Monday, September 24, 2007

Sub-Mariner #4

As one of Marvel’s oldest characters, Namor is astonishingly well-developed and remains one of the publisher’s most interesting individuals. His confrontational nature never fails to incite something interesting, but his intellect and respectable motives keep him on friendly terms with the heroes of the surface world.

Writers Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson are pulling no punches so far with this new series focused on the Atlantian prince. In three issues, Namor has lost control of his kingdom, crossed Charles Xavier, Tony Stark and the entire United States, faced a royal coup and seen Venom viciously rip the wings from each of his ankles. If there’s one thing these writers can’t be accused of thus far, it’s sticking to the status quo. They’ve thrown the title character into one hell of a quandary, and it should be a lot of fun watching him work his way out of it.

Most importantly, the duo has Namor’s persona nailed down to perfection. When he speaks, it’s always with such disdain for the perceived inferiority of those that surround him that one can’t help but wonder if he really has to be such an asshole. That, combined with his uncanny ability to right those wrongs through his actions, is what makes this character such an interesting paradox. Cherniss and Johnson get that aspect of him, and it’s never been handled better.

My main problem with this book was with its dialog. It’s all so stilted, so stiflingly proper, that it becomes very wearying to read after a point. On one hand, sure – Namor is royalty, and such language is expected of him. I can’t expect a king to stand up from his throne and immediately speak fluently with the peasants. But when he’s interacting with characters who speak in exactly the same tone, even if it’s in direct conflict with their personality, (would the Invisible Woman really say something like “You must accept my offer”?) it gets to be a bit much.

Phil Briones’s artwork didn’t do much for me, to be honest. While he occasionally impresses with a flashy panel here and there, his work as a whole frequently reminded me of the fill-in artists of the mid ‘90s. His work feels very rushed and underdeveloped, and his style is outdated. His renditions of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Venom… even the Atlantian warriors… they don’t connect. Even Namor, the one character he HAD to get right, doesn’t seem to be himself. He exudes arrogance throughout the issue, but I think the storytelling is more to thank for that than the artwork. This is almost a deal breaker to me, because paired with some phenomenal art, this story could have really taken off. With Briones on board, it feels like just another series.

I’m going to recommend you flip through this one. While the plot is a bit unrefined and the dialog is occasionally a hurdle, the writers aren’t afraid to try new things with one of the oldest characters in comics. While I didn’t care for the art one bit, it fits in with the generic Marvel style at the very least, so if you can stomach a mediocre visual this might be worth your while.

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

Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1

It’s nice to see an annual like this one – treated as something of a double-sized continuation of the story in the main book - when the yearly digests have typically offered little more than a self-contained adventure of little consequence. This one picks up more or less where Immortal Iron Fist #9 left off, although it’s primarily a series of flashbacks with a few brief asides in the present. It’s just close enough to the current arc of the main book to remain relevant, but just far enough away from any major storyline progression to keep it from being essential reading.

The flashback motif, featuring the adventures of Orson Randall, the previous bearer of the Iron Fist mantle, provides a nice gateway to expanding Danny’s powers and exploring the lush history of his namesake. These tales are brimming with lively characters, loud, interesting environments and close calls, although sometimes they do cross the line between entertainment and thick cheese. In this issue, Randle faces off against the “Super Lightning Lord”? Come on…

Still, after reading this book I’m more motivated to read the continuing adventures of Orson Randall in the 1930s than I am to follow the modern-day struggles of Danny Rand. While Danny’s story is supposedly their focus, Brubaker and Fraction have instilled such an outrageous, colorful aura around his predecessor that he’s obviously the character they’re most interested in writing. This issue is at its best when it’s reminiscing, filling the page with bright, vibrant painted artwork and introducing outlandish personalities. So entertaining were these older stories, that I caught myself sighing more than once when the narrative switched back from the unusual flashbacks to the more standardized story set in the present day. That’s not to say Danny’s story isn’t kept interesting of its own merit, just that the flashback tales were so much fun to take in.

Howard Chaykin handles the artwork for the majority of this issue, but doesn’t seem to have a great hold on the lead character - Danny has always been portrayed as a thinner guy, definitely not light on power but far from a muscle-head. Yet Chaykin interprets him with a chin the size of Massachusetts and a neck to match. The artwork surrounding Rand didn’t give me much cause for celebration, either – all of it detailed to a flaw, overflowing with excessive texturing while failing at the most basic concepts of composition. There’s a major disconnect between his work with characters and his background detailing, like they’re uncomfortable and out of place beside one another. It really feels like Chaykin just sketched out the cast, then left the backgrounds to a stylized 3-D modeling program or something.

Fortunately, the painted artwork that Dan Brereton and Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic provide for the flashback scenes is a perfect match, giving the book the kick in the pants it’s missing when Chaykin is behind the wheel. Every panel could pass as the cover to a ‘50s adventure serial, which is just what the story needed for these scenes. Their work is far from photographic, but they bring a level of charm to the flashbacks that really set them apart from the present-day narrative.

