Monday, December 22, 2008

Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1

With DC revisiting Alex Ross's seminal Kingdom Come mini-series in recent months, the boys across the street at Marvel have taken a long, hard look at their own publishing history and discovered that yes, they too have a classic Ross tale to exhume and reexamine. In Marvels: Eye of the Camera, we catch up with Phil Sheldon, the unassuming leading man of 1994's Marvels. A photojournalist in every sense of the word, Sheldon is always on the job and the action always seems to gravitate toward him. He's always in the right place at the right time with a camera on his hip and an itchy trigger finger.

Although Ross is occupied elsewhere, original writer Kurt Busiek has returned to the property he co-created a decade and a half back. His familiarity with both the characters and, perhaps more importantly, the tone and subject matter, cannot be overstated. I can't imagine this series working nearly as well under another writer's watch, and although the original Marvels covered a wide array of crucial moments in the publisher's timeline, there's no shortage of good material to burn in the follow-up. This month, for example, we're looking at the moment the floodgates opened, when the Fantastic Four held their first press conference and the flow of new heroes burst forth like a blast of water from the fire hose. Where before, the nation was certain that every new face who opposed the Axis Powers was friendly, in the years after the war that distinction has become much less clear-cut. It's a natural follow-up, one that will be welcomed by fans of the original, but it's missing the fire that made its first run so compelling.

Artist Jay Anacleto wisely doesn't try to match the efforts of his famed predecessor. Even after all this time, there isn't anyone quite like Alex Ross, and though Anacleto does adopt a style that vaguely mimics the painter, he injects enough originality to avoid a direct comparison. Problem is, the new artist's work isn't strong enough to make readers forget about what had come before.

A big part of what made the original Marvels work was its tremendous visuals, which jumped right off the page and into our world. They were sharp, colorful, but most of all relatable. The very concept of a pedestrian perspective into a superhuman world banks entirely on the power of the book's illustrations, and despite his best efforts that's just something Jay Anacleto isn't able to deliver here. His characters don't feel natural; the world they occupy is washed out and short on contrast. Everything is painted over with the same shade of soft, muting gray, like the entire country is dozing off. His compositions retain that same sense of the mundane; the everyday sense that made the spectacular seem like a part of our own world, but his execution is off. Rather than enhancing the ordinary, he's muted the incredible.

As a direct continuation of the original Marvels, Eye of the Camera is suitable. It touches the same bases, asks similar questions and retains the sense of wonder, though this time it's laced with a growing sense of mistrust. It's every bit the spiritual successor I have to think it was intended to be, but it's almost too much of the same thing. When the original series landed, it was like nothing we'd ever seen before, a human perspective into a traditionally superhuman world. Now, years later, it's not quite so original nor so endearing. As a follow-up, this is par for the course. No better, no worse. Borrow it.

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

Haunted Tank #1

Outside of Sgt. Rock, DC has never had a longer running combat series than the original Haunted Tank. Usually found within the pages of the old G.I. Combat series, the ghostly panzer was seemingly abandoned with that series' cancellation in the late '80s. But alas! So long as there exist creators with sharp memories and editors with space to fill, no character shall remain unpublished for long.

In this fresh interpretation, the Haunted Tank has abandoned its old digs in WW2-era North Africa in favor of a new station inside present-day Iraq. It's familiar scenery, warfare against the backdrop of blackened sand, only modernized in both setting and opposition. Of course, the soldiers on the other side of the conflict are about as clich├ęd as they come; a ragtag cluster of underdressed, over-armed militants who descend onto the scene shouting about infidels and imperialists… but they aren't the focus of the story, and the speed of their arrival is matched only by the haste of their departure. Author Frank Marraffino spends more time this month introducing us to the good guys than he does sending them into action, and it's just as well. While the speedy, intense battle scenes may be more visually impressive and exciting, the real hook of the story is with the ghost of a Confederate General, the boys he rescued from certain death in the middle of an oasis and their offbeat, uneasy relationship. Besides, there'll be plenty of time for bullets and ‘splosions later in this five issue mini-series, and from the small taste we get this month, I know it'll be worth the wait.

Henry Flint's artwork is the real superstar of this issue. He must have been the kind of kid whose trapper keeper was filled with sketch after sketch of machinery, because he treats this job like a labor of love. His renditions of a desert-bound tank and the mechanical competition it encounters are strikingly accurate, but not stifling or lacking in individuality. His machinery wears its scratches and grime like a medal of honor, reminders of battles once fought and terrain left far behind. It carries its personality on its thick metal hide, and is identifiable as a character unto itself from the word go. Perhaps most importantly, Flint never misses an opportunity to remind his readers just how gigantic a tank really is, spotlighting its size in comparison to the men behind the controls and allowing it to tower menacingly over a full-sized pickup truck.

Flint has a mastery of impressive, cinematic storytelling, too. This issue reads more like a thoroughly fleshed-out storyboard than a traditional comic, with the artist's impressive attention to detail working with his adventurous camera angles to deliver a fantastic final product. When this tank gets moving, the sense of motion is so vivid that you'll swear the panels have started shaking.

Haunted Tank is loads of fun. Its cast of characters is identifiable, admirable and genuinely funny, and their relationship with the ghost that drives their adventures is a bit more complicated than it would seem on the surface. Who could've thought it would take a comic book about a possessed war machine to bridge the enormous generation gap between the Civil War and today? This is dynamite stuff: it's light and goofy when it needs to be, deep and dirty when it doesn't. I'm buying it, give it a shot yourself.

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

Batman #682

In the aftermath of "Batman: RIP," Gotham faces the uncomfortable prospect of life without its guardian angel. No, despite the preceding crossover's dubious title and the dark knight's absence from his city's streets, Bruce Wayne hasn't bit the big one. But maybe a few important portions of his personality have, and the prospect of a Wayne without the heart to continue may be twice as unsettling as the death of a caped crusader.

Grant Morrison doesn't provide a distinct narration this month so much as he does a series of random snapshots. Flashes and frames of Bruce Wayne's life and times under a cape and cowl, relationships curtailed by his activities after dark, missed opportunities to step away from his responsibilities as the Batman… as an abstract spattering of personality, it's spot-on, but as a straightforward narrative, it leaves something to be desired. I can get into the occasional trip down memory lane, which is how this was intended, but in such a curt, random form, I found it more like watching a DVD at 24x speed. You'll get a basic understanding of what's going on, but it's all kind of crammed together and disconnected.

Morrison has an unquestionable gift for drawing his readers into the situation, emotionally involving them with a startlingly short supply of vocabulary. That fact is reinforced over and over again in the pages of Batman #682, but just as quickly as the writer delivers these sharp, compelling scenes into our lives, he cruelly takes them away. He's started in enough interesting directions this month to have sufficient material for hundreds of issues' worth of storytelling, even if most of those avenues have already been explored. The writing is great, but its focus is so scatter-brained that the actual experience of ingesting it is often frustrating.

With "RIP" artist Tony Daniels taking a breather before "Battle for the Cowl" later this month, fill-in artist Lee Garbett doesn't take too many chances. In fact, his style is so similar to that of Daniels that I'd have to wonder if he's working as some sort of an understudy. Garbett's smooth, cartoony artwork is strong enough, particularly in dealing with Batman himself, and though his renditions of Robin don't fare as well, for the most part he does enough to get by. With the nature of this month's story, I noticed a few missed opportunities for creative license, particularly when the focus is on Bruce's early crime fighting career, but by avoiding such risks, Garbett ensures his work is inoffensive. He's strong as filler talent goes, but not entirely ready to move up in the pecking order.

As a standalone issue, this month's Batman is a swift disappointment. I'm sure the issue's constantly-shifting focus will look much rosier when collected in a trade paperback, but that's neither her nor there. Grant Morrison's writing is terrific, but it because it comes in such short doses, I had to really reach to appreciate it. Flip through it and give it a closer look in a few months when the full story is revealed.

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Transformers: All Hail Megatron #5

If you haven't been keeping track, there's been a lot going on with the Transformers recently, and none of it looks all that good for the Autobots. Under Megatron's leadership, the Decepticons have conquered Earth, chasing the remnants of their opposition to a secluded corner on Cybertron. With Optimus Prime at death's door, the duties of leadership have fallen to Jazz, and his work is cut out for him. While his first order of business is procuring a steady source of energy, of which little remains on their hollow, exhausted home planet, uncovering the traitor in his group's midst remains a close second priority.

Series artist Guido Guidi was born for this kind of work. When it comes to the Transformers, there have historically been two kinds of artists: those who get it and those who don't – and sadly, the latter have far outnumbered the former. Granted, the task of illustrating an entire race of boxy, metal-skinned, living, breathing robots (no two of which look even remotely alike) is not an easy one… especially when so many different interpretations have come and gone over the years. But I've found that the very best renditions have been able to convey the unique qualities of the Cybertronians' physical features while also delivering a strong sense of identity and humanity to the mix.

