s aimlessly wandered the galaxy. Unsure of his ultimate goal, he’s frequently stumbled into stories involving the other characters in Marvel’s 616 universe, but never seemed to have a single, defining purpose. With In Thy Name, he may have finally found that direction, even if it’s come too late. Randomly discovering a utopian federation of planets and beings during his travels, (dubbed the Ama Collective) he’s taken it upon himself to aid one of the less-prosperous planets within the alliance. Brekknis, a downtrodden industrial planet, has been suffering at the hands of an enormous monster, and the Surfer aims to rid them of the beast.

Simon Spurrier spins a complicated tale of religion eclipsed by civilization, then assimilated in the name of liberty. His story throws more than a few subtle jabs at the present political climate, but never comes off as heavy handed, never seems to be pushing too much of an agenda. The reader is free to enjoy the story as a purely fictional adventure through alien lands, or a clever parallel to more localized issues – it works in either context.

The writer also showcases a real knack for characterization. Although I’ve only known of these characters for a scant twenty-some-odd pages, I already have a firm grasp of what makes them tick, of how they would react in a certain situation. Naturally, the Surfer himself is the real star of the show, and his loneliness and anger about the rest of the galaxy’s civilization is easy to understand. He truly comes across as a lonely, weary traveler – always willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but utterly fed up with being so frequently let down. Ever watched the news and shaken your head because humanity is so sickeningly predictable and closed-minded? You’ll identify with this take on the Surfer.

Artist Tan Eng Huat is certainly up to the task of rendering a variety of visually unrealized alien creatures. His creativity seems boundless, although his take on the Surfer’s more humanoid anatomy is a little tough to grasp. His compositions are strong, with tiny accents and details thrown in almost poetically around the page. Where most artists would highlight the powerful force and destructive power of an explosion, Huat’s fireballs are much more organic, naturally flowing and almost beautiful. His grasp of a thriving, exquisite alien culture is also something to behold.

His major sin, however, is in completely and inarguably overdetailing his work. His artwork is so complicated and busy that it will often stand in the way of simple legibility. While the Surfer battles that strange alien monster within the issue’s opening pages, it’s a dreadfully slow experience, the pages are stuffed so full of excessive detail and ridiculous linework. To be certain, Huat clearly spent an incredible amount of time and effort in getting these pages just right. This nigh-psychotic precision and focus is generally something to be savored and enjoyed, but when your readers are spending minutes at a time simply trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s time they aren’t spending appreciating the artwork. Huat has tremendous potential, especially within a story like this one where his imagination can flow forth uninhibited, but he needs to reign it in a bit. There are times when the artwork should be king, and times when the storytelling should come first.

This is a beautiful series, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t received more attention than it has. Simon Spurrier does a tremendous job of dropping the Surfer into a rich alien culture, wrought with political upheaval. It’s a great blend of fierce action, rich drama and intelligent observation. On the other hand, Tan Eng Huat’s brilliant character designs and amazing anatomical renderings are tempered by a tendency to overcomplicate things. This is worth buying, even if you’ve never been much for the character himself. With a few different artistic choices, it could’ve been even better than it already is.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9

Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man #34

Fred Van Lente brings us this tale of Peter Parker’s exploits with the town baseball squad, which reads more like an after-school special than a costumed adventure. On one hand, that’s to be expected: the Marvel Adventures line is targeted to kids, ultimately hoping to interest young readers in the themes that make their greatest characters tick without bogging them down with years of continuity. On the other: kids aren’t dumb, and they can tell the difference between good writing and a cluster of stereotypes. Van Lente makes a few efforts to introduce some flavor to the proceedings (Flash Thompson cursing Peter for being a nerd, then processing some simple physics before hurling a baseball at Parker’s head) but for the most part it’s just a cookie-cutter story crammed into a kid-friendly package.

While there’s a small side story featuring Spidey and the Green Goblin, the majority of the issue focuses on Peter’s exploits with the baseball team and his moral decision between using his powers for profit and retaining his secret identity. It seems like every super-powered character has faced this dilemma in the past, so it’s far from fresh material, and the feel-good nature of the way it plays out is over-the-top and cheesy. Pete never seems like the bright young kid he’s always been, he feels more like a weak-minded character who falls into a solution at the end of the issue that sends everyone home happy.

Cory Hamscher’s artwork is suitable to the simple, cartoony nature of these titles. His clean, gestural style is a good match for the light tone of this story, and he gives each character a look and feel all their own. Peter, for instance, really looks and acts like a skinny nerd throughout the issue. That’s something that a lot of artists overlook with the character, that deep down inside he’s just a goofy kid with glasses and a passion for learning.

When Hamscher shines, he does so brightly – his take on the Green Goblin, who appears sporadically throughout the issue, is outstanding. He mixes in elements of other characters (The Joker’s smile, Captain America’s chain mail) but does so inventively without losing the little touches that make the Goblin unique. But when he shows signs of laziness and loses interest, his work fades fast. Every single character in this book has an enormous, toothy grin – even when one isn’t appropriate. He has no passion for the conversational scene between Harry Osborn and his dad, so the book feels incredibly disjointed when their chat is treated like an afterthought, but the Goblin’s appearance further down the same page is given a wealth of attention.

Ultimately, this is what you’d expect it to be. It’s not charting any new territory or revealing anything new about the characters. If anything, it’s undoing a lot of the good in them by overly simplifying things to fit into a single issue. The artwork is just acceptable, the story could have written itself, and it’s really nothing more than a bunch of fluff meant to fill space and maybe occupy the reader for ten minutes. Skip this, unless you need to pad your collection.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4

Avengers: The Initiative Annual #1

In the same vein as Marvel Comics Presents, this annual is actually a set of short stories, grouped together under the guise of a larger book. It’s a chance to get to know some of the members of the initiative without granting them their own title… or, really, even their own issue. Dan Slott and Christos Gage share the writing chores throughout, but each chapter is handled by its own team of artists.

Salvador Larroca’s artwork leads off with “Second Best,” a tale focusing on Gauntlet’s origins in the U.S. Army. As the first short story in the issue, it’s a great example of just how brief the narratives are going to have to be to fill the allotted space within this issue. Things are really just starting to get good when everything is jarringly drawn to a conclusion. Larroca’s contribution is par for the course as far as he’s concerned. If you’ve seen some of his previous work and enjoyed it, as I have, then you’ll continue to be impressed here. If his restrained, clean style didn’t float your boat in the past, well, he isn’t going to change your mind with this issue.