I’d buy a monthly book focused on Orson Randall. The portions of this story covering his adventures through an outdated society are brimming with life, innocence, adventure and excitement. Danny’s story holds some merit, but it really pales into comparison to his predecessor’s outlandish adventures, which are really the star of this show. The herky-jerky jumps from past to present and back again hurt the overall package, but this is still worth borrowing. Brubaker and Fraction on an “Old Iron Fist Digest” would be cause for celebration.

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

Immortal Iron Fist #9

Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction are tackling some different subject matter than they’ve typically been associated with in Invincible Iron Fist, giving the book a mystical arts / kung fu vibe. Considering the source material, (the character was created in 1974, during the height of the martial arts action craze) that makes a lot of sense, and actually provides for a very interesting, one-of-a-kind read, at least within the Marvel Universe. While the story does grant a lot of attention to magic and illusion, the kung fu fightin’ is never more than a few pages away, and the mystical elements add a good amount of depth and polish to what would otherwise be a fairly rudimentary action tale. There’s plenty of fists and fury, but they’re grounded by a solid backstory (a tournament to determine the dominant heavenly metropolis) that provides plenty of motivation.

While the story does retain a degree of loyalty to the kung fu movies of the mid ‘70s, it also draws inspiration from a more modern source – video games. Unfortunately, this association doesn’t function quite as well on the written page, and actually stands in the way of fluid storytelling on more than one occasion. When Iron Fist’s opponent throws an attack named the “Cudgel of Misfortune” at him, do we really need it to be identified at the top of the panel? It feels very cheeseball, like something they pulled straight out of Mortal Kombat, and doesn’t fit the mood they’ve built to surround it. Asking your readers to accept the reality of a giant tattooed man hurling a lightning-encased whip is one thing. Identifying each of his attacks by name at the top of each panel is another.

Scott Koblish and Roy Allan Martinez fill in for regular artist David Aja on a few pages at the beginning and middle of this issue, and their artwork is something of a mess. They work an oddly detail-rich style, often needlessly so, and obliterate their action scenes with a giant wad of unnecessary speed lines. Their backgrounds are detailed when they need to show restraint, then vacant when there’s room for more detail. Their hearts are in the right places, and they bring several very handsome panels to the issue, but they don’t seem to understand the nuances of storytelling.

That’s one area in which Aja himself really shines. He has a good feel for how to lead a reader’s eye from one scene to the next, to render a fight scene that flows just as well as a great action movie, and to convey the minute details of conversational body language. When Iron Fist and Fat Cobra meet in the first round of the tournament, their battle is traced beautifully by the two long bands of fabric dangling from the back of Danny’s mask and an echoing pair of bands attached to his beltline. They’re a very subtle part of Iron Fist’s wardrobe, something that’s easy to write off as an extra piece of decoration and ignore, but Aja makes them a crucial piece of the story and they fit the need beautifully.

All things considered, this book has the potential to be something really different, not just for Marvel but for the writers and the characters. I love the respect with which they treat most of the subject matter, I like the direction the story seems to be going, I like the artwork and I like the substantial characterization, but this book’s missing something. It’s worth borrowing, at any rate, but keep an eye on it in the future. In the hands of these capable writers, it could turn into a sleeper fairly quickly... but it’s not quite there yet.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.5

Captain America: The Chosen #2

I’m not really sure what the goal is with The Chosen, which I suppose is as good a place to start as any. I’ve found that it’s often better to go into a story with no expectations than with a positive or negative slant, and when Marvel dropped this book into my inbox amidst little to no fanfare, they accomplished just that. This could be the introduction of the next man to wear the Captain America armor or just a random story featuring Steve Rogers before the Civil War, for all I know, and that appeals to me.

David Morrell’s story, though, is at best loosely associated with that star-chested American icon, and lacks any real depth or gravity. The soldiers he’s thrown into the spotlight in Cap’s place are right in the line of fire throughout the issue, but the threats they face are dispensed so nonchalantly that I never felt like the group was in any kind of danger. Really, that’s a theme that runs throughout the book – it’s very bland, with every potential point of interest handled so dryly that it’s robbed of most of its weight and value. Nobody seems to be all that affected by the events surrounding them, and that influences the reader to react in the same way.

Brian Reber’s colors and Mitch Breitweiser’s artwork are the most noteworthy elements of this book. Breitweiser’s rendering style is extremely tight and realistic, but also dynamic and exciting enough to work within the pages of a comic. His artwork bears more than a passing similarity to that of Travis Charest, in that it’s very detailed while still retaining some looser sketchbook-style qualities. When the panel is a tight close-up of a soldier’s face, he finds every individual blemish and shares them with the reader. When it’s a broader shot of a group investigating the charred remains of an enemy stronghold, his work becomes more expressive and less painstakingly accurate.