Guidi is able to bring all of that to the table, while also adding a detail-rich series of backdrops to the list. His work is painstakingly detailed, but not exceptionally busy. Its look and feel is clearly manga-influenced, a carryover from the visual style of 1986's animated Transformers: The Movie, and bursting at the seams with liveliness. Each page of this issue leaps right off the page, which makes actually reading it a delight. This is what I've been looking for out of this property since it was officially relaunched: it's clearly crafted by a longtime fan, and he's poured his heart and soul into his work.

Shane McCarthy's writing isn't quite that good, but it's strong enough to draw similar comparisons to The Movie, which I consider to be the quintessential Transformers story. All Hail Megatron caries a similar sense of dread and frustration, with the good guys outnumbered and on the lam while their enemies run unchecked. His story is epic in concept, and while it's sometimes clunky in execution (the pacing in particular is a little strange) at the end of the day it left me anxious to see where it's all going. The best moments in Transformers lore always seem to come after the day has grown its darkest, and the revelations at the end of this issue have sent the storyline into uncharted territory as far as that's concerned.

While this property was having its issues a few years ago, floating around with little direction at Dreamwave, its shift to IDW has been rejuvenating. The storytelling has taken a step up, returning the franchise to familiar, celebrated themes, and if this issue is any indication, the artwork has never been better. All Hail Megatron was created by the fans, for the fans, and that's a welcome change. Buy it for the artwork alone: the story's just gravy.

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

DMZ #36

Set on the island of Manhattan in the very near future, DMZ examines how the lives of New Yorkers have changed since the town was designated a demilitarized zone. When a freethinking revolution passes through the hearts and minds of Middle America, the concept takes hold stronger than even the most optimistic rebel could have dreamed possible. As that idea manifests itself in the form of a full-scale revolt, the majority of the country's national guard is stationed overseas, which enables the Free State movement to overtake the vast majority of the US landmass. The battle stalls in NYC, however, and with neither army able to maintain control, it's labeled a no man's land and summarily evacuated.

Series creator and ongoing writer Brian Wood paints an unsettlingly relatable picture of a United States so divided it's settled on civil war as its only option. He raises some pertinent issues, escalates the conflict of ideas that's already present into a physical struggle, and adds just enough dashes of the modern rhetoric to make it all feel natural. Is it idealistic? Well, yes and no… on one hand, I don't think anyone wants this to end in bloodshed, but on the other, the two sides of this country are already so sharply divided that eventually something's going to have to give. I don't know how we go from criticizing the President on a daily basis to taking up arms and rising against his government, but should that come to pass I wouldn't be surprised if it wound up looking an awful lot like this.

That's where Wood is at his best. He's able to make things seem so familiar that his readers let their guard down and accept this as a continuation of their current reality. America's two sides may not have reached this level of extremism yet, but because the soldiers on the ground in DMZ are spitting the same kind of rhetoric we're hearing in the aisles at Wal-Mart today, it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch.

Kristian Donaldson has joined the party as a special temporary artist for this story arc, delivering work that's as simple as the issue's subject matter is heavy. Fans of Brian Wood's work will recognize Donaldson from their previous collaboration on IDW's Supermarket. His uber-minimal approach is reminiscent of Phil Hester, though the DMZ artist isn't quite as animated and his characters don't feel as natural. Tasked this month with representing a US Army captain at the end of his rope, Donaldson is able to capture enough facial expression to tell that story without the aid of narration. The captain has crazy eyes, his body language betrays his mental state, and the tendency of his underlings to keep their distance tells us they don't entirely trust their fearless leader. Though his characters occasionally feel stiff and uncomfortable, Donaldson is otherwise a solid contributor.

DMZ is a rarity in that it can tell a deeply political story without feeling heavy-handed or preachy. Brian Wood's continuous use of recognizable talking points and familiar imagery lends familiarity, and that in turn helps the story to connect with its audience. It's pertinent, timely and elaborate, something worthy of a chance, regardless of your political affiliation. Buy it.

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

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Eight #19

Remakes and adaptations are the modern-day law of the land. Whether it's yet another big bucks Hollywood picture based on a 1970s TV series, a comic book replication of a new film or a video game based on an aging theatric property, the idea of originality seems to be antiquated. And to a certain degree, that's true of Buffy: Season Eight. Yes, we're returning to familiar territory, resuscitating a television show that's been dead and buried for years and cashing in on the title's cult following. But Buffy has a few things that set it apart: for one, this isn't a retelling of the same old stories, it's a direct continuation of the saga that picks up right where our TVs left off back in 2003.

It's also nice to see the same creative minds involved. Sure, those Star Wars novels that were blessed by LucasArts may have been fascinating, but because King George himself wasn't a hands-on collaborator, they never seemed authentic. That's no problem for Buffy: Joss Whedon, the brains behind the entirety of the show's lifespan, is getting his hands dirty as writer of this Dark Horse Comics follow-up. It's both a spiritual and a literal sequel to the renowned series, and one that I'm sure most fans will greet with open arms.

As long as the action keeps moving, Whedon's writing makes for easy, entertaining material. Though he does irregularly indulge himself with a few pages of long, breathy conversation, Whedon seems to acknowledge that this series is at its strongest when it's throwing haymakers and impaling evildoers. And while he's dealing with a huge cast of beloved characters, the writer doesn't pull any punches, either. That makes those fight scenes just a bit more interesting, every near miss a tad more suspenseful.

Karl Moline is the artist of choice this month, benefiting from a deep pre-existing cast and an elaborate, rich atmosphere. With so many character designs already laid out in detail, Moline's only task is to accurately reproduce them and throw in an infrequent twist in wardrobe here or there. The familiar faces wear their scars like a badge of honor, with each distinguishing mark tied to a specific moment earlier in the series. The wear and tear shown by his characters and their surroundings manages to be light on linework but surprisingly descriptive, akin to Chris Bachalo's later efforts, while Moline's thick but graceful linework sometimes reminds me of Frank Cho. The denizens of Buffy's world can often be at once beautiful and haunting, a balance that's much easier said than done, but the artist is able to pull it off. With the exception of one or two uncharacteristic slip-ups, this is a very good-looking issue.

Although I came into this series with little more than a passing knowledge of Buffy and was eighteen issues behind the curve, I never felt left out or confused. Sure, some of the names and faces didn't mean as much to me as I'm sure they would for one of the TV show's dedicated viewers, but I still found something to enjoy within this story. It's well written, nicely illustrated, and manages to stand on its own two feet, with or without the gigantic reputation that precedes it. Big fans will want to buy this up immediately, while more casual observers like myself will still want to borrow it. It's good stuff, and a good example of what can go right with a popular cast of licensed characters. Treated with dignity and respect, they can still bring out strong emotions in their audience.

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

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Helm #4

Ever find something at a garage sale that's so completely, ridiculously obscure, you absolutely have to have it? Matt Blurdy had one of those moments just recently, with the object in question being an aged Norse helmet that just so happened to start talking once he'd got it home. And the things this magical piece of head gear has been telling him… that he's the next big hero, that the forces of evil are closing in, that his old boss at the video store is an evil necromancer… they're enough to send any self-respecting nerd out on the warpath.

In Matt, The Helm's protagonist, writer Jim Hardison has pieced together a good approximation of the innocent gullibility and self-conscious apprehension that most AD&D-playing dweebs share. Is that helmet really talking to me? Am I really the chosen one of my generation, or am I lost so far in my own imagination that it's high time for a trip to the psychiatric ward? The age of wonder is well behind us, and nowadays if a golden helmet with voice and locomotion were to surface in someone's living room, I have to imagine its reception would be a bit different from the one it received back in the middle ages.

I remember adoring Bart Sears's work on the early issues of Wizard Magazine, and later with Alan Moore on the underappreciated Violator mini-series before I lost track of his career. Or maybe I just lost track of his style, because outside of the cover his work is borderline unrecognizable. Sears has reinvented himself since I saw him last, cutting a great deal of the elaborate detail that had become his calling card and transforming himself into a smoother, cleaner, more animation-inspired artist. I can still see a lot of the old Bart Sears in there, particularly in his love for deep, fluid shadows and the gentle curves of his linework, but what he's become on the surface is something entirely different. In the past he had the nasty tendency to get hopelessly lost in the specifics of his work, producing heroes who were muscular beyond the limits of good reason and postured so awkwardly, I think they may have been punishing themselves. Now he may have overcompensated, simplifying his efforts so much that his artwork no longer seems like the labor of love that it once was.

For the most part, this story is light fare with little real surprises. It's an imaginative concept, fleshed out by an average supporting cast and an identifiable lead character, but it never takes any risks and as a result isn't terribly exciting. It's worth flopping through if you're about to go on a long road trip or need some last-minute reading material at the DMV, but there isn't enough substance here to make me a repeat customer.