In “Reason for Being,” Clayton Henry illustrates Armory’s awakening, of sorts. His work is a strong contrast to Larroca’s, only slightly more detailed but distinctly different. His efforts are much more cinematic, especially with the angles and page layouts he uses in this story. The second and third pages of this chapter are just tremendous, showcasing the artist’s knack for dynamic storytelling and detailed backdrops above all else. While Armory’s origin is shaky at best, he treats them with respect, and that heightens the impact of the story just by association.

Steve Uy is in charge of the artwork for “Be All That You Can Be,” Hardball’s chance to shine. Uy’s work is heavily influenced by manga, which means his linework is very limited, allowing the book’s colors to handle nearly all of his shading. His style has its merits, but he’s also lacking in some fundamentals and his characters don’t have a lot of personality to them. While he seems to be striving for simplicity, he often over-works an area of the page that doesn’t really need the attention, while leaving more deserving sections unattended. That’s a shame, too, because while his artwork is probably the weakest of the issue, the story is among the best.

MVP is the subject for “Born to Serve,” illustrated by Tom Feister and Carmine Di Giandomenico. While their style has some very rough edges, it also has moments of true inspiration. They seem to struggle with more pedestrian, conversational moments, which unfortunately fill the majority of their story, but really shine in the single page of action they’re granted. I fear they’ve allowed the odd, offbeat tone of MVP’s story to cloud their own efforts, because outside of that single panel, their work is very difficult to come to terms with.

Finally, in “State of Readiness,” Patrick Scherberger is tasked with visualizing a day in the life of the Liberteens. His artwork is beautiful, a nice blend of J.Scott Campbell and Chris Bachalo, and he gives the characters an air of originality and electricity that helps the reader to overlook their horrible names and ridiculous attitudes. Outside of the artwork, which is light-hearted but gorgeous, and the surprise ending, this story is worthless.

The stories all have their little consistencies, which gives the issue an underlying thread of connection and helps bring the six mini-stories together under a single umbrella. Obviously, the real goal here was to showcase a handful of the myriad of names and faces associated with the Initiative, and at that it succeeds. Borrow this from a friend. If you see a story or two that looks appealing, or a character you want to know more about, snap it up – at the very least, it’s a large book that doesn’t demand you read it in a single sitting.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born (Trade Paperback)

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born was something of a big deal for Marvel. By landing the rights to an adaptation of what Stephen King calls his “magnum opus,” the publisher had something that would attract fans that wouldn’t normally give a comic book the light of day. They pulled out the big guns: big name writer Peter David would handle the script with aid from Robin Furth, (the official Dark Tower historian) and fan-favorite artist Jae Lee was in charge of the visuals.

As the introductory chapter of what I can only assume will eventually turn into a progression of mini-series, this should have been the writers’ chance to introduce new readers to what is obviously a very deep, well-developed mythos. Instead, I felt immediately handicapped by my lack of previous knowledge within this world. Maybe a longtime Dark Tower devotee could jump into this series and immediately find their bearings, but new visitors are left to their own devices if they want to understand what the narrator is talking about half the time. The series has a distinct flavor, a recognizable personality that helps it to stand apart from its peers, but that’s about where the positive traits end.

One of my first problems with this story is with the characters themselves: none seem to move about with any sort of individuality or emotion. They float through life without thought. They commit to long, painful diatribes without a moment’s notice. Just as they appear to be developing some sort of personality, something to differentiate them from the grimacing masses, they spit out a paragraph of dialog so stale, it may as well have been recited directly from an encyclopedia. It’s a momentum halt, characters will so frequently jump into a random, lengthy rant. When the plot is trying to take its first twists and turns, beginning to gain some steam, it’s almost instantly stopped dead in its tracks by a dull, clichéd introduction to the story’s villains. They share two pages of back-and-forth conversation that may as well have been twenty, the panels are stuffed so full of text.

There’s also an excessive amount of narration, and none of it is even remotely easy to read. It gets so caught up in its desire to use big words and speak with an old-timey style that it nearly abandons any sense of coherence or legibility. It’s layer upon layer of foreshadowing, to the point that I often caught myself wondering if it was ever planning to pay off on the heap of promises it had already made. As I said, I’ve never read the source material, so I’m not sure if this was an effort to retain some ties to the original novels or a new innovation on the part of Furth and David. Either way, it seems out of place within this medium. Where novels can generally feel free to describe the events in great detail, comics should be able to rely much more frequently on the accompanying artwork.

That narrative is so painfully verbose that even the good moments are overpowered by the bad. When it’s at its best, this inner monologue can be quite good. It goes to great lengths to describe some of the senses that can’t be portrayed in a visual medium – the smells and sounds of this new world, the feel of a gun that’s slid into its owner’s palm – and it’s largely successful in those instances. When the story cites the smell of grass, the promise of rain, it only serves to pull the reader into the proceedings. When it betrays the untouchable love a gunslinger holds for his weapon, it heightens the importance of the moment he actually uses it. But these triumphs are constantly overwhelmed by the tragedies of a murky choice in words and too much language in too small a space. The onslaught of vocabulary lightens up a bit as the conclusion nears, allowing the artwork to tell the story without such repeated interruptions by prose, but by then much of the damage has already been done.

That’s a shame, too, because the basic plotline has some very bright moments. The lead character’s progression from an immature, trigger-happy youth to a strategic-minded, intelligent young man is a great basic outline, even if he isn’t really likeable enough to justify the attention. His guardedly secret role as a gunslinger never realizes its potential, since every character that matters figures it all out within moments of their first meeting. His relationship with his comrades, themselves a pair of outcasts, shows flashes of potential, before being ultimately smothered by a slow pace and a sore lack of real character development. The villains are largely rooted in reality and genuinely draw the reader’s ire, but there are so damn many of them sharing the same voice, the same personality, that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.

Jae Lee’s artwork has changed shape and style half a dozen times over the years, progressing from his ink splattered work on Namor and the WildC.A.T.s Trilogy to the blockier, shadow-reliant style evidenced in The Inhumans and his creator-owned Hellshock. But while his stuff may have taken on many different appearances, tested the waters of a broad array of stylistic pools, the one thing that’s remained consistent through it all is its beauty. So it should carry some weight when I say The Gunslinger Born is his strongest, most consistent work to date. This is genuinely beautiful from cover to cover, without an average page of artwork in the collection.