Breitweiser never shirks on rendering an environment or vehicle, either, which is nice to see. He brings a nice noir-ish quality to this book, in the style of Alex Maleev’s work with Daredevil, a fresh take for a war story. What’s probably most impressive is the amount of personality he brings to these inanimate objects. It’s easy to tell that the car in that junkyard has a story behind it, and that’s something of a rarity. Most artists would dismiss it as just a prop, where Breitweiser sees it as a character.

Reiber’s colors are largely a wash of greys and browns, but they perfectly match the mood and the tone of the story and add another level to Breitweiser’s artwork. The borders that surround each page are a very faint khaki, which isn’t noticeable at first glance but really helps to cast a dirty, sandy shadow over the proceedings, further emphasizing the setting of the tale in the Middle East. This overlying tone also helps the infrequent uses of a bright, brilliant white to stand out and make an impact when necessary. He works with a very subtle, depressing palette, which is a good match for the flavor Morrell delivers with the story.

My sole complaint about the artwork is with Mitch Breitweiser’s take on Captain America, (his chain mail is gigantic, making him look like a bird with ruffled feathers) but the hero only appears in a few brief panels throughout this issue, so that’s somewhat forgivable.

I didn’t care all that much for the story, but it was at least passable, and the visuals alone make this issue worthy of a borrow. I’m anxious to see what this team can do with a more interesting plot.

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

World War Hulk #4

Each issue of this summer’s big World War Hulk crossover has carried something of a theme within its pages. The first explored Hulk’s sudden, violent arrival and the shockwaves it sent throughout the community. The second examined the majority of the battle – Earth’s heroes throwing everything they had at the invading forces, ultimately in vain. Issue three displayed the last gasp of the resistance, as the military joined the fray and Dr. Strange took a desperate gamble to finish the fight. In issue number four, it’s time for the heroes to take their medicine. The entire mini-series has been building to this moment, or at least the revelation of how far the Hulk is willing to go for justice, so buckle your seatbelts.

Much of what I’ve loved about Greg Pak’s story so far is the way he’s managed to maintain a certain degree of balance and rationality within each side of the battle. This isn’t a blind fight between the forces of good and evil, it’s two sides of the same coin. Neither group is without blame, nor are they without justification. The Hulk has a natural need to blame someone for what he’s been through, while the Illuminati never intended for their actions to result in innocent deaths.

This story is a good continuation of the groundwork laid by Civil War, the concept that nobody is without fault and ultimately even the best of friends wind up disagreeing from time to time. Of course, when they take place during such stressful, dramatic circumstances, the consequences of these differences in opinion will typically take place on a very large scale, potentially spoiling life-long friendships. The Hulk feels deeply betrayed by his comrades, just like the members of the resistance felt during the Civil War, and the betrayal of a close friend is often twice as painful as that of a hated enemy.

Much like the three issues that came before, this chapter of World War Hulk feels like a segment of a good summer blockbuster. There’s an awful lot of action, but it’s backed up by a story that sufficiently provides motivation for these battle scenes. It’s not swords, laser blasts and shouting just for the sake of a good visual. And, even though there’s a lot going on throughout the tale, I never felt overwhelmed by detail. It’s a nicely refined story, every aside serving a purpose, never lingering on any scene for too long, and when the last page rolled around I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.

The same goes for John Romita, Junior’s artwork. While I did find a few panels that felt a bit more hurried than usual, his compositions are strong enough to pick up the slack. Romita tells a story like few of his peers – his understanding of a writer’s methods and a reader’s needs is top notch, no doubt enhanced by his years and years of constant production. His renderings are detailed when they need to be, clean and simple when they don’t. I’ve never been much of a Dr. Strange fan, but when Romita shows his ultimate power and Pak emphasizes its effect on his enemies, it really opened my eyes to the character’s potential.

Marvel’s really done a good job of tickling their fans’ imaginations and shaking up the status quo over the last year or two. They’re beginning to understand and exploit the potential of a more wide-open, anything goes universe. No longer do these stories need to wrap up into a neat little package and reset the players when they’re finished. As the latest major tale to enjoy that kind of liberty, World War Hulk is a great example of how much power this kind of story can truly convey. I don’t know how any of the major characters involved in these proceedings can ever go back to the way they were before, and I don’t know that I’d be interested in seeing it, either. This is a rarity, a major summer crossover that’s definitely worth buying.

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

World War Hulk – Front Line #4

Unlike its Civil War precursor, World War Hulk: Front Line feels more like the personal story of two journalists set against the backdrop of an alien invasion of New York City. Where Paul Jenkins took the opportunity to explore the civilian ramifications of the heroes’ war against one another in CW: FL, a lot of that element has been lost in this follow-up. But honestly, I think that angle had been abandoned by the later issues of the first series, as well. I definitely noticed a drop-off in quality towards the tail end of its run.

Yet, strangely, the storytelling isn’t the problem here, so much as the vague association with this summer’s big crossover is. Sure, the Hulk’s return to the Earth is the big story that Sally and Ben are chasing, but it always feels like window dressing. Sally strolls by decimated tanks and overturned cars on her way to a bar, but the story’s emphasis is more on the mysterious identity of her wealthy benefactor than on the ramifications of what she’s documenting. It feels like a missed opportunity, as even when they’re right in the heart of a crucial moment in the World War Hulk story, (as Ben is in this issue) the journalists are too hung up on their own internal monologues to take in what’s happening around them.