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

The Brave and the Bold #19

A long-lasting staple of the DC line, The Brave and the Bold told the stories of DC’s mightiest team-ups for nearly thirty years before its cancellation in the early 1980s. Now more than a year into its second run, the series has once again turned its attention to team-ups, featuring a good blend of established characters and lesser-known faces. This month, for example, features an intergalactic SOS that’s answered by both Hal Jordan and The Phantom Stranger. Sounds like business as usual, right? Well, here’s the catch: that cry for help from a far-away galaxy was conveyed a brain-dead child in a West Virginia hospital.

Cast in the unenviable role of a placeholder, biding time with the series until J. Michael Straczynski takes over in 2009, writer David Hine is nonetheless making the best of his limited window of opportunity. This issue’s story, an unexpected blend of horror, sci-fi and medical drama, is both smart and interesting. While Hine has a tendency to lose himself in scientific detail, especially during the set-up of the issue’s first few pages, such moments lend the story authenticity and immediately deliver the sharp, distinctive tone that flows from cover to cover. This writer displays the ability to deliver tremendous detail and sobering circumstance with only a few panels of explanation and a minimum of dialog. He’s done a lot of research, added a few original twists of his own and compressed it all into a format that’s brief but powerful.

When the narration leaves the Earth, Hine’s imagination really shines. While the story itself has a very specific underlying purpose, the author still takes the opportunity to stop and smell the roses so to speak, enveloping his readers in the culture and personality of a heretofore-undocumented alien world and noting its similarities to our own. If the spectacular adventure of the primary story weren’t so good, I could get lost in the minutiae of this alien culture without qualm. Such attention to detail and care is unusual, especially from temporary talent, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Hine’s work in the future.

Artist Doug Braithwaite is an equally imaginative, if somewhat less consistent, talent. Braithwaite’s strict, lifelike style is a good partner for the story’s stoic flavor, and delivers the straight, intellectual appearance that his writer was seemingly after. The artist’s renditions of the vast alien wilderness are fantastic, and his dramatic timing is top notch. My only misgiving lies with the drastic, and often distracting, level of detail that he brings to the page, which often hampers the book’s legibility. It’s a minor issue and one of personal preference, but an issue all the same.

I was tremendously surprised and impressed by this issue. Oftentimes, the arrival of a star-studded creative team is immediately preceded by a series’ worst moments, filler work by creators with little time or investment in the book and its characters. That couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of David Hine and Doug Braithwaite. In the interim before the more widely anticipated arrival of JMS and company, this pair has delivered something to be heralded. It’s smart, compelling and well written, with a cliffhanger that has me anxious to see the resolution. Buy it and see for yourself.

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

Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Last Generation #1

How passionate are you about the Star Trek universe? Fervent enough to follow an alternate-reality take on the Next Generation timeline? If so, you've hit the jackpot with The Last Generation. Staged in a parallel galaxy in which the Klingons have conquered Earth and ruled for seventy years, the series follows an outlaw resistance group led by Jean-Luc Picard as they struggle to free their species from extraterrestrial oppression.

While the story's basic premise relies on some very specific details from the Star Trek mythos, (did you remember an assassination attempt at the end of Star Trek VI? I didn't, but I'm not even sure I saw that one...) there's something here for both passive fans and hardcores alike. Even non-fanatical followers of the franchise will know the difference between the Worf of the standard TNG and his counterpart in The Last Generation, and the story's author, Andrew Steven Harris, stuffs this first issue full of easter eggs and subtle winks at his more astute readers while still keeping the narrative moving.

But where his love for Trek trivia is obvious from the very get-go, Harris's passion for writing doesn't follow suit. Although the story's concept may be rich and original, in execution it's full of plot holes, tasteless dialog, redundant battle scenes and fabricated drama. Every single fight scene ends in precisely the same way, (unexpected cavalry, hoorayyy) the issue's cast has zero chemistry and the narrative jumps around like a manic six year old on Jolt Cola and Fruity Pebbles.

The writer's collaborator, Gordon Purcell, doesn't even fare that well. His artwork is downright terrible, a bad parody of fan work that may be the worst I've seen in print since the industry-wide glut of the early ‘90s. I'm used to seeing big-name licensed books shoveled out with little regard paid to quality, but this is ridiculous. Purcell's work is busy, two-dimensional, faceless and amateur at its finest moments and downright illegible at its worst. To his credit, he manages a close enough likeness to the major characters' big screen counterparts that the story remains understandable, but honest to god, this stuff is so bad I'm surprised I didn't see the edges of a spiral-bound notebook on a few pages. It's hideous, and deals a significant blow to the story's legitimacy before it can even get off the ground.

I wouldn't recommend this to even the most devoted Trekkie. While the foundation may hold some interest, an all-conquering race of Klingons who finally live up to their potential as the baddest of all bad guys, that basic concept is the only thing here that's actually working. Insufferable storytelling combined with terrifically rotten artwork makes The Last Generation an undeniable failure. Set your phasers to skip.

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

JSA: Kingdom Come Special - Superman

It's a showdown of the Supermen! Long after the events of the original Kingdom Come, that world's older, wiser Man of Steel continues to struggle with the ramifications of a lifetime's worth of actions. Would Earth-22 have been better off without him? Does the butterfly effect of his good intentions result in a catastrophic counter-balance of evil? It's heavy stuff, and the elder Supes is tired of waiting around for the answers to reveal themselves. Inexplicably landing on Earth-1, he's sought out familiar faces who haven't the foggiest what he's talking about and now finds himself trading blows with a younger, more emotionally stable version of himself.

Alex Ross wears two hats in this issue: those of both writer and artist, and both are hauntingly familiar. While I wasn't too keen on the idea of revisiting a story with such a well-defined beginning and ending, especially one as successful and far-reaching as Kingdom Come, if DC had to go back to that well I'm glad they chose one of the original creators to take them there. Under Ross's eye, this issue has successfully recaptured both the look and the feel of the original series. The spaced out, paranoid older Superman that's come to our reality isn't far removed from the last time we saw him, and reminds me of just how well written that series really was. He's haunted by constant flashbacks to the events of that classic mini-series, at once reinforcing the sense of sadness and loss that invade his personality and reminding readers of the story's most memorable moments. In many ways, Earth-22 Superman is more real, more understandable than his regular continuity brother. His faults make him relatable, his losses lend humanity.

It's an odd sensation to browse an issue of Alex Ross artwork that's been composed with pencils rather than paint. It's a much more stark, contrasting effect, and one that's not unwelcome. Gone are the lush, vibrant hues and the smooth, lifelike palettes that helped his work reach the top of the industry in the early ‘90s, but in their absence I've grown to appreciate the man's eye for composition. This issue carries the same panache and detail that I so enjoyed during his heyday, but the more everyday color scheme grounds it in a much more identifiable tone. It was easy to write off the original Kingdom Come as impermanent, a dream, thanks to those soft, ethereal visuals. Now that he's working strictly with pencils and inks, Ross's artwork has a rougher edge and feels more consequential, more real. Or it at least has a common visual footing with the rest of the mainstream DC universe, so it feels more at home.

This issue would work just fine as a standalone reminder that you should really go back and re-read Kingdom Come. That it adds a relevant modern narrative is just icing on the cake. No matter your feelings on the publisher's decision to revisit a world that would have been just fine as it was, this is worth an unbiased look. It isn't often that you'll see lightning in a bottle twice in the same place, but Kingdom Come Special: Superman is as close as I think anyone could have imagined. Buy it and enjoy the trip down memory lane.

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

Black Terror #1

Earlier this year, famed creator Alex Ross teamed with Dynamite Entertainment to produce Project Superpowers, a limited series that focused on a handful of characters from the '30s and '40s. Originally promoted by a variety of now-defunct publishers during the golden age, much of the title's cast had faded into obscurity within the public domain, and Ross took the opportunity to rejuvenate them. Now, following the success of that original series, the title's creative team has come together again to launch a series of individual titles focused on Superpowers's inhabitants, the first of which lands this month in the form of Black Terror #1.

Alex Ross and Jim Krueger share the writing credits, collaborating on the plot while Krueger tackles the script alone. Naturally, Ross is the big selling point so he takes top billing. Black Terror artist Mike Lilly also takes a back seat to the famed creator, who's credited for “artistic direction” in stark contrast to Lilly's "interior art." So... was he just painting by the numbers, then?

For what it's worth, though, the Kingdom Come veteran does seem to have delivered the most successful pieces of this pie. Black Terror's character designs, clearly based on a set of classics, benefit from the light touch but sharp eye seen in Ross's redesigns. Its premise, a set of forgotten heroes who return to an America that's vastly different from the one they left behind fifty years ago, provides a fine commentary on just how much things have changed here since World War II. If that sounds an awful lot like Marvel's recent mini-series, The Twelve, that's because superficially they're almost identical. But where J. Michael Straczynski's Twelve initially embrace the government in their ignorance, Ross's heroes remain skeptical and choose to observe from the sidelines before jumping in. While the two stories share a similar setup and a commonly jaded outlook, as their events play out they seem less and less alike.