Lee brings in bits and pieces of his past at just the right moments throughout this paperback, accompanied by a newfound attention to detail. While his compositions have always been striking, I’ve never seen them complimented by this great a level of complexity. He makes a bold statement right from the very outset, rendering a pair of buzzards at work on a deserted carcass – he’s never been so literal, so rich and developed. When an eagle’s claw tears into the soft flesh below an old man’s eyebrow, the illustration is so vivid, I swear I can hear the sound of skin tearing apart. I couldn’t dwell on the panel for long, but at the same time I didn’t want to look away… it was at once so gorgeous and so painful. Lee is still at his best when he deals with the horrific and the absurd, but that’s not his only focus. When the smooth skin of a young girl’s cheek shares a panel with the wrinkled hand of an old maid, the contrast in textures is stunning. It’s clear that he really took his time with this series, and at the end of his career, it should stand as a proud example of an ultimately realized potential.

As with any artist, Jae Lee’s work is heavily reliant on the colors that envelop it. When he was working on the second series of Hellshock, which I still count among my favorite books, his art had never been so utterly breathtaking… something for which I’ll credit colorist Jose Villarubia. Lee’s efforts were certainly above and beyond anything he’d offered at the time, but Villarubia’s colors took them to the next level and beyond. In The Dark Tower, Lee is paired with colorist Richard Isanove and the two make such a great pairing that I’d put them on the same level as that visual collaboration on Hellshock.

Isanove seems to know exactly when and where to show restraint, and when to bear the full force of his talents within a panel. Even when subdued, his colors are dazzling – his ability to translate the harsh glares and rays of light that fill Lee’s work into a soft, beautiful series of lighting effects is utterly phenomenal. While the colorist does bring his own particular style to the book, (it’s immediately evident that Isanove was also responsible for coloring Adam Kubert’s work on Origin) that never seems to get in the way or distract from Jae Lee’s efforts. If anything, it’s a perfect example of two distinct styles coming together and collaborating to create something that’s more beautiful than either could have delivered on their own.

Have you ever been reading a comic and suddenly realized that the story would work just as well, if not better, without words? That you’re only reading the captions because they’re there, not because they add anything to the proceedings? That’s The Gunslinger Born in a nutshell. The artwork from front to rear cover is downright awesome. Jae Lee’s finally managed to top what he did in the late ‘90s on Hellshock, and Richard Isanove makes a compelling case for himself as one of the industry’s premiere colorists. Their efforts are iconic when they need to be, gorgeously simplified when they don’t. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t even come close to the high level set by the artwork, and only really exists to entertain itself and spin its wheels. As far as introductions go, this is very long-winded and difficult to get into, although the payoff when it finally does shift gears is a good one. I guess what it comes down to, really, is where your priorities lay in a comic. If you can excuse bad writing in exchange for phenomenal artwork, you need to head out to the stores and pick this up today. If you want a little character to go along with your visuals, you’ll be disappointed.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.5

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

X-Men: Emperor Vulcan #3

As the current emperor of the Shi’Ar, former Xavier student Vulcan (brother to Cyclops and Havok) is overseeing a particularly troublesome time for his people. His reign, already unpopular among the masses, falls right in the middle of a cultural war. A new race of aliens, known as the Scy’Ar Tal, is moving against his empire. They’ve unleashed a “doomsday device,” destroying an entire planet and the billions living there, and are now threatening the very existence of all reality. Facing overwhelming odds, Vulcan has swallowed his pride and called on Havok for help.

The X-Men’s fascination with the politics, warfare and civilization of alien races is something I’ve never been able to really enjoy. When the subject has been used properly, as in the legendary (but over-referenced) Dark Phoenix Saga, that fixation has yielded tremendous results. When it’s been misused, it’s produced nothing but excessive amounts of skin colors and overcomplicated, dull stories. Emperor Vulcan is, unsurprisingly, much more of the latter than the former.

This story is filled to the brim with hyperbole, dialog that only serves to keep its characters relevant. Where the book highlights almost two-dozen characters, no more than three or four are integral to the issue’s plot. The rest merely hang around and produce rambling, unnecessary contributions to the conversation and, supposedly, give the story additional depth. I think Christopher Yost expected that, by increasing the head count, he could give this story that sense of intergalactic necessity and scale. It doesn’t work.

I never felt the galaxy was in any kind of peril, even if the Scy’Ar Tal were threatening to destroy the planet holding the almighty M’Kraan crystal. I’d never even heard of the thing before this issue’s introduction, and I’m sure I’m not in the minority there. If you’re catering to a niche audience (X-Men fans) and only a fraction of that audience has a clue about the impetus behind this story, then you’re targeting a niche within that niche. It’s elaboration into a corner of the X-universe that I think would’ve been better off left untouched.

Paco Dia Luque’s pencils continue that theme. They provide the reader with detail on top of detail, but lack the personal touch and excitement that’s crucial to any comic’s success. When he sketches Havok’s team, sitting around a table to discuss Vulcan’s proposed truce, they’re just sitting around a table. There’s no life to the proceedings, nothing to entertain the reader while these characters ramble on and on about the benefits and pitfalls of such an alliance. Even when the team charges into action, powers flaring, it’s not an exciting read. If anything, it’s even more humdrum. It’s awful work, but I guess I should be glad that it’s relegated to an awful book, rather than murking up the efforts of a better writer.

This is a miserable series, dealing with characters who weren’t interesting enough to land a regular spot on one of the main X-Men books. The story is confusing and unrewarding, the artwork is second rate and dry, and ultimately the only thing that drove me to finish the issue was a commitment to finish this review honestly. Skip this, for all that’s holy. Don’t give Marvel a reason to produce a sequel.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1

Wolverine: Origins #19

Since the death of Captain America, Wolverine has been doing a lot of thinking about his interactions with the American icon. The two actually have a lot in common: a magnetism to battle, a strong sense of justice and feelings displacement in modern civilization. And, having crossed paths more than once in the past, there’s a lot to reminisce about. The current story arc in Origins focuses on Logan’s memories of one such run-in.

Daniel Way’s take on that chance meeting between Cap and the Canucklehead is a nice nostalgia trip. He drops both characters, seemingly at random, into the midst of an early assembly from the then-fledgling HYDRA organization. Through Logan’s memories, he actually builds the group up significantly – he’s pointing out the organization’s similarities to the Nazi party, praising their leadership and strategy and presenting them as a real force for the first time in ages.

Even more appealingly, he’s doing so with a minimum of words. Way seems to have a knack for this: throughout his run on this series, he’s never overwhelmed the reader with needless explanation or description. He sticks to dialog, both internal and external, and leaves the particulars to the artist. He really understands the medium in this sense, and his work is a breeze to read and enjoy.

