Monday, December 21, 2009

Gen13 #33

There’s a natural rivalry brewing between the members of Gen13 and their apparent successors, Gen14. Only natural that the younger squad would be in a hurry to take over, while their predecessors would take offense to being replaced before they’re ready. After coming to an uneasy understanding, uniting to confront their would-be masters in the US Military and making a long journey to the city of Tranquility in the hopes of finding kindred spirits, the teams were met by an unsightly surprise. Tranquility, thought to be home to dozens of retired or inactive super-heroes, is no more. In its place is a large, smoldering crater and no signs of a culprit. Subsequently the unlikely allies have agreed to continue their trek across the country, but with no particular destination in mind.

In their first issue under temporary writer Adam Beechen, it doesn’t take long for the tribe to run into some unexpected fireworks. Just one page, in fact, but the ensuing battle doesn’t last long. But much as I’m no fan of brainless action sequences just to kill time, in retrospect I think I’d have preferred it to stretch the length of the entire issue. It certainly would’ve been preferable to the weak attempts at a backstory and limp-wristed character development segments that followed. Beechen does little to differentiate each member of the team besides a brief showcase of his or her powers. He doesn’t reveal anything new about the cast, lend them any depth or give his readers a reason to get interested in learning more about them. They stroll through the issue like husks on a clothesline, floating blandly from one dull, over-explained predicament to the next without so much as a yawn’s worth of personality.

Beechen’s partner in crime, Cruddie Toran, offers his finest J. Scott Campbell impression. At first glance, it’s a decent enough approximation – abundant curvy women with long, thin fingers, unusual paneling and abundant blast lines – but upon closer inspection his shortcomings grow obvious. Not that Campbell’s take on the characters was without its own flaws, but at least at the time it was something original.

Toran’s illustrations take an already-excessive style and amp it up even further, casting aside any concerns for storytelling or organization along the way. They’re a collection of pin-ups that just so happen to contain similar characters in an analogous environment. His work is the embodiment of style over substance, and it’s not even particularly good-looking at that. Think what you will about his work in the mid ‘90s, but at least Campbell could draw two different kinds of characters: long-legged, gangly supermodels and thick, chunky, over-muscled bodybuilders. Toran struggles with the latter, often sketching them in laughably effeminate poses with the same tiny, dainty little legs as their counterparts. And of course, everyone’s muscles remain rigid and fully clenched at all times.

This is the very definition of a throwaway issue. The team bumps into a few Wildstorm regulars, fills the audience in on their whereabouts, diffuses a bomb or two and moves along. There’s nothing memorable about it, nothing inside to change or even define the characters it supposedly embraces. The story does little to excite and the artwork doesn’t help its case. Skip it.

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

X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain #1

Perhaps the most critically admired of Marvel’s first set of Noir titles, the X-Men of the 1930s concluded their first adventure with something of a cliffhanger. In X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain #1, the story resumes shortly thereafter. Presumably powerless (the final verdict on that one is left to us), Xavier’s class in this series consists of a band of sociopaths and delinquents, youths with a black mark on their past who have resorted to outrageous stories of inhuman abilities to attract attention to themselves. It’s an interesting way to turn the mutant mythos on its head, a storytelling twist that surprisingly enough doesn’t result in a change in the themes of the traditional X-Men dialog so much as it merely shifts the reader’s perspective on them

Fred Van Lente, who masterfully penned the first series, resumes his duties in this second chapter, which transplants the team from the detective-flooded streets of New York City to the deepest jungles of Madripoor. But that’s not before he takes the opportunity to initiate new readers with a quick, newsreel-styled recap of the first series. It’s a perfect way to cover the complicated material of that first tale, while also setting the mood and tone of the era he’s emulating. Where that historically-appropriate footage leaves off, Van Lente picks up with the issue’s dialog, which seems to leap right off of those ancient movie screens and onto the page. It’s a cool enough trip down the path of nostalgia that I could almost lose myself in the atmosphere alone.

Eventually Van Lente does trip over a few hurdles, however. Despite the double-sized recap section, much of this story is dependent upon a close understanding of elements from the first series that are left undisclosed to new readers. While his cast’s dialect is responsible for much of the issue’s flavor, he also refuses to shake it up between characters. Some of the effect is bound to get lost if everybody speaks like a hard boiled detective, and that’s precisely the case here. Many times, amid the shadows and identical speaking patterns, it’s tough to isolate who’s doing the talking and who’s merely listening. In the end, are these minor gripes? Sure, but they’re valid ones nonetheless.

Dennis Calero’s artwork, like those of each of his Noir counterparts, is crucial to the success of this series. So much of what makes such a story work depends on the deep shadows, careful compositions and sharp mood set by its visuals that it’s tough to imagine any revival finding much success in the hands of a middle-of-the-road talent. Calero manages the job effectively, employing a style that’s oft reminiscent of Jae Lee in its use of selective lighting and densely layered surroundings. The style is particularly effective in the title’s first fight scene, when Logan and Angel are caught off-guard by an onslaught of shadowy natives. The action is quick and chaotic, bewildering but deliberately and successfully so. My sole qualm with the artwork lies with the decision to offer it in full color. Especially contrasted by the black and white tones of the newsreel footage that opens the issue, the lush palette and full tones seem at odds with its inspirations. The array of color gives this story a more modern flavor that seems counterproductive to the thick atmosphere and weighty mood the line is chasing.

