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