Ross's collaborators don't fare as well. Jim Krueger's script is excessively wordy and tough to work through. I can deal with one or two long-winded, robotic personalities at a time, but when the issue is bursting at the seams with them, it gets to be too much to handle. While this mini-series may be titled after a single character, it's very much a team book, but no one character stands out as identifiable. They're all just stale shades of the same tone, sharing a penchant for out-of-place film references and sudden, action-halting monologues. Mike Lilly's artwork does more with Ross's influence than Krueger's writing, but even the visuals are generally cluttered, murky and difficult to navigate. Lilly shows some promise in a few spots this month, but ultimately he succumbs to the strain of trying to tell three issues' worth of story within the confines of a single chapter. He never gets a chance to slow down and breathe, finally buckling under the pressure.

Black Terror #1 had all the ingredients to become something interesting. Its heart was in the right place, I loved the concept of reintroducing such a classic cast of forgotten heroes, and while I've seen more anti-government slants in comics since the mid '80s than I can count, this take on that old concept managed to be both original and compelling. But somewhere in between the imaginary world of concept and the physical land of realization, the series faltered. The artwork is too dense and rich for its own good, and I rolled my eyes so frequently at the book's awkward prose that I felt dizzy when I reached the last page. With a good editor, a tighter vision and a more cohesive creative team, the book could turn a sharp 180, but I'm not holding my breath. Until it can get its act together, you're better off flipping through and leaving it on the shelf.

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

Amazing Spider-Man #577

Spider-Man and the Punisher share a long, rich history that dates all the way back to ol' skull torso's very first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129, during the early part of 1974. While the heroes' personalities couldn't be much more different, they've managed a tenuous coexistence ever since, although their paths have crisscrossed with such regularity that it's grown a bit beyond mere coincidence. And, since Frank's back in the Big Apple again this month, it should come as no surprise to hear his adventures have once again led him into Spidey's territory.

This issue struggles to determine what kind of story it would like to tell. While the tone of Peter Parker's internal monologue at the issue's outset is more in-line with an indie book, self-deprecating and oblivious, it's counterbalanced by an almost Saturday Morning Cartoon-style take on the Punisher and his activities. Writer Zeb Wells drops his readers into a realistic New York City, sharing Parker's insecurities as he tries his luck as a cabbie, and it works. In fact maybe too well, as the sudden leap he then takes into costumed brawling, dead criminals and loud explosions feels completely out of place and unwelcome. One minute we're grimacing and identifying with a down-on-his-luck loser, a'la Optic Nerve, and the next we're watching a skull-faced robot shoot up a roomful of mobsters like freaking Robocop. Couldn't we just stick with one or the other for a little while?

The issue's identity crisis is continued, even embraced, by Paolo Rivera's contributions as artist. On some pages he shows the influence of Alex Maleev, Sean Phillips and the gritty current generation of Marvel artists, while on others he channels Ditko, Buscema and the more gestured style of the publisher's old guard. Oddly, his take on Spider-Man himself doesn't look right in either instance. He takes a more disciplined approach to the title character than I'm used to seeing, and while that gives his readers a more realistic visual at times, it robs the character of his personality. While hundreds, maybe thousands, of artists have tried their hand with Spidey over the years, one constant has been his grace and rather unique posturing while in costume. Rivera's rendition is lanky, stiff and awkward. It's like watching the old Spider-Man TV series from the '70s – the costume is right, but the guy wearing it has no idea how he's supposed to be moving, so it never feels like the genuine article.

I really can't recommend this one. It doesn't know what it wants to be, nor the story it wants to tell, and even if it did I can't imagine it would be very well executed. On the few instances where it settles down on a specific direction, the issue delivers a plot that's paper thin, renders two A-class characters unrecognizable and craps out dialog that's unfit for any reader. It's frequently ugly, consistently tough to follow and ultimately inconsequential. It's a double-sized issue, too, so skip it twice.

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Boys #24

It's already been a fairly speckled run for The Boys, both between the covers and behind the scenes. Wildstorm canceled the series, which focuses on the misadventures of a hush-hush team of government operatives who supervise the superhuman community, just six months after its debut. Its creators didn't bat an eyelash, taking their book to a new publisher and resuming publication without even altering the issue count, let alone the book's content. With a more liberal publisher now willing to back it, the series continued its harsh examination of superheroes and the seedy world they inhabit during their time away from the spandex.

As a brazen Garth Ennis fanboy, I actually followed The Boys regularly for its first year before taking it off my pull list. After twelve issues, I discovered that I'd had just about enough of the writer's self-indulgence, that perhaps Ennis is just one of those men whose ideas, almost illegible on their own, only truly blossom under the watchful eye of an editor. Or four. Look, I get that he doesn't like superheroes. Point made. I got it when he was in charge of The Punisher just before the series moved to the MAX imprint and gave him (and the character) a new lease on life. That doesn't mean I'm all that eager to sit back and watch him shit all over the things that I like about the genre, especially when the territory he's blazing isn't entirely fresh.

Well, it didn't take long for me to realize that the book hasn't changed a bit since we parted ways. It's still as profane as ever, painting the entire superhero population with the same thick brush. This may be a corner of the industry that doesn't get a lot of attention, but naturally that doesn't mean it's not out there. Seems like every way of life has a seedy, rebellious underbelly, so why would superheroing be an exception? It's not necessarily The Boys's subject matter that gets stuck in my craw so much as it is its reluctance to explore any other areas of that niche. As I said, it's been a year since I took a peek at this series, but the subject matter hasn't changed one iota. They're still investigating a squad of sex-crazed frat boys with superhuman abilities, only the names and faces have been switched out. Forward progress? What's that?

Of course, if we've resigned ourselves to the book's fate and surrendered to its redundant subject matter, we really couldn't ask for a more appropriate artist than Darick Robertson. His loose, shadowy, humor-injected style bathes its readers in the kind of dirty atmosphere that I'd expect in such environs. The world isn't a clean, shiny place as it is, and its darkest corners can get pretty filthy, which is where Robertson feels the most at ease. He's clearly having a hell of a time with the series, illustrating the kind of sick, twisted situations he missed during his time on Nightcrawler and New Warriors. An occasionally rushed panel or two asides, this is Darick Robertson doing what he does best.

Some leopards don't change their spots, and The Boys is precisely that kind of beast. If you've been impressed by Garth Ennis's penchant for gross out humor and envelope-pushing imagination, you'll feel right at home here. It's Ennis unleashed from cover to cover, but this car doesn't have more than one gear. If that's your bag, The Boys is a dream come true. If you're hungry for a bit more substance from your reading material, give it a skip.

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

Nova #18

If it's not one interstellar invasion, it's another. Mere months after helping the Kree fight off the invading Phalanx in Annihilation, current Nova Corps representative Richard Rider has fallen face-first into the Skrull's sudden assault on Earth. When the green skins target Project PEGASUS, the government research facility that just so happens to employ Richard's intellectual brother Robbie, Nova's battleground seems to have been chosen for him. And, as fate would have it, he's got some help – Darkhawk and Quasar have already taken a stand in that very same facility. But wait… didn't Quasar bite the bullet years ago? Well, you know what they say about death in comics.

This month's issue feels like it's out of place with the identity that the series had worked to define in its seventeen previous issues. Much of that can probably be attributed to Nova's demotion to secondary status in favor of an ensemble cast. To an extent that's understandable, as there isn't a lot of appeal to a giant battle scene with what must be a thousand villains and just one hero, but the writers' unfamiliarity with the new faces is patently obvious. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have worked hard to turn Nova himself into a well-rounded, likeable, intelligent lead character but they've had no such luxury with Darkhawk and Quasar. By comparison, the new faces are mere caricatures and don't add anything to the book beyond their additional muscle. Their dialog is thin and generic, and I just couldn't connect emotionally with them. Here's hoping their presence in the series is short-lived.

Wellinton Alves and Geraldo Borges deliver solid visuals throughout this month, despite the complexity of their mission. It's no easy task to illustrate a large-scale battle scene, particularly one with two specific points of narration, but the Nova duo manages to do so in style. Darkhawk and Nova's ongoing brawl with a platoon of Super Skrulls, the focus of the majority of this issue, manages to remain legible while also dealing out a considerable amount of detail. It carries the impressive magnitude that such a large-scale battlefield demands, while also retaining the simplicity and character that typifies the art team's combined efforts. George Perez, take note: you may finally have company in this regard.

Despite the influx of new faces, Nova can still be an entertaining read. While the entirety of this issue is spent in battle, that doesn't come at the expense of characterization or dialog. In fact, more the opposite; the heroes spend almost ever moment they're engaged with the enemy yakking it up with each other, catching up on old times. To an extent, that marginalizes the importance of their situation, but the Skrull threat is so constantly upgraded that it manages to balance out in the end. While Darkhawk and Quasar didn't do much for me as focal points this month, their presence and subsequent stumbling under the spotlight emphasizes just how strong a character Nova himself has become of late. And if he can ever escape from this endless string of crossovers, maybe he'll get a chance to let the rest of the Marvel Universe in on that secret. Flip through it – this month's issue is far from essential reading for dedicated readers, but if you've missed the boat on Nova so far, it provides a fine opportunity to jump on board against a familiar backdrop.