Ramon Bachs has an artistic style that’s tough to put a label on. He’s typically at his best working with civilians, which makes him a good fit for the more pedestrian story presented here. His characters have a lot of personality, but they aren’t always that consistent. He’s great when working with a crowd, but his cityscapes, heroes and animals could use a lot of work. When he’s illustrating a battle between a lion and an alien monster, the lion looks all wrong, like he’s got a human body. Every time the artist’s take on the more mundane characters starts to draw you in, he’ll illustrate something so glaringly incorrect that it pulls you right back out again.

One of the unique things about the format presented by the Front Line books is a shorter main story in favor of a rotating cast of brief backups, each written by Jenkins. It gives the book a lighter feel, and ideally allows for a few different perspectives on the big picture. This month, for instance, we get a chapter in the ongoing investigation over what happened to the Hulk’s robotic spacecraft pilot (who was found at the center of an explosion downtown) and a comedic two-page fluff piece. The comedy piece isn’t much to write home about, but the detective story is much more in-line with what I was expecting out of the book.

Shawn Martinbrough is the artist for that tale, and brings a very clean, simplistic style that provides nice contrast to Ramon Bachs’s more line-heavy approach. His light-hearted approach works nicely with the Odd Couple story Jenkins has laid out. No-name detective Danny Granville teams up with one of the Hulk’s more outlandish warriors, Korg, (think of the Fantastic Four’s Thing as a Conehead) in a tale that works as a non-vital expansion of the World War Hulk main story. At the end of the day, it’s not really going to make a difference what happened to the Hulk’s cybernetic pilot, but that’s not the real selling point of this story. While they’re constantly working to solve that riddle, the main focus of the story is the cultural differences between Korg’s species and our own. As a front-and-center story, I don’t think this would fly. It’s lacking the depth I’d expect from a full-price title and doesn’t have much in the way of consequence. As a supporting story, though, it feels just right.

This book just doesn’t feel all that necessary any more. While it’s nice to see some attention paid to a newspaper that isn’t the Daily Bugle for a change, the subject doesn’t captivate me enough to justify its own monthly title, even if it is for a limited time. Both tales would make for an interesting side-story in a monthly Spider-Man or Hulk book, but I can’t recommend you do more than just flip through it as a standalone.

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

Irredeemable Ant-Man #12

I really enjoyed the flippant approach to a “previously in” blurb that opened this issue, even if it was somewhat misleading. The more straightforward, business-like demeanor that fills the rest of the book seems to contrast the lighter tone of that introduction. As the final issue of the new Ant-Man’s self-titled series, I guess the pressure was on to wrap up a lot of the book’s loose ends and move him forward to life as a member of the Initiative, though, so that mood shift may just come with the territory.

The character himself is an interesting change of pace from your typical superheroic fare. Instead of using his powers to help those less fortunate and fight global threats, he incorporates them to better his own life. He’s not a great guy – someone who shirks responsibility, runs from commitment and turns on his friends - but he’s good enough at covering his tracks and fast talking his way out of any situation that he’s managed to trick most of his peers into accepting him as one of their own.

I like that concept, the guy who fancies himself a hero but doesn’t reinforce the idea through his actions, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off. He has to be presented as someone the reader can root for, despite his downfalls and shortcomings, and I didn’t get that in this issue. He feels more like a douchebag than an identifiable guy with problems. Maybe that’ll make him a good match for Tony Stark’s team of registered heroes, where he’ll be part of a team effort rather than the only man in the spotlight, but that’s neither here nor there. At the very least, the issue’s parting shot works for him tremendously, and left me with the impression that writer Robert Nirnman has more than just a foggy idea of what he’s created.

As the artist for several high-profile ongoing titles over the years, Phil Hester has done enough quality work to earn my respect, and he doesn’t stray too far from that norm here. He’s done better work, particularly during his runs with Green Arrow and Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, but still provides a solid contribution. Even though his actual character detailing is kept very minimal and simplified, he knows how to differentiate one face from the other. That’s particularly important when he’s dealing with more than a handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, dressed in identical wardrobe with just their heads exposed. Nobody feels like a clone, which is something that really helps the reader connect with the human element of this kind of an operation. He doesn’t knock my socks off anywhere in this issue, but the story didn’t really give him any opportunities to.

This felt every bit like a farewell, a conclusion to the story, when I think the goal was to use it as a sort of handoff from one series to another. I’d expect a certain degree of closure, but a clean break like this makes it seem like the character is headed out to pasture. That string of goodbyes (seriously, he bids adieu to half a dozen different people) leads the story to feel very one-track and monotonous. I never felt like I was fully brought up to speed as a new reader, either, but now I’m starting to nitpick. I wanted to like this, but it never really came through. I’m recommending you flip through it, which is a shame because from all indications the previous issues told a much better story.