Mark of Cain may not be as captivating as the original series, but it still holds its own as a handsome addition to the Marvel Noir line. It’s effectively written, gorgeously illustrated, and despite a few slips and flaws worthy of a closer look from fans of the first mini-series. New readers may find that their mileage varies. Borrow it.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thor #604

It's really nothing new, but life's been kind of shit for the Norse God of Thunder over the last few months. After returning from hibernation, reviving the lost city of Asgard and its population and helping to defeat the Skrull invasion, Thor was exhausted and ripe for an attack. That's all the invitation his half-brother needed. Acting swiftly, Loki wrested the control and loyalties of Asgard to a more controllable figurehead, transplanted the city limits to Latveria and forged an uneasy alliance with, who else, Doctor Victor Von Doom.

It really wasn't that long ago that this series had built a respectable head of steam. J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel had managed the relaunch in style, giving Thor a new mortal link, Asgard a new locale and the Gods themselves a fresh direction. I still wasn't especially taken with the cast, which is why I merely flirted with the title around its launch and then left it behind, but things seemed to be headed in the right direction. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened up this issue to find that things had all but returned to the stale status quo that had all but doomed the series years ago.

In his first month at the helm, new writer Keiron Gillen has inherited something of a disaster in Thor. Gone are the new directions that had effectively granted the series a face-lift. Thor still employs Donald Blake as his link to the mortal realm, but he's becoming more of a bit player and less original with every passing moment. Asgard loses a bit more of its luster in each panel, becoming less the unique floating city that left Oklahomans in awe two years ago and more the crusty, ancient tomb it had been for decades before. The gods have returned to their distant, haughty old ways. Add to all that another cryptic scheme from Dr. Doom that doesn't really make any sense, and you've got a book that's running - no, sprinting - in the wrong direction.

Like the gassy topping of a turd sundae, the artist of choice for this leg of the series is none other than Billy Tan. To say I have a mild distaste for Tan's artwork would rank among the understatements of the century. He's not single-handedly responsible for my dropping New Avengers from the pull list several months back, but his lumpy musculatures and nasty layouts were among my chief reasons. Since moving to Thor, his rendering has improved moderately, but his compositions remain clunky and messy, infuriating to navigate and terribly confusing at even their finest moments. Tan routinely rides on the coattails of his writers, summoning whatever cheap gimmicks he can muster on the pages that offer built-in visual excitement and adding nothing to those that don't. I don't understand what Marvel sees in this guy: he constantly turns in disappointing work and they keep rewarding him with regular, high profile gigs. I guess, as an evaluator of talent, sometimes when you swing for the fences you wind up striking nothing but air.

Simply put, this issue is a waste. A waste of time, of paper, of momentum, of character... take your choice. It's all of the above and then some. It's exactly what the first issue of the relaunch seemed to go out of its way to step away from, and it's sad to see it's returned there so swiftly. Skip it.

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

Blackest Night: The Flash #1

If you haven't been keeping track, the dead are coming back to life across DC's landscape. That means if you're a hero and you've ever met someone who's since departed this mortal coil, chances are they'll be knocking on your door within the next few days, a brand new ring on their finger and maybe a few basic grooming issues to think over. Although the primary story has finally reached the second act in the primary Blackest Night series, where the heroes have taken the fight to the reanimated mob, this issue takes place before any of that. After all, why move the story forward when you're doing just fine with a lengthy and repetitive introduction?

Of course, longtime Flash readers will be less interested in that than they are the return of scribe Geoff Johns to the land of the scarlet speedster. Johns's return, however brief it may turn out to be, helps this installation of the crossover to stand out more than the majority of its competition. For a character such as the Flash, possessor of a large, colorful gallery of rogues both living and dead, this level of intimate knowledge is crucial. A less experienced writer would have spent the entirety of this issue just getting to know the bit players, while Johns can swoop right in and concentrate on getting their stories straight.

Rather than following the reactive storytelling embraced by the other authors in the Blackest Night tie-ins, this installment takes a more proactive look at the dark events transpiring around the glove. Barry Allen isn't content to sit back and wait for his fallen enemies to seek him out, and Geoff Johns isn't happy to fill the story with random fists punching their way out of the grave every couple pages. Instead, he tells us a bit more about the dead themselves, be it through Barry's memories of his last encounter with the fiend, the gut reactions of the rogues still among the living (who aren't always especially happy to see their former rivals returning from the grave), or the lost memories tied to the corpses themselves. This isn't always a flash-bang action flick, and that alone is enough to make it special.

Himself no stranger to the Flash, pencil-man Scott Kolins brings a style to the issue's artwork that's often eerily similar to that of Andy and Adam Kubert. The reunion with his former collaborator is a good fit for Kolins, who also lends a sense of familiarity and comfort to the proceedings, slipping back into the scene in the same way he would an old pair of gloves. It's a good thing, too, because he reunites with every last of those acquaintances in this issue. Covering almost every corner of the Flash's cast - living, dead, friend, enemy - this tale frequently and rigorously puts Kolins's memory to the test, and he nearly always manages to use it as motivation to produce something excellent.