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

Chuck #5

If you own a TV, you've probably seen the ads for the show this series is based on. In Chuck, the story's namesake and lead character, we've got an employee for a major electronics retailer with a deep appreciation for technology. When he catches an e-mail from an old college buddy who landed a job with the CIA, the message fires a whole mess of spy secrets into his brain before deleting itself from his inbox. His gig at Best Buy now a distant memory, Chuck is suddenly trotting around the globe with a small troupe of beautiful killers, serving his country and rescuing its celebrity political candidates. Personally, I've never watched the NBC series, so I may not be the target market here. Or then again, maybe I'm exactly the person they're hoping to attract.

Co-writers Peter Johnson and Zev Borow (co-producer and writer of the Chuck TV series) provide a smooth transition between the Wildstorm mini-series and its small screen cousin. The issue is blessed with a deep, personable cast and an interesting basic premise, but the writers' penchant for one-liners and wise cracking sometimes gets to be a bit much. A well-timed joke to break the tension is one thing, especially when your lead character bows so constantly to the everyman stereotype. But when a series can't go a page and a half without firing out a pun or two, whether the jokes are good or bad, (and this is a mixed bag) it's something else entirely. Johnson and Borow keep the plot moving and the surprises coming, but nothing seems to carry any permanence (one henchman takes a bullet in the face and shouts "OW!" before resuming the chase) and that takes its toll.

Jeremy Haun‘s artwork in this issue is smooth and clean, somewhere Ex Machina's Tony Harris and Civil War's Steve McNiven. Haun owes a great debt to his colorist, Wes Hartman, whose efforts enliven his compositions and add mood and atmosphere where it would otherwise be lacking. Despite Hartman's best efforts, though, the core of this artwork often feels stiff and unnatural, particularly when the spies are fleeing down the side of a mountain aboard a set of snowboards, with a dozen bad guys somehow managing to give chase side-by-side-by-side-by-side. How often do they get the opportunity to practice their downhill slope sniping formations? I've seen some of Haun's other work, and when he can pull it together he shows a lot of potential, but most of this issue is spent wallowing in mediocrity.

There's a fine line between politely asking your readers to suspend their disbelief and bluntly insulting their intelligence, and sadly Chuck lost sight of it long ago. I can buy the story's far-fetched premise, but the sheer number of coincidences and unreasonable situations that lead to the conclusion of this issue stretch my patience beyond the point of no return. With no less than seven gunfights, an evil clone and a fistfight aboard a spiraling personal jet, Chuck reads like an extra-cheesy director's cut of Moonraker. And I don't mean that as a compliment. Skip it; what starts out well enough quickly spirals out of control.

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Superman: New Krypton Special

As the opening volley of “New Krypton,” this annual sized one-shot picks up right where recent events in Action Comics left off. When a revitalized Brainiac made off with the bottled city of Kandor, then shrunk and bottled Metropolis in the same manner, Superman was forced with a tough decision. Naturally, he was going to stomp the villain, but once both cities were back in his possession, could he really return Metropolis to its regular size without offering the same luxury to Kandor? Ultimately, the Man of Tomorrow decided he could not, and appropriately returned it to a respectable size. Which now asks another question: what to do with a hundred thousand native Kryptonians? Oh, and did I mention that in the process, Brainiac also managed to strike an indirect killing blow to ol’ Blue’s adoptive human father, John Kent?

Each member of the Man of Steel’s writing staff has joined forces for this bulky volume: Action Comics author Geoff Johns, Superman scribe James Robinson and Supergirl writer Sterling Gates share collaborative writing duties. Their collective writing is invigorated with good ideas, if a bit scattered and occasionally confusing. The heart of this material, though, is good stuff. Together, they’ve turned Brainiac into a genuinely interesting, challenging foil for Superman, finally expanding his rogue’s gallery beyond Lex Luthor. Every time the bad guy’s in the scene, there’s an unspoken tension that leads us to believe he means business this time, that he can finally make a dent in Clark’s thick armor.

Kent, meanwhile, is both mourning the loss of his adoptive dad and dealing with the sudden existence of a legion of life-sized Kryptonians, each of whom is developing powers to rival his own. I wasn’t sure DC would ever do something with this long-bottled city, let alone the right thing, but this team of writers is handling it excellently and it feels like a landmark event in the big man’s long history. While everything is peachy keen on the Kandor front for the time being, there’s this lingering sense that it won’t last for much longer.

The members of the Superman art team aren’t being left out of the fun this month, either. Regular artists Pete Woods, Gary Frank and Renato Guedes have matched their writers’ contributions by teaming up on the visuals of New Krypton Special. The three do have uniquely individual styles, but share enough similarities to remain compatible under one roof. None really pick up the ball and run with it for any length of time, and they’re each given one or two potentially impressive splash pages apiece to do just that, but they at least manage to keep the story moving and lend identity to both the new Kryptonian city and its residents. This isn’t a gorgeous book, but it’s not an ugly one, either.

The point of this issue is to catch the casual reader’s attention and get them interested in the character’s next big event, and in that regard it’s successful… assuming that market even gives it a chance. The Superman family is blessed with a trio of writers with strong concepts, a good sense of direction and the motivation to get it where it needs to go. New Krypton Special asks plenty of compelling questions, and for once I’m not really sure how it’s all going to pan out. It’s a good start, and it deserves your attention if not your dollar. Borrow it if you can – this isn’t the same old lukewarm, complacent Superman I was expecting.

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

Fear Agent #24

A throwback at heart, Fear Agent is a long-running love letter to the science fiction classics of the genre’s infancy. It spotlights action and adventure above all else, often at the expense of explanation, and asks its readers to suspend their disbelief and overlook the specifics in exchange for a wild ride that doesn’t slow down. Take protagonist Heath Huston’s latest adventure, for example: stranded on a desert planet alongside a slew of cowboy robots, mutant monsters and buxom ladies, Huston narrowly avoided a surprise attempt on his life. Taking a bullet in the process, he limped to the desolate town of Heaven, where his ex-wife just so happened to be making her current residence. Of all the washed-up, backwater podunk towns in the galaxy to stumble into…

Rick Remender’s storytelling this month is much more in line with a western than a space-faring adventure. But while his cast may be wielding more six shooters than lasers, they’ve retained their depth and appeal. Remender doesn’t allow the story to take itself too seriously, though a scene near the end of the issue comes close, and still manages to sneak a sudden fight scene into the middle of what’s otherwise a fairly low key, character-driven episode. Though the writer keeps the cast very small, almost surprisingly so, the story never seems to want for more faces. Like a good film, Fear Agent would rather focus on a handful of developed, recognizable individuals than an armload of also-rans. The plot keeps a steady pace from cover to cover, sets the pieces in place for a future throw-down and delivers on an ambitious range of emotions. My only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.

If you’re familiar with Tony Moore’s work on The Exterminators or The Walking Dead, his contributions to Fear Agent won’t come as much of a surprise. Moore’s quick, concise lines and texture-rich visuals lend the book a flippant personality that fits nicely with the tone of the storytelling. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of taking it in, Tony’s been having so much fun with his work that it quickly becomes infectious. His unconventional renditions of alien creatures are a case in point - refreshingly far from the beaten path, they’re one of the book’s greatest strengths. The evil alien mastermind in this issue doesn’t even have a face! While the writing may ask its readers to turn off their brains and just enjoy the ride, the artwork outright demands it.

Although Fear Agent sets the stage for its adventures by claiming it’s just a joyride, this week’s product shows signs of being much more than that. It’s still going through some growing pains, and not every shift of emotions is a successful one, but the basics are strong and the changes haven’t come at the expense of the book’s identity. This is a series that’s more than willing to take risks with its cast if it makes for an improved story, while still managing to keep hold of its patented sense of humor and eye for wild action. I enjoyed it, and while I don’t think it’s maximizing its potential this month, it’s still worth experiencing. Borrow it from a friend.

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

Echo #7

Having followed Strangers in Paradise for the better part of a decade, right up to its conclusion late last year, I’m fairly familiar with Terry Moore’s work. And while the subject matter of Echo is conceptually very different from what he produced with Strangers, its execution is very, very similar. After doing just about everything he could with Katchoo, Francine and friends, Moore is clearly hungry to flex different muscles here. Instead of drama centered on a friendship that can’t tell if it wants to become something more, Echo is more along the lines of a low budget, high concept science fiction movie. I can’t imagine a larger gap between genres.