Steve Dillon’s artwork is kind of an acquired taste. I know I wasn’t crazy about it when I was first introduced to it in the pages of Preacher, but after only a few issues I couldn’t imagine that series succeeding in anyone else’s hands. He brings a wealth of personality to each character he illustrates, no matter how faceless or unimportant they might be. Take the horde of HYDRA underlings in this issue, for instance – for all intents and purposes, they’re a bunch of clones, only there to blindly serve their master. But in Dillon’s hands, we see that they’re each unique underneath those masks. One solider’s eyes even betray a sense of fear and uncertainty. The artist has a tremendous knack for establishing and maintaining that individuality, whether he’s working with a central character or an underling.

One thing he’s never been great with, though, is superheroes. He can put together a fist fight that’ll knock your socks off, but if there’s a guy there in spandex, something looks weird. In his most high-profile gigs, he’s been fortunate to avoid these situations – Preacher and Hellblazer don’t have a lot of non-civilian characters, and even Logan is running in street clothes throughout this issue. Cap, on the other hand, is in full red, white and blue regalia, and as a result something’s off. It’s not enough to cripple Dillon’s effort, (in all honesty, it’s largely some of his most consistent stuff) but it is distracting and that’s a shame.

Origins is in a unique position at the moment, in that it’s revealing untold details about a period in Marvel history that’s never been fully explored. Not only that, but the stories it’s telling have a real relevance to the present, not just with Wolverine and Captain America, but also Bucky, the Winter Soldier. The series has had its ups and downs already, I’d written it off after a sharp decline in the storytelling about ten months ago, but it’s currently on an upswing. Borrow this from a friend and see if you can get into the mood and style of the story it’s working to deliver. Chances are good you’ll be back for another shot next month.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

The Incredible Hulk #111

You’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what the Hulk’s up to these days, what with the gigantic World War Hulk crossover finally wrapping up last week. Well, if you’ve already finished the final issue of that series, prepare to take a step back because Incredible Hulk #111 takes place between issues 4 and 5 of World War Hulk.

Not that this story is much more than an addendum to that larger picture. The Hulk himself only appears fleetingly throughout the issue, with the focus squarely on the ragtag team of Namora, the Angel, Hercules and Amadeus Cho. They’re basically on cleanup duty, wrapping up the loose ends from the Hulk’s fight with Dr. Strange a month ago. Evidently, when Strange’s demon-possessed body was defeated in World War Hulk #4, Zom (the demon in question) was freed to search for a new host. Naturally, we can’t have a mace-fisted monster roaming the streets of New York, so the four renegades set about containing him before he can wreck too much more of the city’s infrastructure.

Although the storytelling directly relates to his adventures, it’s a tough sell for an issue of the Incredible Hulk to be so completely barren of the Hulk himself. Granted, when Brian Bendis wrote a recent issue of Ultimate Spider-Man in a similar fashion, focusing exclusively on the Green Goblin and only spending a courteous page and a half on Spidey, I loved it. There’s a difference here: in that issue of USM, the story set up and enhanced an obvious future collision. No matter what, you knew that at the end of the day that story would make the eventual clash of the two characters that much more important.

But in this instance, the Hulk has already dispatched of the enemy. The story expands on a battle that took place a while ago, and that’s just not as exciting to read. It’s a somewhat interesting aside, set against the backdrop of the Hulk’s assault on New York, but it would’ve been better relegated to a mini-series spinoff like World War Hulk: Front Line. I’d expect Incredible Hulk to be right at the heart of the warzone, not on the sidelines cleaning up the spillage.

Leonard Kirk’s artwork is just mediocre. Where Zom was a menacing behemoth in the hands of John Romita, Jr., he’s fairly passé here, like a heavier, spikier Ghost Rider without his bike. To his credit, he tells a very aggressive, detailed story with a limited fuss. There’s a lot happening on every page of this issue, but his work never seems overly complicated or hard to read. It’s clean and professional, if not particularly exciting.

If you’ve found yourself completely absorbed by the WWH saga, this is a nice expansion upon that main storyline. It serves to reinforce just how big a deal it was for the Hulk to take out Dr. Strange’s possessed form, and by that merit alone works as a nice extra source of information within the grand scheme. As its own standalone title, though, it’s really nothing worth getting excited over. Fans unfamiliar with the giant crossover will have a lot of reading to do before this issue makes any sense, and even those up-to-speed on the proceedings may deem these events to be needlessly extraneous. Flip through this in the store, it’s not garbage but it’s also nothing exceptional.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5

Powers #27

While his production has skyrocketed since the first issue of Powers hit the shelves three quarters of a decade ago, this series is most definitely writer Brian Michael Bendis’s baby. He’s poured so much of himself into this cast that they’ve become about as close as a fictional being can be to the real thing. Even secondary characters, such as the chief of police, are so carefully defined and developed that they could easily be the focus of their own series. When he speaks, you can almost hear his voice reading his lines in the back of your mind.

Now, with such a solid foundation of characters at his disposal, one might think that Bendis would hesitate to take risks, to change things up, to throw caution to the wind once in a while… when in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Since day one, readers have been shown that nothing is out of bounds, and this story arc has been no exception. Sometimes these risks pay off, as in the “Who Killed Retro Girl” arc, sometimes they don’t (the infamous “humping monkeys” issue). The current story arc is more of the former, less of the latter.

I wasn’t crazy about the intergalactic theme of the last storyline, because it was such a wild change of perspective from what I was used to in this book. Thus far, this arc has addressed my qualms and returned the narrative to a smaller, more approachable scale. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I’m much more inclined to become emotionally invested in a story that deals with true detective work on street level than a wide, universe-spanning epic saga, overflowing with alien beings and mystical disembodied voices. At the end of the day, what brought Bendis to the dance in the first place was his work on detail-rich crime noir stories, and this issue is just further proof that he can still rock and roll in that genre whenever he feels like it.

After sixty-four consecutive issues and a pair of specials, Mike Oeming’s visuals are the beginning and the end of these characters. While his work has seen its share of peaks and valleys over the years, (particularly when the book’s running behind schedule) his style has largely remained the same since day one. He’s the definition of gesture and simplicity, often refusing additional linework even if the layout seemingly needs it to survive. His dark, shadowy tendencies have constantly given the book a distinctly grimy, downtrodden look and feel, but he’s delivered the goods in lighter, happier moments as well.

With the recent change to a larger monthly page count and a more regular (fingers crossed) shipping schedule, Oeming’s work has taken a mild turn for the worse. His artwork still carries a lot of weight and atmosphere, so it doesn’t feel like I’m reading a different book, but his style was never this rough and rushed before. Mike is still just one solid issue away from reaffirming himself in my eyes, but at the moment the quality of his work is beginning to slide.