With so many characters vying for our attention, the issue certainly runs the risk of running short on elbow room. And, on a few occasions, that's the case - but for the large majority of it, Johns and Kolins manage the numbers better than I could've imagined. More importantly, they do so without handicapping the main narration along the way. While it's awfully crowded, this is a solid first issue that unleashes several intriguing new plot lines and offers new peeks behind the mask of several important characters. It's not just for Flash die-hards, casual fans will find plenty to enjoy here, too. It's one of the few tie-ins to really explore the full potential of this crossover. Borrow it.

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

Superman: Secret Origin #3

The origin of Superman is one of comics' most well-known, timeless classics. It's universally appreciated by men, women and children of all ages and nationalities, a true legend of pop culture past, present and future. So it should only seem natural that more than one creative team would want to take a crack at it over the years, right? Perhaps, and on several occasions that return to familiar territory has been backed by a valid reason. John Byrne's The Man of Steel, for instance, cast aside the silliness of the Silver Age and paved the way for a revitalized continuity and a more streamlined universe. It was a case of the right place, the right time and the right man for the job. So where's the pressing need for a similar retelling today?

Geoff Johns makes the case that, while we've seen these events before, we've never seen them from this perspective. Through the innocent, inexperienced eyes of Clark Kent himself, we're promised a rare glimpse at the instincts and motivations that made the big blue boy scout what he is today, blemishes and all. It's a fair point, one that had the potential to really open a few locked doors behind the veneer of DC's most iconic character, but with a few exceptions Johns shies away the kind of introspection I was hoping for. Instead of sharing Kent's thoughts as he sees the skyscrapers of downtown for the first time or the hustle, bustle and selfishness of the pedestrians on its streets, we're merely along for the ride, and that's nothing new.

We're also literally drowning in word balloons. Johns fills several pages with so much dialog, the artwork has to fight just to occupy some cramped gutter space. I can understand the need to introduce and define familiar characters such as Perry White and Lois Lane, to keep them familiar but also add a new layer so the retelling is justified. It's an ambitious goal, and often the only way to reach it is through bold dialog. That's not a problem for this author – his writing is clever and effective, and he especially nails the no-nonsense, "get the story at any cost" attitude that defines Lois. There's just so damn much of it, the plot's never given the chance to gather a head of steam. I admire the quality of his work, but I wish it were more concise.

His artist, Gary Frank, captures the wide-eyed wonder of Clark's arrival in Metropolis with flair. I wasn't always a fan of Frank's work, but over the years he's made a believer out of me. It seems that with each appearance he adds a new layer of detail, discipline and polish to his work, and his take on Superman and company is no exception. Sometimes he does get carried away – as he does with Jimmy Olsen's buck toothed, freckle faced nerdy visage – but given the choice I'd rather see a page with too much character than too little. His more realistic, lifelike tendencies may have been out of place at Marvel, but he's a perfect fit for the DC style.

Secret Origin is a valiant effort, but I didn't find the slight tweaks and irregular glimpses into Clark's psyche urgent enough to necessitate yet another stroll through such familiar terrain. It's only been five years since the last time we dredged up the Super-Origin (in Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright) and that's not enough time to move on. This is strong work, but that's hard to appreciate because its every move is so thoroughly telegraphed. Flip through it, but don't expect much. This Secret Origin runs surprisingly short on secrets.

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

Die Hard: Year One #3

Hey, you remember Die Hard, right? The original, that is. Barefoot on broken glass, bad guys crashing through a cop car with several hundred feet of momentum, yippee kiyay motherfucker, badass Die Hard? Before John McClane was reduced to escorting the "I'm a Mac" guy through computer generated fireballs, ducking under sailing cabs and censoring his own catchphrase to fit within the confines of a PG-13 release. Yeah, that was a pretty good movie. Not sure if it really needed a comic book prequel, exploring the experiences and events that shaped the action hero's life as we saw it in his cinematic exploits, but that's where the overzealous actions of the merchandising department have taken us. Let's try to enjoy the ride.

Howard Chaykin is the man of the hour, writing this special peek back at a time when McClane was still a beat cop; pounding the pavement, trusting in his superiors' orders and looking at the world through much a more naïve pair of eyes. As fate would have it, though, the subtraction of several decades' worth of experience has also robbed our lead of most of his charm and charisma. Or maybe Chaykin's just written him into a terrifically boring role. Either way, the guy we're following throughout this issue has little more than a name and a badge in common with the man at the center of the big screen quadrilogy. He doesn't even look like Bruce Willis.

One thing the movies are particularly good at is getting the setup out of the way quickly and diving straight into the action. Once they've fired off a few rounds, the films loosen up and make with some surprisingly solid moments of character development amidst shattering windows and bursting C-4 packets. In that respect, Year One is once again an estranged member of the family. As the middle act of a five-issue mini series, one might expect something to be happening by this point, but Chaykin seems to have left the gearshift in neutral. When the bad guys finally show their hand in this chapter's closing pages, I was left wondering why it took two and a half issues to get there when the first film worked a very similar plot ten times more efficiently.