But while their subject matter may be about as different as they come, the little spots of individuality and charm that shone throughout Strangers in Paradise are also evident during Echo. The new series features the same slow pace and casual dialog that made its predecessor what it was, the tone of the story is very familiar. This is still excellent storytelling, if a bit more sluggish than I’d prefer, but because it’s so close in flavor to what he’d accomplished in the past, I don’t think it provides the kind of clean break and fresh start that Moore (or maybe this reader) was searching for.

There are few in the field who can fill out a cast quite like Terry Moore, and Echo provides further proof towards that case. In Julie, a photographer in the wrong place at the right time, he’s crafted another strong female lead. At work in the desert, Julie inadvertently witnessed the failed test-run of a government funded battle suit, climaxing in a violent explosion that tore the outfit and its pilot into a million pieces. When the shrapnel showers Julie and her truck, it converts to a liquid and adheres to anything it comes into contact with. Despite her best efforts, she can’t scrub the stuff from her skin, and now that the feds know who she is, the chase is on. Julie, her companions, the agents in search of her and everyone in between benefit tremendously from Moore’s skills in this regard. We’ve only just been introduced, but already I know plenty about each of them.

Echo’s artwork is, again, a direct continuation of what was going on in Strangers when it reached its conclusion. When he rewards himself with an active plot and a compelling story to tell, Terry is one of the best at visual storytelling. He benefits from playing dual roles as writer and artist, showing restraint with his narration when a solid panel or two is all the situation requires, and for the most part that helps keep the issue moving at a fairly decent pace. There isn’t a lot of action during this month’s story, but outside of a few dull conversational panels near its conclusion, the artwork does a fine job of keeping its readers engaged.

Echo isn’t the over-arching, years long saga that Strangers was. While its cast has a similar amount of depth, they don’t connect with the readers like the crew of Moore’s previous series did, and the new sci-fi backdrop hasn’t done enough to lift the series up so it can stand on its own. It feels more like a gimmick, something to keep the story from growing too reliant upon the character-driven dialog, and not the focal point that I expected it to be. Maybe that changes as the series picks up speed, but until then I’m going to remain hesitant. Borrow this, it’s good stuff but there’s something missing.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Detective Comics #849

Batman is angrily looking for Hush. Seeing as how more conventional sources have proven unreliable, he's shifted his focus to the inmates of Arkham Asylum. And while it's always a risky proposition to trust the word of a mental patient, let alone one who's imprisonment is a direct result of your own intervention, Bats has his ways of extracting the god's honest truth from the unlikeliest of subjects when he's motivated. Tonight? Yeah, he looks fairly inspired.

Under writer Paul Dini's watch, the latest arc of Detective Comics has enjoyed a variety of twists, turns and glances in unexpected directions. His take on Hush, the caped crusader's latest big-name nemesis, is intelligent if a bit erratic, which stays in line with the rest of his storytelling. Dini will reel you in with a great setup, only to suddenly change directions in favor of something that, while unexpected, doesn't always make a lot of sense. For example, last month Hush wounded Batman by perilously injuring Catwoman, actually removing her heart and keeping her alive with the aid of a complicated bit of machinery. I love the idea of getting into Bruce's head by striking those he's grown unexpectedly close to, but for me the whole heart removal thing throws the believability of the entire storyline into question.

I think Dini had many of the same reservations, because the last half of this issue is spent abruptly explaining in detail how a machine like this would actually work. The problem is, the feasibility of actually doing this isn't what's been bothering me… it's the question of where Hush found the time, how he managed to sneak up on Selina and how she's going to immediately return to form afterwards.

Dustin Nguyen's sharp-edged, simplistic artwork accompanies Dini's writing this month. His style, exaggerated and manga-inspired, has its roots set in the right place but isn't yet a complete package. His layouts and storytelling are strong, particularly when he's focusing on an action scene, but Dustin struggles to keep the reader's attention during slower, dialog-focused pages. While the two are stylistically about as similar as a grapefruit and a Honda, Nguyen often shows the influence of classic Batman artist Kelley Jones in the shadowy mood and horror-tinted grimness of many of this issue's characters and locales. In broad daylight, the denizens of Gotham are light, airy and handsome, but when the sun goes down and shadows creep into their faces, they each display a dark, chilling side that's usually kept hidden.

Reading this issue is like browsing Da Vinci's sketchbook – some of the ideas Paul Dini presents are outstanding, but they're mixed up with dozens of other concepts that aren't nearly as compelling. His jolting changes of direction and strange decisions make this story difficult to follow, its characters' true motivations impossible to grasp. Flip through it to appreciate the impressive details of Hush's master plan, but don't think too much about the odd route he's taken to get there. Your brain might pop.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.5

100 Bullets #96

100 Bullets is nearing its conclusion, and for longtime collaborators Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, that means it's time to stop setting up the dominos and sit back to watch them all fall down. What started as a simple premise (one gun, one hundred bullets, no questions asked) has slowly ballooned into a lengthy examination of who and what it takes behind the scenes to piece together such an arrangement. But while all of the major players may have been on the same side in the past, years of wheelings, dealings and quiet backstabbings have taken their toll. As the toy soldiers choose their sides, it's quickly become obvious that not everyone will survive to see how it all plays out.

The series has spent so much time on introductions and backgrounds that it's a bit overwhelming to see it all coming to fruition. Its cast, a colorful arrangement of hitmen, madmen, businessmen and crime lords, has benefited from that slow pace and careful attention to detail. Azzarello has spent so much time and effort sculpting these personalities that the ship may be steering itself at this point. He need only provide the final destination, and the personalities he's populated the series with can take care of the rest.

Having said that, I do think the series struggles with the size and depth of its cast. There are so many names and faces within these pages, some of whom we haven't seen in years, that it's become hard to keep track of whose allegiances lie where and who's still breathing. With the exception of a few key characters, I couldn't tell you the names that go along with half of these faces, let alone the details of their background, because it's been literally years since their stories were told. I've followed this series since issue number ten, and while it's remained astonishingly consistent throughout its run, (both in terms of artwork and writing) each month I'm left with the sneaking suspicion that I've missed something important. Azzarello constantly refers to minutiae that were last covered ages ago, and while that attention to detail is commendable, I've a hunch it's also lost on the vast majority of the book's readers. Maybe I should re-read the entire series before the big conclusion in issue 100.

Series co-creator Eduardo Risso is still working the gears in the art department, and I wouldn't have it any other way. With the exception of issue 50, which featured a variety of guest artists, Risso has been with 100 Bullets every step of the way. His shadowy, noir-influenced style is as precise a match for this style of saga as I can imagine, and while his work has struggled ever so slightly under a recently increased workload, his familiarity with the cast more than makes up for it. When he's on his game, Risso is one of the top visual storytellers in the industry. Like Mike Mignola, he can speak volumes with a single line, while many of his contemporaries struggle to do the same with an abundance of painstaking details and complicated shading. Even when he's not at full strength, the personality and cinematic framing of Risso's work is worth the price of admission.

If you're a new reader, looking to climb on board in time for the final episode, don't bother. This series isn't newb-friendly, and often isn't even accommodating to die-hards. Azzarello's dialog remains fascinatingly lifelike and he's taking some major risks with his series near its end, but complicated arcs and the sharp curves the current storyline is navigating make the book difficult to pick up and read. If you can catch up quickly and keep the finer points of the saga in your short-term memory, you might find this to be one of the best stories the medium has ever enjoyed. Otherwise, it merely comes off as a great atmosphere piece that doesn't always make a lot of sense. Borrow it and immerse yourself. The rewards are worth the risks.

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

Monday, October 13, 2008

Army@Love: The Art of War #3

It's about time someone turned the brutal eye of satire onto America's current overseas expeditions, and with Army@Love, comics legend Rick Veitch has done just that. While his renditions of the mainstream media, the mental and physical state of our troops and the non-stop corporate sponsorships that fill our collective subconscious may initially seem cartoony and exaggerated, deeper inspection reveals that in reality they're startlingly close to the truth. I suppose there'd be no place for lampoons without an outrageous, frightening reality to provide nourishment.

Not to say this is an entirely accurate mirror of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veitch provides plenty of original material, both to keep his readers engaged and to ensure the storyline keeps moving without spiraling off into an endless loop of poking and prodding at the shortcomings of America's current foreign policy. Though he's certainly provided sufficient material to do just that.

Army@Love's cast is constantly distracted by their interests off the battlefield. While the troops on the ground are more interested in getting their rocks off than completing their initiatives, their superior is too fascinated by a lock of Frank Sinatra's hair to take notice. Nobody has an interest in actually doing what they were sent there for, and with money from taxpayers and corporate sponsors continuing to pour in, who can blame them?

Concept is never an area where Veitch has struggled in the past. The man's ideas have always been astonishingly original and divinely rich - his imagination is unrivaled and it's always a pleasure to absorb another of his mind dumps. The trouble I've always had with his work is with actually sitting down and getting through it. Rare Bit Fiends is some of my all-time favorite material, but it's not something I can sit down and read over and over again. His run on Swamp Thing is legendary, with good reason, but it too is far from an easy read. Same story with Army@Love, this month in particular. We're following so many different faces, crossing so many lines of communication, that I'd need a encyclopedia-sized guidebook to find my way from cover to cover. It's a great adventure, but the constant leaps between different narratives are dizzying.