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Drafted #1

Drafted offers a slightly different take on the tried and true formula of an alien invasion, uniting all of humanity in a struggle against oppression from galaxies unknown. While the front cover proudly displays an entire mob, dressed for battle with weapons in-hand, this first issue offers nothing quite that interesting. Instead, the creators appear to be carefully setting the stage for an enormous, years-spanning tale. If the pace of this issue is any indication, it’s going to be a very long ride.

Evidently, writer Mark Powers intends for this story to carry an epic, racially sensitive cast with a variety of differing viewpoints and experiences. Handled properly, that’s a basic recipe for a good story, but it feels like he’s giving us too much too soon on this occasion. A strong cast can’t be rushed to the forefront, introduced in one fell swoop – it should be spread out a bit. After just twelve pages, Powers has already introduced nearly that same number of central characters, which led me to feel overwhelmed by detail.

That seems to be a theme that carries throughout the book – an abundance of detail, overkill to the extent that it shifts from a positive to a negative. Powers tells a story that’s clearly been given a lot of time to simmer in the back of his mind, but also one that would have benefited from a touch of selective editing. This opening chapter really takes its time moving from start to finish, with frequent cuts to television screens and lengthy monologues more the rule than the exception. If a few characters had been granted smaller roles, a few political speeches cut in half, the story would flow much more smoothly and I think the sense of wonder and awe that the writer was after would have been within reach. As is, those sensations only shine through on a couple impressive pages.

Artist Chris Lie and colorist Joseph Baker work together to create a strong animation-influenced visual flavor within Drafted’s 22 pages of content. Lie’s style is at once simplistic and detailed, restraining itself when tempted to overcomplicate an individual character or object, while at the same time tending to every item in the area. In this sense, he’s a good compliment to Powers’s story – neither flinches at the prospect of excessive explanation. Lie uses his linework sparingly, allowing Baker to handle nearly all of the shading with his palette, and in so doing brings a lot of personality to the tale.

While this style does give the book a look and feel all its own, it’s not without its shortcomings. Lie encounters frequent problems with perspective, especially when his characters appear in an underdetailed setting. During the first half-dozen pages, when he’s granted the opportunity to run wild with the contents of a convenience store, the visuals are wonderful. When he’s asked to deliver a bit more focus to the characters, his limitations jump to the forefront. Where his detailing on a monotonous rack of potato chips seems effortlessly stylish, his work with facial expression and body language is more dull, forced and rudimentary.

All in all, I found Drafted to be unfocused in nearly every respect. There’s a lot of potential here, as evidenced by the few occasions when story and art come together to deliver something out of the ordinary, but those moments are overshadowed by the pace and level of unnecessary detail that surround them. I’m all about a good cast of characters, but at some point you have to draw the line, stop introducing new faces and expand upon the ones you’ve already got. Flip through this in the store and think about what it could’ve been.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.1

Monday, September 10, 2007

X-Men: Emperor Vulcan #1

The X-Men universe has a long history of complicated, convoluted family relationships. Whether it’s the multitude of schemes surrounding Scott and Jean’s offspring, the issues between Charles Xavier and the Juggernaut or the origins of Wolverine’s long and troubled past, it seems they can’t go too long without delving into deeply personal matters. With X-Men: Emperor Vulcan, that trend continues as the story focuses primarily on Vulcan, younger brother to both Havok and Cyclops. Having unseated Shi’Ar empress Lilandra from her throne, Vulcan named himself her successor and now determines the fate of an entire alien culture.

Even though it was spelled out on the first page, I never really felt the importance of the relationship between Havok, who appears in this story as the leader of the reformed Starjammers, and his younger brother. They never meet face to face in this first issue, but each spend time discussing one another and they never relate as siblings, only as rivals. Much of the reason these stories have worked for as long as they have is exactly that conflict of emotions, that struggle between love and hate, and when one isn’t a part of the picture it’s no longer unique. It just seems like business as usual, and an unnecessarily complicated business at that.

A lot of what I didn’t like about Star Wars: Episode I when it was first released was the way the story traded in the youthful action that dominated the first trilogy for a much more political, slow-moving slant. Was the military action more interesting when Luke took out the Death Star in a desperate all-out attack, or when the Trade Federation formed a galactic blockade to slow economic relations between Naboo and the rest of the universe? Emperor Vulcan focuses on a tale more similar to the latter than the former, with an emphasis on wordy military strategy rather than action. The behind-the-scenes maneuverings are an important part of the story, no doubt about it, they’re just not an extremely interesting one.

Accompanying Christopher Yost’s rather tame storytelling is Paco Diaz’s equally vanilla artwork. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the way he renders this tale, but there’s nothing exceptional about it either. He knows the characters, but he never gives them his own unique spin. Rather than playing a part in the storytelling, he’s merely documenting the event. He’s given a dozen chances to play with the extravagant decoration that surrounds the Shi’Ar culture, but treats it as such a mundane, lifeless environment that the action nearly grinds to a halt. He’s a bad match for the story Yost is trying to tell with this series.