Mercifully, Chaykin does not lend his hand to the visuals. I can only imagine the kind of pouty lips and assless chaps that would have adorned McClane's wife-to-be in this issue. As it is, he's written her into wearing one of the more ridiculous outfits in recent memory. Dressed in a head-to-toe spandex outfit patterned after a star in the US flag, complete with knee-high white leather boots, she dons a pea green mumu and is suddenly rendered incognito to the pedestrians surrounding her. Stephen Thompson's renditions of mid-70s New York are serviceable, if not era-appropriate. I particularly liked his effective use of halftone shading, and his style is reminiscent of Frank Cho or Adam Hughes although he's clearly not at their level. There's just nothing here to convince me that this story is set in 1976, rather than the present day, and the cast's lackadaisical body language and facial expressions seem to imply they're just as disinterested in this plot as I am.

This comes across as a completely unrelated story that was merely repurposed and repackaged to take advantage of the Die Hard property, and not a very good one at that. Chaykin's cast moves and acts like a flock of robots, the villains' master plan doesn't make any sense, McClane doesn't have a reason to be there, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for the victims at the heart of the matter. Fans and critics alike will have no reason to rejoice this one. Skip it.

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #612

Ana Kraven, daughter of the infamous hunter of the same surname, has been licking her wounds and preparing her next onslaught for the better part of a year. After her full-on initial assault on Spider-Man resulted in an undesirable outcome, she's taken a more cautious, calculated approach in her follow-up. Laying low, striking unexpectedly at several of Spidey's past acquaintances, Ana's been slowly pooling power and wisdom, not to mention allies. And now, with the imminent return of four of the webhead's more prominent rogues, her patience may be on the verge of paying off. If you can't take out Spider-Man at full strength, why not wait until he's completely drained before having another go?

This is the first installment of the much-ballyhooed "Gauntlet" storyline that's promised to reinvent several of the hero's classic foes, but like the young Kraven, it's not in a big rush to get right to the heart of the matter. Writer Mark Waid sets a pace this month and sticks with it, donating the entire issue to an inspection and reassessment of Max Dillon, better known as Electro.

Waid aims to make the character less of a laughingstock and more of a sympathetic figure, with mixed success. When his introspections are on a personal level, the writer's work is at its strongest. As the tormented loner, desperate to feel another's touch or just go back to the simple life he enjoyed before he became Electro, Dillon seems genuinely relatable, his frantic desperation often misinterpreted by the good guys as simple, selfish villainy. That's the kind of angle that could really work for this kind of a story, but Waid doesn't leave it there. Turning his attention to more topical subjects, he ties Max's present financial struggles in with the rash of investment fraud stories populating the real headlines. Where the new glimpse at the character's mentality was appropriate and effective, the attempt to turn him into a folk hero, ranting against government corruption and corporate greed from the rooftops, is more of a reach. It feels gimmicky and unnecessary, and seems like something we'll be rolling our eyes at once it's republished in trade format.

If you're not familiar with Paul Azaceta's previous work in Captain Marvel or Daredevil, picture a blend of Tim Sale, Jack Kirby and Mike Mignola. Usually I'm wary of this kind of over-simplified artwork when it comes to superheroes, especially ones with a wardrobe as bright as Spider-Man's. Less linework means more space for a glaring, primary-heavy color palette and the accompanying eyesores that always seem to follow. Some artists skirt the issue by bathing the page in deep shadow, but that never really feels like a good fit for the clean-cut Peter Parker. Azaceta manages to sidestep the potential pitfall without resorting to such desperate measures. I'm not sure if it's his knack for dynamic posturing, an effective eye for silhouette or a careful handle on composition, but he comes out of this episode smelling like roses. Colorist Dave Stewart certainly lends a big hand, using soft, suitable secondary colors in the background to offset the bright shades I feared in Spidey and Electro's outfits and ensure the focus remains on the artwork itself rather than the crazy tones adorning its subjects.

As opening volleys go, this was lacking a lot of power. It didn't feel like the first chapter of one of Spider-Man's greatest challenges so much as it did another day at the office, and that's both a good thing and a bad thing. It's less intimidating than the epic, tide-turning crossovers that have dominated Marvel's publishing schedule for the last few years, but it's also missing a sense of permanence. Maybe that will change as things play out. Despite a few weak attempts at social commentary, at its heart this is still an entertaining distraction. Waid shouldn't be hosting his own talk show any time soon, but he can still write a good comic book. Borrow it from a friend.

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

Outsiders #24

Those of us old enough to remember the era when DC's Teen Titans was a genuine rival in popularity for Marvel's mighty X-Men franchise will no doubt recall the story of Terra Markov. The former Titan, who sold out her teammates in a partnership with Deathstroke and ultimately paid for it with her life, has risen from the grave wearing a black ring and sought out her brother, the current Outsider named Geo-Force. So has death's cool embrace calmed her erstwhile spirit, or is she the same traitorous scamp as a zombie?

This is the kind of thing I've always had trouble coming to terms with about DC's classic cast of characters. They've always seemed so quick to forgive, forgetting a lifetime of betrayal when confronted with just a modicum of questionable remorse. But as fate would have it, it seems that such tendencies annoy this issue's writer, Peter J. Tomasi, just as much as they've bugged me. Does Terra meet a completely hostile reception upon her arrival to the Outsiders' HQ? Nope. In fact, her brother goes out of his way to embrace that longstanding stereotype, welcoming her with open arms and immediately taking everything she says at face value. The rest of the squad, however, appears less willing to buy into her grand story of retribution at the moment of reanimation.