Oeming’s artwork is perfectly matched by Nick Filardi’s colors, page for page, issue for issue. The colors of Powers have long been one of the book’s greatest successes, and though the job has been passed between a small handful of colorists, the strength of their work has never wavered. These hues are treated as almost a character unto themselves, they’re so frequently and effectively introduced. Most comics never seem to grasp the kind of magnitude that colors can carry, where Powers is constant living proof. They’re used so effortlessly to set a scene, like the deep reds, purples and maroons do for a strip club midway through this issue, that it’s hard to imagine the series working nearly as well without them.

Reading this book has become something of a treat. There really is nothing else like it on the market today, both in terms of subject matter and execution. Bendis and Oeming have been working together so long that it’s hard to imagine one without the other within these pages. They’ve got, arguably, the best cast of characters in comics and they aren’t afraid to use them, hurt them, evolve them or kill them if it’ll help further the storyline. Buy this, add it to your pull list and catch up on any issues you may have missed along the way.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ultimate Fantastic Four #48

Tensions are at an all-time high within the Baxter Building of Ultimate Fantastic Four. After Reed’s unsettling obsession with an otherworldly Cosmic Cube drew the Silver Surfer to Earth, he’s taken a surprisingly isolationist approach toward continuing his work. He’s lashed out at anyone who dares set foot in his lab, driving Sue to the brink of exhaustion. Finally completing his work on the Cube, he rejected an invitation to attend a scientific symposium in frozen Siberia… an offer Sue accepted. When her plane went missing en route, her teammates sprung into immediate action.

Mark Brooks’s artistic contributions, while generally very strong, miss the essence of these characters. Part of what made the Ultimate version of this team more approachable than their regular universe counterparts was their age. These weren’t stuffy old scientists who’d been to the negative zone and back enough times to consider it a routine event, they were brainy kids with a penchant for exploration and adventure. There was a charm to them, a danger to their toying with things they didn’t fully comprehend, and it was reflected in their physical appearances as much as it was their actions.

Brooks doesn’t visualize them as a cluster of teens outside their element, he sees them as that tired old group of experienced veterans. Reed and Johnny are needlessly muscular. Ben is war-weary and unmoved by the opposition. Sue’s a full-grown woman. The difference between illustrating a group of teens and a group of adults can be very subtle, but it should consist of more than the lead character’s hairstyle and choice in spectacles.

This is a shame too, because like I’d mentioned, the majority of the artwork is pretty good. His method of enhancing the impact of Johnny’s flame, his design of the menacing Crimson Dynamo… they’re great. He doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds, and his take on the menacing enemies the team faces is just what the story needed. It’s just tough to take the rest of that in stride when he misses so badly with the lead characters.

This is a problem that carries through, in a way, to Mike Carey’s writing. The bane of any Fantastic Four story is a tendency to get overly technical and overlook the importance of understandable storytelling in favor of scientific credentials, and Carey commits that sin several times within this issue. Did we really need two full pages of debate about the risks and rewards of sending a dead body into the N-Zone? Did we need half a dozen pages of combat strategy and backstabbing explanations immediately after that? The basics of a good story are here: a damsel in distress, a rescue mission in enemy territory, frequent and inventive use of the team’s powers… but there’s so much excessive dialog that it’s difficult to really acknowledge all of that.

This series remains a tale of untapped potential, of a solid foundation spoiled by needless excess and a few artistic mistakes. The laborious explanations behind what’s happening to these characters makes actually reading this issue a slow, drawn-out experience. The artwork shines in spots, but fails in the most crucial areas. This isn’t bad stuff, but it’s not something you’re going to want to instantly add to you collection, either. Flip through this in the store, it’s not worth a very long look.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5

Thor #4

It’s no secret that Thor has recently made his much-anticipated return to the Marvel Universe, following more than two years’ worth of hibernation in an interstellar void. He’s got a lot of catching up to do, too, between the Civil War, the Hulk’s melee in Manhattan, Tony Stark’s rise to power in SHIELD and the split of the Avengers. First, however, he must locate his lost Asgardian brethren, who are scattered around the mortal plane.

It’s a shame that J. Michael Straczynski’s scripts have so far not lived up to the expectations for this major character’s long-awaited return. The story he’s provided hasn’t been without its impetus, (that hunt for scattered Asgardians) but it’s missing a hook. Thor is kind of sleepwalking through this title, randomly wandering to spots on the globe and (surprise!!) finding his brothers there without much of a search. And the locations he “randomly” chooses have already been covered so extensively in the news that they’re becoming something of a cliché. Last issue, he was trying to help Katrina survivors in New Orleans, this month he’s mediating a tribal war in an impoverished African city. What’s next, a trip to see the tsunami survivors in Thailand?

Thor himself is so stoic and reserved outside of a battle that it’s tough to empathize with him, his battles so short and decisive that there’s no question how they’re going to play out. This book feels like it’s merely treading water, going through the motions expected of it and little more. If Marvel is serious about relaunching the character and allowing the writer to take his own spin on these ancient mythos, why isn’t he doing something a little riskier? I guess there’s the chance that this is all slowly building to something phenomenal, but we’re now four issues in. At some point it’s time to quit setting the stage and start producing something.

Olivier Coipel’s visuals, on the other hand, are downright breathtaking. When I bought issue #3 on a whim last month, it was due exclusively to the preview art I’d seen beforehand. He’s taking everything that Chris Bachalo did during his heyday in the late ‘90s, adding his own twist and bumping it up to the next level. His backgrounds are just detailed enough to fill the page with eye candy, but not so line-heavy that they detract from the foreground. His work is superbly realistic, but also overwhelmingly alive and stylized. When he sets the scene of the first page with an exterior shot of a hotel’s sign, he fills the skyline behind it with a flock of birds and a few scattered clouds. It’s shockingly simple, but it also immediately sets the identity of that location: a lazy town in the middle of nowhere, nondescript and happy. Every line he provides to the page is necessary, none excessive.

His work isn’t strictly beautiful, either. He renders quiet nature scenes and violent gunfights with the same attention to detail and explosive vigor. His take on Thor is treated with the same amount of respect as his rendition of the more human characters populating the rest of the book. But, at the same time, he gives the Norse God an air of dignity and undeniable power that can’t be overlooked. Coipel is already well on his way to becoming a major player, and his work on a high profile series like Thor is only serving to further catapult him to popular recognition.