Combine this story with a stronger artist, or this artist with a better story, and their individual flaws may have been a bit easier to overlook. Together, though, they’re tough to forgive. I know the characters, I know the scenario, I know the backstory, but after half a dozen pages I was lost, overwhelmed by detail and bored. If you’re particularly taken by the constant evolution of the Shi’Ar people, you may want to give this a glance on a purely historical note. If you’re just looking for a good read, I’d skip this and continue your search.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.4

Ultimate Spider-Man #113

As the flagship of Marvel’s “Ultimate” line-up, Ultimate Spider-Man is something of a trendsetter. It’s by far the most consistent of the imprint, with nearly double the issues of launch-mate Ultimate X-Men, and has only recently shifted creative teams, where UXM is on its fourth writer and umpteenth artist. The storytelling has had its peaks and valleys, but has never skimped on character development or action, and is always reaching to connect its world with that of the rest of the Ultimates.

Brian Michael Bendis uses this issue almost exclusively for that final purpose. Spider-Man never appears in the book, and Peter Parker only makes a cameo – but you barely notice. The title’s supporting cast and antagonists are so deep and well developed that they can support an entire issue by themselves, and this story is all the proof you need.

Even since the first issue, Bendis has had a major hard-on for Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. He’s missed with a few storylines here and there, introduced a few awkward personalities, but when he’s dealt with the elder Osborn it’s been consistent quality. That trend continues throughout this story, which focuses almost exclusively on the Goblin. He blends intense action with intricate scheming and manipulation, but the issue doesn’t feel jerky or overly complex. It’s smart, the pacing is top notch, and it left me immediately craving more. Bendis has frequently stated that he likes to develop a character, drop them into a situation and allow their personalities to take over from there, and that’s exactly what he does with Norman here. He’s a great character, he’s in a great environment, and he’s in the zone throughout this story.

I had a major hang-up over Mark Bagley leaving this title, which he’d helped Bendis to get off the ground over a hundred issues prior. He’d invested so much of himself into the characters, the storytelling, the world, that I had an extremely hard time imagining anyone who could fill his shoes. Fortunately, Stuart Immonen is doing everything in his power to make me forget about the past and look forward to the future. In his first two (and a half) issues on USM, he’s repeatedly knocked the ball out of the park – retaining much of the simplicity and innocence that Bagley had developed, but adding a twinge of reality and combustibility to the mix.

Immonen’s artwork in this issue is staggeringly good. He offers an ability to combine the everyday with the extraordinary, which grounds his tales in reality without sacrificing the over-the-top action that is typical of a good superhero book. His compositions are incredible, almost photographic – a panel on page four displays a simple explosion in a large government building, and nearly leaps right off the page into the reader’s lap. He knows when to detail a backdrop and when to simplify it, when to paint a panel with shadows and when to bathe it in light. He’s a marvelous replacement, and I can only dream he’ll have a run half as long as Bagley’s.

When it’s on target, this is one of the best books in the industry, and it’s currently delivering one of the strongest stories of its entire run. Bendis’s writing has been invigorated by the change in artists, Immonen is producing the greatest work of his career, and the cast of characters has never been better. You need to buy this, it’s seriously some of the best stuff I’ve read this year.

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

Daredevil #100

Matt Murdock has been through a lot over the last year and a half over in Daredevil. From the public revelation of his secret identity to his incarceration to the death and resurrection of his best friend to marital troubles to travels abroad, he’s been through the ringer in almost every way imaginable. As fate would have it, the poor man isn’t yet in the clear, either, as the storm clouds have gathered once again for this 100th issue.

One of the most endearing details of this character is his ability to grit his teeth and power through moments dark enough to blacken almost any soul. He’s seen the violent murder of more than one lover, but each time resisted the urge to corrupt his own ideals and cross that moral line. He’s had his life torn apart at the seams by more than one nefarious character, then stood tall in the end. But what’s magical isn’t his capacity to overcome those problems, rather his ability to convince the reader that this time he might not.

Ed Brubaker understands that element of Matt’s personality, just like Brian Michael Bendis, Kevin Smith, Frank Miller and company did before. He knows how to push the character to new limits, introduce that thread of doubt into the mix, and leave him beaten and bleeding at rock bottom. This issue is all the proof you’ll need of that. While the main villain of the tale isn’t a marquee name, he’s familiar enough with Daredevil’s strengths and weaknesses to really make things interesting. It’s not quite the be-all end-all conclusion I was expecting from this milestone, (indeed, the conclusion is left open ended) but it’s a really good read with huge implications for the character’s very near future.

The artistic chores, handled here by a half-dozen pencil pushers with a hand in the hero’s past, range from outstanding to passable. It’s nice to see a lot of these guys working their magic with the character, and where there’s always a risk of disjointing the story and losing the reader’s concentration by filling the book with an all-star cast like this one, that wasn’t even a concern thanks to some tricky writing. Each artist’s work is introduced by a page from regular artist Michael Lark, coinciding with a “moment of clarity,” as Matt flashes from a drug-induced hallucination to reality and back again. The concept gets a bit redundant after the first few instances, but it’s always handled creatively and entertainingly, so the sin is forgivable.