Not that Terra doesn't make a convincing argument. She tugs away at sensitive heart strings, begs her brother to save his lost sister's soul, to the point that even the most unforgiving reader might find a hint of promise in her words. But despite her knack for saying the right things, Terra doesn't find a lot of compassion in Owlman. He's the much-needed voice of reason, saying what most readers are probably thinking and doing his best to keep the squad from following their emotions into a potentially dire situation. The conversation that surrounds Terra's return is a tough one, without an immediate revelation about which side of the argument is in the right. It does a lot to establish the team as a group of distinct personalities, not to mention fight back the age-old label of DC's heroes as overly sympathetic fools.

Fernando Pasarin's artwork does its job admirably enough. He doesn't get a lot of exciting material to embrace in the majority of this issue, as it's largely dedicated to character moments, flashbacks and heated discussion, but Pasarin still manages to keep its pages interesting. His style is very technical, perhaps a bit lacking in vigor, but it's got character and his obsession with minute detail is a healthy one. On his one chance to impress with a super sized two-page spread near the book's conclusion, he makes sure the wait was worthwhile.

As has been the case with both major publishers' major events of late, I'm really starting to get tired of the lengthy setup stage of "Blackest Night." It seems like second gear is becoming increasingly difficult to find in these massive, imprint-spanning epics, and Outsiders #24 is just another symptom of that disease. It doesn't do anything wrong; in fact, it's done everything that's been asked of it and still managed to come out with a solid standalone story with strong personal ties to the team. But at some point, enough is enough and it's time to shit or get off the pot. This isn't essential reading whether you're following the crossover or not, but that doesn't mean it's without virtue. Borrow it but don't expect to get too involved.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Astonishing X-Men #32

Never ones to turn a blind side to a friend in need, the X-Men were quick to aid Abigail Brand, the green-haired, green-goggled, green lip gloss lovin’ SWORD employee you may remember from a few key issues of Secret Invasion. As long as you’ve got your color code in order, I guess, you needn’t look far for an assist in the Marvel U. It should go without saying, then, that when the dashing Miss Brand crash-lands aboard a disintegrating spaceship, she probably won’t be alone. And, sure enough, no sooner does the team get her back on terra firma than they’re assaulted by the latest revision to the Sentinel line. This round, the towering robots have stretched a patch of human skin over their surface, and its original owner isn’t exactly unknown to the team.

Writer Warren Ellis doesn’t draw the line there. What’s worse than a Sentinel all decked out in flesh and bone, Terminator-style? How about one that can fire Brood monsters out of its fingertips? If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for an extended fight scene to you, it should, because that’s exactly what’s on the menu for this issue. Faced with the new peril, half the team dedicates themselves to tackling the big, fleshy robot while the others concentrate on wiping out the sharp-fanged alien beasties it’s fired into the crowd of onlookers. How to deal with a public nuisance? Let’s start with closed fists and work our way up from there. Not exactly the brainiest thing he’s ever written.

It’s also not the most captivating. Ellis seems to think more of the fight’s importance than carries over to the printed page, spending full spreads on the movements and slow fall of the defeated Sentinel (whoops, spoiler, they defeat the Sentinel) and the regurgitated battle with its Brood offspring. It’s a nice effect, one that draws his readers’ attention to a few climactic moments and broadcasts them in slow motion for added impact, but the watering-down effect it has on the story itself is profound. The Day After Tomorrow used the same tricks in place of good storytelling, but I expect that of Roland Emmerich. I hope for more from Warren Ellis.

Of course, the seeds of success for any good fight scene are really planted by its artist, and Ellis lucks out in this respect. His partner, industry regular Phil Jimenez, delivers a great showing that realizes every intricacy of the script. While his compositions and storytelling are undeniably solid, it was Jimenez’s concentration on the little atmospheric touches that really made me stand back and take notice in this issue. The cluster of gulls he suspends in the air, providing the magnitude of the attacking Sentinel a point of reference, also grants us a constant reminder of the story’s seaside locale. The effects of Storm’s lightning onslaught on the Brood, still seen in the distance as the scene shifts to her teammates’ struggles with the giant robot across town, establishes the sheer size of the battlefield. Jimenez’s work is beautiful on the surface, but its real power is hidden in the details.

As far as Warren Ellis contributions go, Astonishing X-Men #32 is very light reading. It’s quite a bit more mainstream than any of his other works, even his run with a more family-friendly team in Ultimate Fantastic Four, which is a disappointment. It’s more off-center than the rest of the mutant family, admittedly, though not by that much. I would’ve liked a briefer skirmish, a few more unexpected developments and a different flavor than what I got. It’s not a terribly bad showing, particularly on the artistic front, but it also didn’t leave me very hungry for the next issue. Flip through it.

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

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love #1

When it comes to the supernatural land of Fabletown, the less the modern world knows about it, the better. In fact, the sheer existence of the settlement depends on it. So what to do when bits and pieces of contraband and supernatural artifacts begin appearing outside the city walls? Why, look no further than Cinderella herself; shoe salesman by day, secret agent by night.

