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