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