In case you’re still in the dark, the entire Fables, er, fable is based on the modernization and revitalization of the tired old residents of fairy tales you grew up with as a child. Cinderella herself is a perfect example. While the idea of the bashful former younger stepsister as an international agent of espionage may not sound particularly fitting in theory, it shines in print. Who better to do your secret dirty work than the girl everyone in town sees as the shallow, empty-headed ditz with more time for fashion than friends? And, surprisingly enough, Cindy (as her close acquaintances know her) actually makes for a convincing, effective field agent. Chris Roberson, the writer of this particular spin-off, wastes no time in establishing that. He opens the issue in the midst of a particularly short scuffle atop Big Ben that doesn’t turn out so well for the bad guy.

If you’re a stranger to Fables, you’ll likely miss out on a few specific details but the major points of emphasis are laid out in the open for the uninitiated. Cindy handles most of those explanations internally, with a handful of thought bubbles spilled across each page, but they’re sparse enough to leave the majority of the layout open for moving the primary plotline forward. It reads smoothly and easily, even if it does get a bit cutesy from time to time. Needless to say, if talking animals aren’t your thing you may want to look somewhere else.

Shawn McManus fits this series like a glass slipper. His simple style is right at home with the characters Disney reinvented a generation ago, but his tremendous knack for scene-stealing perspective and strong grasp of the characters’ multifaceted personalities are his most important tools. McManus grabbed my attention with the issue’s first big panel, the aforementioned fracas at the tip of London’s best-known timepiece, and kept hold until the midway point, when that sharp eye for detail began to wane. By the time Cindy lands in Dubai, the first stop on her search for the men behind this naughty smuggling operation, it’s like a different artist has climbed into the driver’s seat. He’s still working the simple, cartoonish overall style with various degrees of success, but the heart stopping scenery that initially caught my eye has faded away into something more mundane.

Those same flaws can be applied to this issue as a whole. Everything starts out well enough: a good, original premise, a solid set of initial cast members, a fine series of opening panoramas. But then, upon closer inspection, the magic begins to wear off and we’re left with something a bit less spectacular and a bit more everyday. It’s less than it could have been, a few missed opportunities from a must-read. The concept and strong introduction is enough to make it worth borrowing this month, but things are going to have to pick up in a hurry to keep it at that level the next time around.

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ambush Bug: Year None #7

Around since the early ‘80s as little more than chaotic comic relief, Ambush Bug is to the DC universe what Deadpool is to the Marvel landscape – just without so many guns, a regular ongoing series, or a body ravaged by cancer. He's a geek who happened to stumble upon the last surviving trace of an alien species (a wardrobe) and not-so-gradually lost his mind shortly thereafter. But the Bug is more a vehicle to satirize the industry as a whole than a legitimate character, a chance for his creators to loosen their belt buckles and go wild. Even if it's just a coincidence, the circumstances surrounding this issue continue that pattern. It's been almost a year since Ambush Bug #5 shipped, leaving fans of the character hungry for the final installment of this six-part mini-series. Instead, after eleven months' wait, DC has shipped an unexpected seventh issue instead, using the majority of its page count to wonder aloud about the fate of issue number six. I remember when Spawn did something like that about eighty issues back.

If you're curious, Keith Giffen can still be funny. Sometimes he tries too hard and the jokes fall flat, but he's still a genuinely entertaining writer and everybody has their hits and misses. Reunited with Bug co-creator Robert Loren Fleming, Giffen uses his old partner's presence as an inspiration to steer the storyline directly off the tracks, only a few inches outside the station. Like I said, it's funny – sometimes absurdly so – but I kept expecting something to pull everything together in a neat little package and that never happened. It's just Giffen and Fleming musing about whatever springs to mind, whether that's the status of their storied sixth issue, the dawn of modern civilization, Jurassic versions of each of DC's major characters or the publisher's ongoing love affair with large-scale, epic crossovers.

This issue is all over the place. I can't overstate that. I know a lot of the appeal of this character comes from his disconnection with the scenery and the complete lack of respect for the fourth wall, but sometimes that kind of liberty only encourages these guys to push the envelope further than it needs to go. I was enjoying the chaos until the midway point, when Ambush Bug himself finally makes an appearance and the storyline plummets off a ledge into the land of utter incomprehension. Once our writers find the courage to slam their editors in print, then realize they can play it off as madcap storytelling and get away with it, there's no looking back.

There's crazy, there's criminally insane, and then there's Ambush Bug #7. On the few occasions it comes out of the haze and tries to make some jokes, it's quality work. Giffen and Fleming's sense of humor can't be second guessed, but this is so self-indulgent and nonsensical, I'd given up on it just a few panels after the title character said his first line. Good thing, too, because that's right about the point this whole mess becomes completely unbearable. There aren't enough drugs in the world to make this feel right. Skip it.

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

Secret Warriors #9

Norman Osborn and his Dark Avengers have been ramping up their efforts to hunt down and eradicate Nick Fury's ragtag gang of Secret Warriors. This month, the excrement finally strikes the rotary cooling apparatus. Osborn's pet operatives with HAMMER have caught up with the Warriors at last, locating their base of operations before the stealthy sneaks can leave it behind, and Norman is ready to strike. With Ares and Bullseye in tow, the Iron Patriot is strapped in, geared up and ready for war, and with Nick Fury out of the house on a top secret mission, the bad guys' timing could not have been much better. Assuming, of course, that this wasn't all a part of the Warriors' plan?