New readers beware: unless you've been keeping up from the beginning this book will lose you within five pages. Longtime followers of Rick Veitch's other work will probably fare a bit better, but even they might want to give some thought to starting with the first issue of the series. If you can get into it this is downright brilliant, something that's badly needed with the current state of affairs in America. But that's one big "if." Borrow this and see if you can get through it. It's supremely rewarding if you can.

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

Justice League of America #25

It's been a tricky time for the Justice League of late: slowly, surely, each member has begun demonstrating alterations and limitations in the use of their powers. As it turns out, the source of the League's problems is an African spider god, Kwaku Anansi, who's been meddling with their histories from within Vixen's power-granting Tantu Totem. I suppose that's usually the problem with animal-shaped trickster deities residing in a piece of jewelry: there isn't much to do in there besides fool around with the outside world.

I suppose it was only a matter of time, but seeing the League's ranks swell to once again include a large collection of B-List characters is somewhat disheartening. When Grant Morrison launched JLA a decade ago with the goal of returning the team to its glory days, the first matter of business was limiting the roster to the publisher's big guns. Today, the shortcomings of that format are a bit more obvious – it's tough to coordinate a monthly team-based book with dozens of ongoing solo titles without treading water and losing a great amount of pertinence. But while there wasn't a lot of room for serious change from within in the old format, I found it hard to get excited about the new adventures of Vixen, Black Lightning, Hawkgirl and Red Arrow. While they're balanced to an extent by the presence of Green Lantern, Batman and the Flash, the real focus of the storytelling is on these lesser-known characters, and that's disappointing.

To his credit, author Dwayne McDuffie tries to make the best of the situation. The time he spends with many of these also-rans reveals a good collection of distinct personalities, although there isn't a lot of conflict brewing from within the team's ranks. While it's nice that this diverse group is so chummy and content, constantly kidding around with each other, in the end that also makes them quite vanilla. It may be the DC way for their premiere super team to constantly share warm handshakes and smiles, which they seem to do this month for more pages than they spend confronting their enemies, but that's not what I'd call entertaining reading.

An entire platoon of artists have dogpiled on this month's issue, including but not necessarily limited to Ed Benes, Doug Mahnke, Darick Robertson, Rob Stull, Ian Churchill and Ivan Reis. While most of the illustrators have similar styles that easily gel with one another, Robertson's distinctive technique is the exception. His thick lines, exaggerated expressions and sharp focus on contrast sticks out like a sore thumb, and while his work can be fantastic in the right circumstances, they don't include a straightforward superhero book. The former Transmetropolitan artist's duties are fairly brief, however, and the rest of the issue looks and feels just about right.

Justice League of America #25 brings an awful lot of posturing and hot air, but it stops short of actually delivering much value. The team's confrontation with Kwaku results in a ten-page monologue so long winded, I barely made it through in one sitting. I'd expect some sort of resolution in a double-sized anniversary issue such as this one, but it spends so much time on dialog that I guess the conclusion will have to wait for another month. Skip it – despite a few solid character-driven conversations early on, this issue is inconsequential and tedious.

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

War Heroes #2

There’s been a lot of hype around this book, with Mark Millar announcing that it was a good indication of what he’d wanted to do with 5. But while I can see some very subtle connections to the Ultimate line’s premiere superteam, the similarities stop after the first paragraph. In a world where superpowers are available in the form of an easy-to-swallow gel cap tablet, it should come as no surprise that the military was quick to claim the technology for themselves. The US Army is a different place now that men and women can lift tanks, blast fireworks from their fingertips and sail through the air. But while their abilities may have been augmented, at the end of the day the armed forces still need their soldiers to show discipline, and it’s that hardcore boot camp atmosphere, not the battlefield itself, where War Heroes has dedicated its focus.

Mark Millar’s writing usually walks a thin line between groundbreaking originality and excessive vulgarity. It’s only natural, I guess, that sometimes pushing the boundaries of good taste sometimes carries a reward and sometimes comes at a cost. This series is, largely, the price without the benefits. It’s Millar both at his creative best and his raunchy worst, amusing himself with crude impropriety and crazy ideas, and hey, if his readers are cool with that, they’re welcome to climb aboard and enjoy the ride. This issue is composed so loosely, it descends into bad language and uncensored activity so quickly, that it really feels like he’s just writing it to entertain himself.

So it shouldn’t be unexpected that I have to warn you: War Heroes #2 surprises its readers with an enormous, floppy cock around the middle of the issue. It’s so completely surprising and totally out of left field, even after all that had come before, that it’s hard to focus on the story afterwards, of which there still isn’t much. One moment we’re watching just another public display of super powers, the next… two panels of John Holmes. So, ah, don’t leave this lying around where your little bro, sis or anyone else you love or respect will find it, and if you’re going to have a problem with a big honkin’ manstick in your reading material, you may want to turn away. Kudos to Tony Harris for the taint’s-eye camera angle he employs in the second panel, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one before.

As an avid reader of Ex Machina, (though recently I’ve given thought to dropping it) I’m fairly familiar with the artwork of Tony Harris. When he’s on, there’s nobody else in the industry quite like him. Harris gives his characters a level of depth, dimension and substance that I really enjoy, a certain roundness that grounds his work in real life. But when he isn’t giving it his all, as was the case in Spider-Man: With Great Power, it really shows. Regrettably, it’s the latter that defines his work in War Heroes. Harris leaves backdrops severely under detailed, struggles with consistent proportions and even seems to reuse a few character designs from some of his other work. While the artist can be counted on for a couple of really impressive visuals in this issue, particularly those involving military vehicles, at large it’s among his weakest efforts.

Were it backed by a solid foundation, I could overlook the excesses Mark Millar seems to enjoy dwelling on between War Heroes’ covers, but it’s not. It’s a potentially great idea that probably didn’t flesh out as well as he’d imagined, padded out to fill a six issue series with so much explicit material Larry Flynt might blush. If it’s going to help tell a story, if it’s necessary, even if it’s a good punchline, I’ve got no problem with a cock or two poking their heads out in the middle of my reading material. When it’s just the latest in a series of segments meant to show you how outrageous the series is and little else, I’d rather look at something else. Skip this if you want substance. On the other hand, if you’re after something with shock value alone, nothing else can even compare.

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

Sub-Mariner: The Depths #2

As a lifelong debunker of all things mythical, fantastic or otherwise unbelievable, Dr. Randolph Stein has heard his fair share of tall tales. Thus far, he’s been successful enough at proving their inaccuracy that he’s become widely accepted as one of the world’s leading experts. So it’s only natural that when a deep sea voyage in search of the fabled city of Atlantis goes missing, Stein is the first man to sign up for the next dive into those same deep waters. But when the state-of-the-art submarine he’s aboard starts to experience unexplained phenomena, the professor decides to test the certainty of his beliefs by climbing into a one-man pod and personally inspecting the dark walls of seawater outside.

It isn’t often that a mainstream comic inspires the kind of awe and wonder that must have been prevalent during the birth of the superhero genre. These days, we’ve become so accustomed to the very idea of a man with wings or a hero with the ability to create fire from thin air that such acts have lost their luster to a certain extent. How does a writer capture his audience’s imagination when such spectacular feats have become so commonplace, they inspire more yawns than gasps?

The Depths author Peter Milligan’s answer is simple in concept, but infallible in execution: limit our exposure. When something as ridiculous as an undersea monster has been seen so frequently that it’s no longer a shock or a surprise to the reader, it loses its value. In centering this story on the overly cynical Dr. Stein, Milligan has given the series a flavor that has more in common with the daily news than its illustrated contemporaries. Stein speaks as I’d imagine you or I would when confronted by such baseless superstition in the real world, and the effect is disarming. It takes us out of the typical comic book mindset, convinces us this is a different form of entertainment, and only then introduces that sense of the unknown.

Esad Ribic provides gorgeous painted artwork that’s different enough from his contemporaries to finish driving that point home. His work doesn’t aim for precise realism, a trap that snares many painters within a comic’s format. Instead, he focuses on toeing the fine line between cartoony exaggeration and grounded realism. His characters are vividly lifelike, but simplified enough to maintain the tone of the story. Ribic’s style is perfectly suited for a tale set entirely underwater, and he makes the most of it. Combining unique lighting opportunities with a cool, calming color palette, he immediately convinces us that we’re aboard the submarine right alongside the doctor and its crew. The scenes that take place alone in the abyss are mesmerizing, overflowing with blacks and deep blues. From cover to cover, Ribic concentrates on solid storytelling and fills the page with soft, ethereal waves of color. He’s a great find, and I can’t wait to find out what he’s working on next.