The parade of historical artists is treated to a page or two of material apiece, which is almost always geared to suit their own style or era of work with the character. John Romita Sr, for instance, treats an imagined conversation between Matt and Karen Page in the bright, simplistic style you’d expect from a romance book. Bill Sienkiewicz, on the other hand, addresses Matt’s troubled relationship with Elektra in a darker, fractured style. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where two styles as vastly different as those two can co-exist, but Brubaker provides it with ease.

It’s tough to go into a noteworthy issue of Daredevil without expecting the title character to get slapped around a little bit, be it physically or emotionally, and on both fronts this issue delivers. The artists play their roles well, if a few don’t feel quite as comfortable as others, and the story accommodates them without distracting us from the ongoing plot. This book’s been on a roll for years now and it doesn’t look like the ride will be slowing down any time soon, so I’m recommending you buy it and enjoy.

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

Monday, September 3, 2007

Wolverine #57

Wolverine is all over the place anymore, possibly more so than ever. Between several X-Men books, the New Avengers, his frequent guest shots and a pair of ongoing solo titles, Logan constantly pushes the boundaries of overexposure. Judging from this issue, that overuse and over-saturation is beginning to show.

Writer Marc Guggenheim has an intriguing take on the character. So many times we’ve traced Logan’s steps as the feral super-mutant, sniffing the air and immediately understanding where the opposition lies, that we take his abilities for granted. Guggenheim takes the time to explore those animalistic senses just a bit further than the authors who came before him. No matter the occasion, he’s reminding us that Logan’s faculties are much sharper than our own, for better or for worse. While he’s gripping the bottom of a speeding aircraft, for example, we’re reminded that “at mach-20, a speck of dust or a hailstone hits you like a bullet.” When he’s reminiscing about his own wartime experiences, he recalls the occasion through the scents, tastes and sensations that he associated with each locale. It’s a fresh new interpretation of the character, and a great device for delivering a little more detail to his adventures.

Too bad, then, that the rest of the story couldn’t match that level of originality. Take away the interesting asides about his heightened senses and this would be just another plain Jane, run-of-the-mill “Wolverine vs. mysterious threat” storyline with an open ending. Logan takes a randomized mission somewhere in the world, kills a few bad guys, meets a serious challenge, finds himself in peril, tune in next month. That’s it?

I know Logan isn’t the brightest bulb in the fixture by any means, but I’ve got to believe he’s smarter than the way he’s presented here. Sure, he has a history of charging into battle, but there’s enthusiasm to throw down and then there’s pure, mindless idiocy. Allowing your enemy to force an explosive down your throat in the middle of a battle is stupidity on an almost uncharted level. Guggenheim treats the character with such a small amount of respect that it’s staggering.

Howard Chaykin’s work as this issue’s artist feels much more like a fill-in than a regular gig. He doesn’t connect with Logan, rendering him with an uncharacteristically bulging, thick jaw line and a tiny face. He’s missing his trademark stubble and the clean-cut look doesn’t fit the character he portrays at all. On the large, Chaykin’s style is incredibly uneven and unrefined. I can’t tell if he wants to be Jim Lee or Bryan Hitch here, but he’s a long ways off in either instance. His artwork in a few select panels throughout the book is so bad that I couldn’t fathom how he wasn’t turned away from this job.

He was even granted the big opportunity to design and introduce a new villain in this issue, but what he delivers looks so common and unspectacular that I kept mistaking him for his own henchmen. His battle with Logan yields a few great opportunities for a big, dynamic panel or splash page, but Chaykin misses almost universally. His paneling is tough to follow, his foreshortening is a major stumbling block and his action scenes feel lame and unexciting. His constant missteps taint the book as a whole, giving it an amateurish vibe.

Outside of the opening flashback, where Guggenheim works most of his magic with Logan’s heightened senses, this issue is tough to read. The dialog is nothing special, the story has been revisited a dozen times already in Logan’s past, and the artwork is often hideous. I’m giving this a skip, and I’m almost ashamed for Marvel. This isn’t nearly up to the standards I’d expect from one of the biggest books on the market.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 2

New Excalibur #23

Back in the late ‘80s, Excalibur was one of my favorite members of the X-Men family. Chris Claremont and Alan Davis were collaborating on something special, a superpowered team with a lighter take on their adventuring. The team actually felt like a group of siblings, the way they got along together and shared a friendly dialog. It was a wonderful change of pace from the angst-ridden main X-Titles of the day, and I still remember the issues fondly. This new series is a near-direct continuation of those stories. The team is still led by Captain Britain, but if this issue is any indication, the similarities end there.