The new Thor is a mixed bag. The writing won’t be considered among Straczynski’s best, but it’s at the very least headed in a distinct direction and easy to follow. It’s perhaps too easy to follow, actually, because this issue was some really light reading. But Olivier Coipel’s artwork is so astonishing that many readers might want to pick these issues up on its merit alone. On the whole, the “safe” writing makes this an ultimately missed opportunity, but you’ll probably want to borrow it all the same. I can’t hate it, but I can’t unconditionally love it, either.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

Punisher #52

Frank’s been throwing down with the Barracuda again. Already perhaps the Punisher’s toughest enemy, this time ‘Cuda has made things personal. Upset over the way Castle dispensed of him in their last encounter, (he’d never tasted that kind of a defeat before) he’s gone out of his way to make Frank regret ever meeting him. He’s dug up an infant girl, the daughter of an old flame, taken her hostage and revealed that the Punisher himself is the father.

Barracuda is a character who really doesn’t work unless he’s being illustrated correctly. When this arc kicked off in Punisher #50, it left a bad taste in my mouth for that very reason. Goran Parlov, who actually co-created the character alongside Ennis, wasn’t the artist of choice in that issue and his absence was a major detriment. Where the fill-in artist for that month rendered the villain in great detail, he also took a much more realistic direction that eliminated a lot of Barracuda’s charm and personality. Parlov’s loose, cartoony style is perfectly suited to a four-hundred pound black man with no fingers on his right hand, a grenade launcher on his hip and a gold-plated set of front teeth inscribed with the phrase F- -K YOU (Frank punched out the other two in their last meeting). Sketch him too realistically, and he’s just another stereotypical gang-banger on steroids. When in Parlov’s care, he’s somebody you see on the page and just smile, because the shit is about to hit the fan.

Likewise, I don’t think the character could work without Garth Ennis there to write him. He’s quickly become one of the author’s signature creations, to the point that I’d compare him to Herr Starr in Preacher. Ultimately he’s a terrible guy, but because he’s so driven and self-assured, you can’t help but pull for him a little bit.

Despite his cold, all-business demeanor, Ennis’s take on Frank Castle is clearly very human. He’s frequently reminded of his previous life, whether he’s remembering his service in Vietnam or lamenting the death of his family. This story in particular has really emphasized that portion of the character’s psyche, as he tries to deal with the prospect of fresh fatherhood when his first pass at it ended so disastrously. He’s reacting to Barracuda’s attack with the same kind of precise, strategic mindset he always brings with him, but for perhaps the first time he isn’t quite sure how it’s all going to end, how he even wants it to end.

Parlov and Ennis are becoming quite the team on Punisher, writing the lead character with military precision and dedication, then illustrating him as a larger-than-life monster of a man. They’re pairing him off with a phenomenal series of foils, of which Barracuda is easily the strongest. They’re taking risks with established names and faces (in this arc alone, Frank’s been thrown out of a building, shot, stabbed, freed from police custody and revealed as the father of an infant girl) and wrapping up each story with a distinct set of consequences. This is the kind of material that’s going to find itself collected into a “Marvel Milestones” paperback in a few years, so if you aren’t currently buying it, get with the program. The last page of this issue is the stuff legends are made of.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.5

Nova #8

Richard Rider, the current torch-bearer of the Nova Corps, has found himself right in the middle of the Annihilation War, the ongoing conflict between the Kree and the Phalanx. In the midst of fighting the good fight, he found himself infected by the Transmode Virus, rendering him subservient to the Phalanx. But, using the power instilled within him by the Worldmind, he managed to force that virus into remission and escape the warzone. The good news: he’s free of the prison that is Kree space. The bad: he’s been transported to the edge of the known universe, with no clue where to turn next.

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have been putting Nova through the wringer over the last few issues, maximizing his involvement in the huge Annihilation and taking plenty of risks with the character. This issue is just a continuance of that latter trend – while he’s no longer directly involved with the war, they’ve handled his potentially jarring transition into another tale beautifully. Where the last few issues had focused on the futility of a battle against overwhelming odds, this month’s story shifts that attention to the concept of an outer boundary to our universe and what, exactly, exists there.

In the process of expanding on that idea, Abnett and Lanning introduce a compelling suspense / horror storyline in the same vein as Ridley Scott’s Alien. When Nova “washes ashore” aboard a supposedly abandoned living, breathing spacecraft, it’s quickly made evident that nothing is as it seems. No one has ever dared explore that section of the universe, for fear of what they might find, (does everything simply cease to be?) and the pair of writers do everything in their power to heighten the drama and suspense of these first few moments of cautious exploration. Yet they never lose sight of the narrative that had been established in previous issues. When Richard walks into a firefight, he’s reminded that more than 80% of his energy is being used just to contain the Phalanx virus he still carries. Rather than stand his ground against difficult odds at less than a quarter of his usual power, he swallows his pride and runs. It’s a little detail in the grand scheme of things, but it’s just enough to let you know the authors haven’t lost sight of where the character has been.

Handling the art chores, Wellington Alves has his ups and downs. When he’s given a giant, important spread, (as he is around the three-quarter mark of this issue) he performs phenomenally. His best work shows hints of Jae Lee, with a tremendous attention to lighting and shadow, but he does display a tendency to lose his focus and mail in his effort on slower-moving pages. Since a lot of this issue is dedicated to a series of conversations inside a giant, soulless spacecraft, those seams in his attention span are probably more evident here than they would be in a more stereotypically action-centered book. At the very least, the abundance of these slower, less visually-stimulating pages serve to further heighten the power of those few giant, important panels scattered throughout the issue. Alves does fine work, but he’s not quite a superstar.

Nova is one of the most surprisingly entertaining books Marvel’s producing at the moment. Although the last page left me a bit concerned about the direction it’s heading, I’ll give this writing team the benefit of the doubt for the moment because they’ve already delivered so much with a character I didn’t always have the time of day for. If strong adventure, science fiction and horror are your thing, you’re going to want to buy this. Don’t let the word-heavy “previously in” page fool you, despite a few weighty concepts this really isn’t a tough book to read and it never allows itself to get too caught up in terminology and scientific details.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.5

Ghost Rider #17

It hasn’t been an easy time of late for Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider. When the original spirit of vengeance recently escaped from the depths of hell, he inadvertently freed Lucifer himself in the process. With the devil’s consciousness split into 666 recently deceased human bodies, Blaze has taken it upon himself to eliminate every last one before they can do much harm. One catch: for every body the Rider destroys, the demon’s remaining avatars become that much stronger.