The very first thing you're going to notice in this issue is the artwork of Alessandro Vitti, which I instantly fell in love with. His unconventional style and focus on individuality gives this team the identity they've sorely lacked since their first appearance in Mighty Avengers #13. I've always seen these guys as a vanilla cluster of also-rans – bland, flavorless and utterly forgettable – but it only took a few panels for Vitti to inject them with a compelling, much needed dose of energy. The stories he tells with each character's expressions, clothing and body language would take an eternity to spell out with words, which frees up his writer to concentrate on other aspects of the story.

Vitti also delivers one hell of a fight scene. He gets his chance to flex that particular muscle fairly frequently this month, with amazing results. It's been a long time since I've been this happy to see a set of two-page spreads crammed so closely together. Alessandro skimps on no detail when the Dark Avengers and Secret Warriors come to blows, and writer Jonathan Hickman wisely wastes little time getting us there. The artist's work in this kind of situation is bursting with vigor and overflowing with expressive details, while remaining easy to navigate and expertly composed. I must've spent ten minutes devouring the layout he's spread between pages nine and ten. It's genuinely fantastic work.

Jonathan Hickman's writing is equally refreshing. Spending most of the issue out of the limelight, Hickman uses his word balloons so sparingly, I began to wonder if he were working with a strict letter count. This issue cuts straight to the chase, which is a true change of pace in a landscape overpopulated by large, sweeping story arcs and constant dramatic pauses. Whether he's documenting a fistfight or a political maneuver, Hickman gets to the point without hesitation, and that's something I can really get behind.

I was prepared to hate this issue from the moment I laid eyes on it, but it quickly and cleanly worked to completely overcome that initial bias. It's a real surprise, an action book that doesn't shy away from its identity with a dash of spy work thrown in to spice things up. Hickman and Vitti have done magnificent work in taking one of Brian Michael Bendis's less interesting ideas and elevating it into something that's approachable, invigorating and explosive. This isn't what I thought it was, and chances are it's better than you're giving it credit for, as well. Buy it for the artwork alone, the solid storytelling is just icing on the cake.

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

Brave and the Bold #28

No good can come of The Flash playing around with an alteration to the speed of light. Seriously, outside of silencing a profound burst of scientific curiosity, what purpose can such a pursuit really serve? You just know there's going to be an evil super genius or a time warp or something hiding back there, and then Barry's going to have his whole afternoon spelled out for him. But experiment he must, and wrong everything oh so naturally goes. Turns out there really was a time warp waiting for him, and now today's Flash is sprinting around in the era of World War II, interacting with the Blackhawks and trying to explain his outfit, his identity, and how he's different from Jay Garrick, the silver-helmed Flash of the day.

J. Michael Straczynski's plot would feel right at home back in the Silver Age, when science didn't really need to have a distinct purpose and writers could smudge the details as much as they wanted. In a way, that kind of innocence is genuine and adorable. For instance, I couldn't help but smile when I saw the little yard markers Barry's scientist buddy had set up on the grassy knoll he'd chosen for testing their experiments. Either he's laid down somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of those things or a man sprinting at the speed of light will lose sight of them after his first step. But when we're talking about a guy who can run quickly enough to teleport himself sixty-odd years backwards in time, those details are more of a flamboyant accent and less of a point of concern.

Still, I was hoping for a bit more meat from this story than Straczynski provided. I admire his respect for the format, telling a string of self-contained stories over the course of his run, but this may have been too ambitious of a project for it. We cover so much ground in so few pages that it starts to feel like nothing is carrying any emphasis. There's a solid morality crisis in the middle of the issue, as Barry struggles with his vow to never take another's life while wearing the crimson and gold amidst a Nazi shelling, but it's over and done with after a couple panels. There simply isn't enough time to spread it out any longer.

Jesus Saiz's accompanying artwork has its hits and misses. In some of its stronger panels, his work fits the era nicely; a clean, crisp, down-to-earth style that's half Steve Dillon and half Joe Kubert. In others, Saiz attempts to modernize things just a bit too much. He understands the nuances of good visual storytelling, but that constant flux between an era-appropriate style and something that's undeniably modern kept me persistently off-balance. In the issue's later pages, he manages to marry the two with some success, but by then the bulk of the story's drama has already passed. He does good work, but just took a bit too long to find solid footing.

I can understand that the big draw here is the oddball teaming of a modern superhero with a squad of soldiers from the distant past, so it came as no surprise that the vast majority of this issue was spent on their interactions with each other. But when an entire month's worth of action, the climax of the story, is blown through in a single-page montage, I can't help but feel somewhat shortchanged. This is a fun little stroll through time, nothing to take too seriously, but decent enough entertainment for a lazy half-hour over the weekend. It fits into its single-issue shell, but not without making a few clear sacrifices. Flip through it and move on with your life.

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

Spider-Woman #2

A long-promised labor of love from the former creative team of Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, Spider-Woman has been in development for what seems like ages. And with the timely release of this second issue, it seems that fans of the character, the creators, or both can finally breathe a sigh of relief and sit back to enjoy the ride.