In this series, Namor is less the wing-footed egomaniac that we all know, and more the spooky, unexpected blur of motion in the corner of our peripheral vision. He appears for all of one panel, and even then only as a silhouette, but the effect he has on the nearby crew tells us everything we need to know. Sub-Mariner: The Depths needs all but two pages to capture its readers’ hearts, minds and imaginations. It’s extraordinary, a welcome return to the very basics of the medium, and something everyone can enjoy. Buy it and share it with your friends. Stories like this one are what comics should be all about.

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

Conan the Cimmerian #3

With the conclusion of Dark Horse’s first Conan series after issue #50 earlier this year, Conan the Cimmerian takes up the mantle as the publisher’s new ongoing series for the legendary character. For the pop culture challenged, Conan is a legendary wanderer, a reaver who walks the land with sword in tow, ready, willing and able to throw down should the opportunity present itself. There’s really little else in the way of back story here – all you need to know is Conan is here, he knows his way around a battleground, and you should probably get out of his way if he looks at you funny.

One of my biggest problems with period pieces set in the dark ages, such as this one, is the tireless Olde English that usually goes hand in hand with both the narration and the dialog. I’ve never been much for an excess of “thous” and “arts,” and find that such strict dedication to an older way of writing does nothing but test my patience. Mercifully, that’s an opinion that Cimmerian author Timothy Truman seems to share. In his script, Conan’s players speak in a much more familiar, conversational style. They aren’t dictating prim and proper literary masterpieces with each statement, and that makes actually hearing what they have to say much, much easier. Naturally, he’ll still slip in a period-specific phrase or two to remind his readers of where and when the story takes place, but he’s not bluntly beating them over the head with it in every single word balloon.

Truman seems to have a good handle on what you’d expect from an issue of Conan, too. He doesn’t waste a lot of time with back stories or personality quirks when everybody knows that most of these new faces will probably be cut in half before the issue’s through. He gives us the barest of introductions; just enough to differentiate one face from another, and then throws us right into battle. The issue has just enough depth to feel like it means something, and more than enough action to satiate your hunger for swordplay.

Tomas Giorello and Richard Corben team to bring some outstanding original artwork to the classic character. The rough, grainy texture that fills most of Giorello’s work provides a rich, warm quality to both the characters and the surrounding landscapes. His layouts seem to float between the sharp edges and stark contrast of fully inked artwork and the more lush, free-flowing nature of the original pencils. Perhaps most impressively, Giorello’s work is delivered with a conscious limitation of detail. That focus on storytelling and simplicity without sacrificing quality immediately reminded me of the Kubert family. His work carries their same knack for strong characterization, easy legibility and flowing motion, all the while resisting the urge to become lost in an excess of detail. It’s just right.

Corben’s artwork isn’t quite as good, but still follows many of those same guidelines. Its detail is kept in check, and the artist’s similar focus on fine storytelling and easy legibility makes the transition between styles an easy one. Corben’s work lacks the sensitive touch that Giorello brings to the table, but his hard edges and dense pointillism provide an excellent counterpoint.

I wasn’t expecting much here, since I’ve traditionally had little time for the character, so I was surprised to find that the series is actually pretty entertaining. It avoids many of the stereotypical pitfalls that had led me to write the character off in the first place, and while it isn’t the most involved book I’ve read all month, it’s not meant to be. Conan brings a fine mix of adventure and action, and has never been easier to pick up and read. Borrow it and keep an eye on it going forward.

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

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: The Laughing Corpse – Book One

What good is our legal system if it doesn’t apply to each member of the population? More specifically, why have the living dead been exempt from any and all legal persecution up to this point? That’s the question the city of St. Louis was asking itself when it appointed Anita Blake to the shiny new position of vampire executioner. Hey, if these night walkers can’t observe regular business hours and refuse to defend themselves in a court of law, we as a society have no choice but to hunt them down in the streets, to speak to them in the only language they seem to understand. Am I right?

Jess Rufner’s adaptation of a Laurell K. Hamilton novel provides an unexpected and awkward blend of genres. Having never read the original series, this marks the first time I’ve been privy to a story that mixes courtroom drama with back-alley horror, hard-boiled action and crime fiction. It’s constantly struggling with this identity crisis, and while the frequently shifting mood provides a lot of variety, it can also be difficult to navigate. This issue can’t settle down to tell one central storyline, so it scatters its thoughts across a handful of side-plots and tries to pass it off as one single, cohesive arc.

For a series that’s based on a popular series of novels, this isn’t even all that well written. The issue doesn’t make it through its first sentence before slipping over a typo, and outside of Anita herself, the characterization is extremely shallow. The book’s dialog is another stumbling block – once again with the exception of Anita herself, everyone speaks in perfectly proper, stiflingly straightforward English. On one hand, it makes the lead character seem much more down to earth and relatable than everyone she shares the page with. On the other, the rest of the cast seems to have been scripted by third graders. I couldn’t name two people I’ve ever met who speak this rigidly, but Anita knows a whole roomful.

Ron Lim provides smooth, serviceable artwork that’s stylish but not entirely fitting. He gives each member of the cast an original look and feel, which is easier said than done when you’re dealing with this many attorneys. Anita doesn’t have a very broad range of facial expressions (she’s either smiling ironically or grimacing) but she at least maintains an air of intelligence, which is crucial to the story. Since every panel from cover to cover is narrated, typical of a novel-to-comic translation, Lim is never really given a moment to cut loose and impress us. What he’s left to illustrate instead is often dry, straightforward and visually uninteresting. He doesn’t do as much as he could to improve the situation.

For a book featuring a smart protagonist, a trio of wildly different, colorful situations and a bloody murder scene, this really wasn’t all that exciting. Sometimes what works in type doesn’t always translate to an illustrated work, and I fear that’s the case here. Because Anita, our eyes and ears into this world, is always kept strong, solemn and physically unresponsive, it’s tough to develop a reaction of our own to the story. Whether she’s trying on a new dress or walking in on a dismembered corpse, Blake wears the same businesslike demeanor, and her readers follow suit. There’s a lot going on here, but I couldn’t get excited about any of it. This is worth a flip through at best.

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

Monday, September 22, 2008

Deadpool #2

It hasn't even been one month since the launch of Deadpool's own self-titled monthly series, and already the Crimson Merc has stirred things up significantly. Attending a summer baseball game at the very moment the Skrulls unleashed their terran invasion, (undercover as a team mascot, naturally) Wade Wilson single-handedly took down an entire unit of green skins. But when it came time to deliver the deathblow, he hesitated… and then defected. Now he's aboard the mothership, yakking it up with the folks in charge, while the Earth burns beneath them.

An introduction to a very wary Skrull empire provides Deadpool with all the excuse he needs to share the story of his origin, which is thankfully kept quite simple. When you can whittle the very core of a character down to four easy-to-digest pages, that either means his story has been streamlined to perfection or he's a very shallow individual. Writer Daniel Way leaves little doubt in his reader's minds - it's the former. While retelling Deadpool's origins so early in the series may seem a bit excessive, Way ties it into his relationship with the Skrulls admirably. Although his new bosses are suspicious of his intentions at first, by the time he's finished relaying his tales of woe and explaining how his unique set of abilities can aid the empire, Wilson has the entire Skrull empire drinking his Kool-Aid. Wade is such a personable, fast-talking, wheelin', dealin' SOB that it's easy to root for him, even when he's working against humanity's best interests.

I think what's most impressive about this issue is the delicate balance it maintains between comedy and action, two genres that don't always mix well. Many of Wilson's puns are either ignored or written off as cultural misunderstanding by the Skrulls tasked with analyzing his threat level, which means the aliens play a great straight man. They also keep the narrative moving forward when Deadpool would have otherwise spent most of the issue goofing around and amusing himself. It's a shame this invasion has to end at some point, because ‘Pool and the Skrulls make for a better combination than Wilson ever enjoyed in Cable and Deadpool. Never underestimate the value of a creature that can't tell when it's being made fun of.

Paco Medina is given plenty of toys to play around with in his artwork this month, and he capitalizes on almost every occasion. His work, a nice blend of Ed McGuinness's substance, Mark Bagley's action and Travis Charest's gorgeous posturing, brings a lot of personality to the page and never relents. Medina always brings a light visual humor of his own to the proceedings, whether it's in the body language of a frustrated Skrull with a speaking part or something subtle that's going on in the background. Many of Daniel Way's jokes would have fallen flat in the hands of a less-skilled artist, but Medina not only enables them to connect, he enhances them in his own way. He delivers great action scenes, spices up the conversational scenes and keeps the whole package easy to read and exciting to navigate. Thumbs up.

It's rare that a character who's supposed to be funny actually accomplishes that feat, but the current iteration of Deadpool hits the mark with surprising accuracy. This month's issue is an absolute joyride, fun and games from the very get-go, and while that kind of story never really seems to accomplish much of anything, this is an exception. It's a rare mix of raw entertainment, genuine substance and timely relevance, not to mention something you really ought to see for yourself. Buy it. It's a blast.

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