Daniel Way’s storytelling in this issue is blunt and happenstance, almost like he’s making it up as he goes without any sort of big picture in the back of his mind. When the Rider’s cell phone is destroyed in the midst of a battle, it’s treated like a major roadblock for all of two panels, then forgotten until he randomly finds a replacement later in the story. Blaze himself makes so many boneheaded decisions throughout the issue that he’s almost a parody of a superhero. He acts first, then responds with shock and horror when he realizes that maybe there were a few consequences for doing so, even when the flaws of his actions were painfully obvious to the reader. I can’t sympathize with somebody so patently stupid, and I sure don’t feel compelled to follow his adventures any further.

Even the title character’s face-offs with two of Lucifer’s possessed human bodies in this issue don’t produce any moments worth remembering. When the very foundation of the plot doesn’t result in any fireworks or intrigue, there’s something wrong with your story.

The artwork of Javier Saltares is disappointing at best, and certainly no substitute for Mark Texeira, the book’s regular artist prior to this issue. Saltares, who had previously been employed as Tex’s inking partner, feels like a bad fill-in artist throughout the issue. His style is so mundane, lacking of any personality, that it’s often difficult to look past it to the story it’s trying to tell. I actually have a suspicion that Texeira lent a hand in the first page or two of the issue, because there’s a sharp drop-off after the introduction. It’s a quick downward spiral, not only in terms of the actual illustrations but within the composition itself. Page one tells a great story, complete with vivid background imagery, dynamic shadows and an appropriate amount of linework. Pages two through twenty-two are precisely the opposite.

Saltares doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of a good action panel. When Ghost Rider hurls himself through the roof of a barn midway through this issue, it’s shockingly lacking in excitement – the artist merely illustrates the obvious, without taking any artistic license or adding his own twist on the character. His perspective is way off. He leaves a distracting block of dead space at the bottom of the page, which sticks out like a sore thumb. His rendition of Ghost Rider isn’t fearsome or demonic, it’s downright goofy. Saltares is a bad fit for this book, and really for any book.

This is some real garbage. I’ve never been a fan of this character, but I’m not sure if that’s because the concept of a leather-clad biker with a burning skull for a head isn’t up my alley, or because he’s never been given any respect within the pages of his own book. I think I can safely say I’ve never read an issue of Ghost Rider that’s left me interested in the next chapter, and this issue did nothing to change that trend. This is poorly written, inconsequential material, matched with an awful artist. Worse yet, the creative team is going to stay together for at least the next three issues. Skip this, consider it a favor to yourself.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Order #4

As California’s representative of the Initiative, Tony Stark’s dream of housing a government-trained superhero team in every state of the union, The Order is an important squad. As government-appointed guardians of one of the most populous states in the union, they’re the closest thing to a public face the Initiative has, and as such are under tremendous public scrutiny every time they make a move. Recently, that’s been more of a curse than a blessing, as the team caught hell for unwinding after a battle by holding a drunken party and various members have begun to crack under the pressure inherent in such a high-profile gig.

The big problem with this story, and with the ongoing story of the Initiative as a whole, is in the sheer number of previously undeveloped characters involved. Before this issue, what was Anthem doing with his life? Had anybody even heard of the Supernaut? What about Calamity? It’s a collection of new faces and also-rans, and it’s tough to empathize with them when I’ve never heard of them before. Writer Matt Fraction is a guy I’ve been a big fan of thus far into his career, but he isn’t given a whole lot to work with as far as starpower is concerned.

Fraction takes an approach to his characterization that’s very similar to Marvel contemporary Brian Michael Bendis. He takes these larger than life action heroes with superpowers and gives them a decidedly human slant, giving them lengthy opportunities to introduce themselves to their readers and distinguish their personalities from the pack. The first two pages are a frank discussion with Veda, a former Hollywood starlet-turned superheroine, and provide tremendous insight into her motivations. Unfortunately, Fraction can’t exactly fill the book with these “getting to know you” segments, and when the focus shifts back to the battlefield we’re left with one recognizable face and six nobodies.

Barry Kitson’s artwork is solid throughout this issue, never something I’d call spectacular but always impressive. His treatment of the women of this issue frequently reminds me of the work of Frank Cho. Where the trend in the past was to illustrate superpowered ladies as tits, ass, legs and muscles, Cho and Kitson share a softer, more realistic approach. The T&A is still there, for better or worse, but much more attention is paid to the characters’ faces and surrounding physique. Rather than inhuman androids with off-center nipples and blank facial expressions, these women are confident and intelligent. Their musculature doesn’t look out of place, they just look like they hit the gym a lot.

This is a book that could really do something with a more identifiable cast. I’m not even talking about upper-tier characters here. Even a former West Coast Avenger castoff would be enough, the story just needs one or two faces with some visibility. Matt Fraction is slowly building a good story here, but that lack of star power is really holding it back. The one page in which Tony Stark appears is probably the most successful of the book, for that very reason. He brings a recognizable personality to the proceedings, and when that bounces off of one of the team’s unknown characters, good things happen. Without that kind of presence, the book feels wishy washy and kind of dull. Flip through this, think it over and maybe give it another look in the event of a shakeup in the cast.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5

Omega: The Unknown #2

Without a “previously in” blurb, this book assumes that you’ve read the first issue (I haven’t) and that you’ll be able to hit the ground running alongside the story (I couldn’t). The primary characters have a strained relationship to say the least, and the majority of this issue is spent establishing how awkward they are around each other and their ineptitude at the most basic forms of conversation. Meanwhile, in the background of most of these scenes, there’s a superhero throw-down in the streets.

It says a lot that the non-powered characters don’t even deem this to be worthy of closer examination, (or even surprise) and that opens up a few interesting possibilities for future storylines (a world where superpowers are the norm, so run of the mill that two guys throwing each other into buildings is as everyday as a traffic accident). Unfortunately, because that possibility isn’t really explored in this issue, it only serves to cast a deadening tone over the book. If the everyman characters don’t see anything worth getting excited over during a quick battle between superhumans, why should the readers?

Farel Delrymple’s artwork is very loose, to the point that it seems quite hurried. It reminds me a lot of the style common to DC’s early Vertigo books in the first half of the 1990s: very straightforward, very old school and more than a little outdated. His paneling style is straight out of a textbook, adhering to a strict grid, and while he grants his characters a fair amount of individuality and personality, there’s no emotion in what he brings to the page. I don’t think this issue could’ve taken him more than a day or two to lay out, and it shows. I think he was aiming for a quaint, simplistic style that would help him stand out from the pack, but instead it feels more like a loose series of proposed layouts than a finished book.