Chris Claremont’s writing has never seemed as outdated as it does here. His cast is entirely emotionless, calmly speaking in a presumably dull monotone while they tear apart downtown London. It’s all business, no emotion, all the time. Nobody seems worried about the havoc they’re wreaking in one of the world’s most identifiable cities, it’s like they’re completely emotionally detached, no matter which side they’re on.

Add that to a plot that’s so overly convoluted that I still have no idea what the hell was going on. I know there was a big throw-down in the city, I recognized a few faces, but I don’t know what they were trying to do, who I was meant to be rooting for, what was going on beneath the surface or why the fight was happening in the first place. Despite what I’d consider to be more than a passing knowledge of the X-universe and four paragraphs (!!!) of “previously in New Excalibur” intro copy, I remain at a complete loss. This book has too many characters, too many storyline twists and too many intricate details for any mortal man to follow. I’m sure that in the depths of his own imagination, Claremont is telling an epic, scene-altering story that makes perfect sense when you sit down to think it all over, but in practice it leaves his readers utterly dumbfounded, lost without a map.

The writer sees to it that no two individual characters have distinct personalities, just different powers to talk about – and talk they do, incessantly, endlessly, until the panels overflow with needless chatter. If their use had been properly introduced to the proceedings, Dazzler wouldn’t need to tell me exactly what she’s doing with her mutant abilities. The Juggernaut shouldn’t have to say “What the – I’m goin’ straight back up on a platform of ice!” The artwork should make it obvious enough.

But it doesn’t. Jeremy Haun’s pencils straddle the line between too detailed and too simplified, taking some of the worst elements from both. He has an ongoing struggle with perspective, ruining a “test of strength” panel by failing to reveal the actual size of the statue one character lifts above his head. His posturing is repeatedly stiff, awkward, rigid and lifeless. He takes the natural drama out of a scene by detailing the wrong areas of a panel, drawing the focus away from the spectacular and towards the mundane. How do you spoil the timeless comic book scene of a superhero effortlessly flying above a cityscape? By focusing so exclusively on the dull buildings in the backdrop that the character himself is lost amongst the details.

This just isn’t a good book. Chris Claremont butchers a simple firefight with too much information, too much dialog and not enough old-fashioned firepower. His partner in crime, Jeremy Haun, doesn’t help matters with a lame duck style and soulless main characters. If you’re into bad art, bad dialog, an abundance of thought balloons and a cast of uninspiring characters, this is exactly what you’re looking for. Otherwise, please do yourself a favor and skip this. It’s awful.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1.5

Ms. Marvel #19

In addition to conveying the adventures of the title character, Mighty Avengers field leader Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel also seems to serve as a check-in point for a variety of other non-central Marvel characters. In this issue, for instance, we get lengthy appearances by Machine Man, Sleepwalker, Tigra, the Puppet Master and Silverclaw. None of the above are really characters I’d deem worthy of their own ongoing monthly series, some having already crossed that bridge and failed, but as far as supporting characters go, they’re good options.

After spending some time under the scrutiny of a large-scale book (Silverclaw and Tigra, for instance, were once Avengers) these guys have all been given more back story and personality than you’d expect from a backing cast. That really gives this book more depth than you’d expect, especially after reading through that roster of has-been and never-were superheroes. For example, I can remember when Sleepwalker had his own monthly series – it was a good concept, but the character never clicked and the stories were redundant. I wrote him off and shook my head when I saw that Marvel was still using him, but as a supporting character he really finds his niche. Such is the case with nearly all of these characters: left to their own, their greatest shortcomings are revealed. But in small doses, they can still tell a fine story.

Brian Reed understands that, and showcases his ability to do so with this tale. Never overly ambitious, he keeps the scale smart, manageable and within the heroes’ limits. If the master plan were too large, the stakes too high, I’d wonder why the big guns hadn’t come out to put a stop to it. The conflict is just small enough to slip below the notice of Iron Man or Spider-Man, but serious enough to retain a bit of suspense and intrigue. The underlying mood is fairly light, but that doesn’t mean there’s no tension or drama, and the dialog is kept loose and entertaining.

Aaron Lopresti’s artwork matches that tone – detailed and intelligent, but not over-treated or needlessly dynamic. He has a distinct personality, which shines through in many of these panels, and a good understanding of the subtleties of most of the cast. Occasionally, he’ll run into a problem with a character or two – Silverclaw, for instance, never jumps off of the page with the same kind of life he bestows upon Tigra or Sleepwalker – but his rendition of Danvers herself is pretty close to ideal. I’ve seen so many artists use her costume and powers as an excuse to over-exaggerate her physique that it’s nice to see somebody who can render Carol a bit more realistically without losing sight of her identity or charm. He’s a good fit for this series.

End to end, I have to say I got more than I was expecting from this book. Although this is the middle chapter of a three-part tale, I was brought up to speed very quickly (and without any assistance from the “last month” blurb on the opening page) and never felt like I’d missed anything vital to my enjoyment of the story. Sufficient progress is made for a standard 22-page story, and nothing felt forced, clich├ęd or out of place. I’ll give this a strong recommendation to borrow, with a lot of potential for the future.

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