Delrymple doubles as the issue’s letterer, which works as both a positive and a negative. On one hand, this association ties the style of the lettering directly to the light, airy style of the artwork, giving the book a single, unified look and feel. On the other, that look and feel really isn’t anything to get excited about. The artist’s lettering is far from professional grade, especially compared to his computer-aided modern contemporaries. It’s too thick, tougher to read than most of the books on the shelves today, but I can’t say it doesn’t have personality.

That’s something I could say for this book as a whole. It’s trying so hard to have a unique take on an overanalyzed concept that it loses sight of simply telling an interesting story. The artwork wants so badly to be noticed among its more dynamic peers that it goes too far in the opposite direction and comes off as unfinished and unrefined. There’s still room for growth here, and the slow-paced story is laying the groundwork for a few long-standing plot threads. Still, it’s a long way from fruition and I’m not entirely sure the series is doing itself any favors by taking such a slow moving approach one issue into its existence. Flip through this on the store shelves and see if it’s your cup of tea. I remain ambivalent.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.5

Howard the Duck #2

Howard the Duck is back in Marvel’s regular rotation with a new monthly series. Last month, the feathered title character had a run-in with a pair of struggling scientists in the back seat of his cab, a disagreement that escalated into an all-out brawl with various foreign objects randomly thrown into the mix. This issue follows Howard and his longtime lady friend (and YouTube costar) Beverly Switzler’s fifteen minutes of fame, as a video of the beating becomes a viral hit online and the pair suddenly find themselves internet celebrities.

The premise is a little thin, and the characters who constantly invent an excuse for Howard’s appearance get to be pretty redundant, but the book’s really in its element when it’s playing around with oddball humor and random situations. The way these characters float through life, oblivious to the strange shit that’s going on around them, is actually a lot of fun in the same vein as Flaming Carrot. The driving force behind this comic has always been social and political satire, and on that front it doesn’t shirk.

When the title character first appeared in the early ‘70s, the climate was perfect for that style of humor. Pop culture was in a sad state and it was fashionable to hate on the political scene. When the ‘80s and ‘90s rolled around, a lot of things changed (including the way the character was written) and Howard lost his relevance. The mindset of today’s world bears a striking similarity to that of the ‘70s, though, and writer Ty Templeton has noted and reacted to those social changes by returning the character to his jaded, sarcastic roots.

I realize that’s probably a lot more elaboration than is necessary for what’s ultimately a cartoon about a humanoid duck and his overly-buxom partner, but those underlying themes are ultimately what keeps the book moving. When the duo make an appearance on a faux-Bill Mahr late night panel discussion, for instance, the satire kicks into overdrive and the issue finds its groove. Templeton has a firm grasp of what makes this character relevant, and he’s venting most of the public’s shared disdain for the current state of things by presenting a parody of pop culture that’s shockingly similar to the real thing.

Juan Bobillo’s artwork does a fine job of masking the issue’s venomously sarcastic mood with a bright, colorful façade. He brings a lot of flair to the proceedings, and the no-rules nature of the story allows him a lot of creative liberty that would be lacking in a more structured, serious book. In those situations, where the plot couldn’t have contained more than a simple instruction like “Howard climbs aboard the wooden train with a taser in his hand,” Bobillo takes control of the story and grants it a personality all its own. He’s giving us wild, tilted camera angles, great silhouettes, stylized backdrops and surprisingly developed characters, which somehow match the mood of the story perfectly and bring it to life.

This isn’t tearing down any walls or anything, it’s not a landmark achievement in the art of comics, but it’s still an entertaining read. If you’re as fed up with the current state of society as I am, whether it’s the 24-hour Paris Hilton watches on CNN or the talking heads on Fox News who press their own agendas ahead of the facts, Ty Templeton shares your pain. Don’t be ashamed to ask a buddy if you can borrow this, it’s lots of fun wrapped inside of a genuinely relevant package.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7

Annihilation: Conquest - Starlord #4

The Kree and the Phalanx, a pair of extraterrestrial races, are having one hell of a knock-down drag-out. Actually, it’s more of a slaughter: the techno-organic Phalanx have decimated the Kree, virtually conquering their entire population in record time and barricading them off from the rest of the civilized universe. As a last-ditch effort to overcome these stacked odds, the Kree have recruited a former galactic civil servant, The Star Lord, and a small group of adventurers to overthrow the opposition with a last-ditch suicide mission. So far, it’s worked wonderfully: one member of the team lies dead, while the others have already surrendered to the enemy.

If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. There’s so much going on at any given moment in this book that I constantly found myself trying to comprehend what happened on the previous page, while the story barrels headfirst into the next meticulous proceeding. This is a much bigger problem in the first half of the issue than the second, where the characters finally quit talking and do, but it sets a bad initial tone that carries through those more action-heavy later pages.

My biggest problem was identifying with the members of Star Lord’s attack squad, who admittedly didn’t get much of a chance to distinguish themselves in this issue. Where the majority of this month’s focus was on Mantis and Captain Universe, an analytical being with a zero on the personality-meter and a dull intergalactic superhero, respectively, the fleeting moments we got with Rocket Racoon, Bug and the Star Lord himself were enough to tell me who the real driving personalities behind the issue should’ve been. There’s room for growth here, if Giffen chooses to take notice.

Timothy Green II’s artwork is inconsistent and tough to put a label on. When the getting’s good, his stuff is downright breathtaking. He channels Travis Charest and Leinil Francis Yu at the same time, texturing backdrops and environments in the style of Yu and detailing characters’ expressions and body language like Charest. While he frequently displays a mastery of these styles, he just as regularly throws his abilities into question by dropping an awful panel or page from out of nowhere.

He routinely struggles with posturing, wasting a beautiful rendering of Captain Universe early in the book with a dull, emotionless pose. His textured shading style has the potential to be incredible, but hasn’t been refined to the point that it’s really clicking yet. It’s maddening, really, to look at the third page of this issue, which is just amazing, and then the fourth and fifth – both atrocious. If he could really hunker down and deliver twenty-two pages of consistent artwork, (he’s good for about a dozen here) Green could be a major force. Until then, he may be best relegated to covers or background work.

Ultimately, this is an above-average book... inconsistencies, excessive details and all. Despite their subdued personalities, the team actually has a fairly interesting rapport with one another, especially in the middle of a firefight. Keith Giffen still knows how to write a nicely paced action scene, and the issue’s parting shot hints at similar adventures for the team in the very near future. Borrow this from a friend if you’ve got the chance, it’s not a long read after you’ve made it through the first six or seven pages, and once it starts moving, the plot provides for good entertainment.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7