Speaking of wild rides, Jessica Drew herself has been taking one for just about her entire life. A genetic experiment at birth, she's traded allegiances and comrades like the men on Wall Street deal in stocks. She's lived as a superhero, a secret agent, an Avenger, a private eye and much more, capped off by an untimely kidnapping at the hands of the Skrulls. Replaced on Earth by a doppelganger alien queen, Jessica has struggled to reenter a casual super-powered existence back home on Earth since the failed alien invasion. Longtime friends are having trouble looking at her without flashing back to the treacherous actions of her Skrull imposter, and that isn't making it easy to find a lunch mate, let alone a running buddy. Isolated and lonely, she's taken the first job she can find – as a planetary defense agent for SWORD.

If you're wondering where this story fits on a scale of Daredevil to Halo:Uprising, it's fortunately much closer to the former. Jessica isn't nearly as brooding, quiet and angry as Matt Murdock was, but she's still a very personable, interesting lead character that both Bendis and Maleev have a firm grasp of. Unlike the pair's collaboration on the aforementioned Xbox tie-in, this story is direct, quick to action and almost completely enveloping. The focus is rarely shifted from Jessica's side, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Though they're still exploring the potential of this character, telling us who she is, what she does and how she does it, their elaborations don't come across as excessively pedantic. Bits and pieces of her psyche and abilities are revealed as dictated by the narrative itself, not thrust upon us out of the blue. I didn't feel like I was in a classroom taking notes, instead I was watching an old pro shoot from the hip and play it by ear.

Maleev's artwork is every bit as gorgeous as I remembered. His style has shifted subtly to suit the situation, but it remains gritty, vivid and perfectly stylized. He's among the best in the business at conveying emotion through body language and facial expression, best evidenced this month when a speeding vehicle opens fire on a crowd and Drew hits the deck, hands clasped to her ears, screaming at the top of her lungs. Maleev treats a powerful woman as effectively as he did a seedy noir hero; with respect, grace and sharp clarity. What's more, he's carrying an extra load in this series by painting over his own artwork. But unlike most painted books, Spider-Woman's visuals don't get in the way of its writing. They're used as an accent, not an emphasis, the sign of a true master. He didn't need a crutch, and doesn't use the paintbrush as such. What a relief.

This series is still working its way up from the ground floor, but it's already clear that Bendis and Maleev's creative link has never been stronger. The two work styles that compliment each other as well as anybody else in the business, and while this series gives us a different angle on that collaboration, in the end it's no less effective. These guys have still got it. Buy it and enjoy.

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Detective Comics Annual #11

Rich children are going missing in Gotham City, and as always the responsibility of their safe return has fallen to Batman and the Boy Wonder. Sending Robin undercover as one of the spoiled brats in question, Dick had hoped for an easy avenue directly into the villainous kidnappers' lair, but his plans didn't unfold without a hitch. When Robin was taken captive, the electronic beacon he was carrying went AWOL. Now his sidekick is trapped in the line of fire and time's running out for the Batman to make another of his famous last-second rescues.

It's been a while since I've heard from Fabian Nicieza. I know he's been back on the scene for a few years, but I haven't been particularly motivated to check out any of his new work. If this issue is any example of how he's been keeping himself occupied, though, I'm happy to have kept my distance. His work with the X-Men in the early ‘90s was, at the time, some of my favorite stuff, but my tastes have changed since then while his writing has stood perfectly still. This issue offers a plethora of dated, overused concepts, weak dialog, one-dimensional characters and confusing plot devices.

The cast may be wearing the wardrobe of Batman and Robin, but they're every bit as faceless and interchangeable as the supporting cast of Xavier's mansion was fifteen years ago. What small characterization Nicieza feels compelled to include usually comes in the form of a short sentence, affirming the character's secret identity or loosely alluding to a single, identifiable personality trait without offering any new introspection. Amon, the issue's primary villain, is as lukewarm as they come. I don't understand why the ritualized sacrifice of a cluster of wealthy children necessitates a larger-than-life raven's mask and a stegosaurus tail, or why he calls everybody “meat,” but somehow I think I'm better off remaining ignorant. This roster of heroes is trying with every fiber of its being to simply tread water, but they can't even manage to do that without getting their feet tangled and slipping under the surface.

Tom Mandrake's filthy art direction sets an appropriately dark mood, but I couldn't stop seeing similarities to Darrick Robertson. His gritty but cartoony general approach is mostly to blame for that, but his shady choice of scenery and the throngs of dirty, over-rendered sleazeballs wandering the streets don't hurt. The similarities are there, but Mandrake doesn't always benefit from them. One thing Robertson brings to the table that's missing from Detective Annual #11 is constant visual stimulation, often paired with a dirty, appropriate sense of humor. I may not always like his compositions, but I'd be remiss to neglect the hearty helping of personality and liveliness that Robertson brings along with every outing. Mandrake's work misses that entirely. His scenery is technically OK, but it's usually lacking that certain undefined element that helps bring the page to life. His panel choices are often dull and unremarkable, following the narration but refusing to elaborate. He offers a fair enough take on both the Question and Azrael, but his Batman is iffy – Bats is excessively blocky, stiff and postured, like a plastic-molded action figure.

I really can't endorse this. Although the Batman family has been home to some pretty decent storytelling lately, Detective Comics Annual shouldn't be associated with it. This issue features an empty plot, bland characterization, dreadful dialog and generic, B-list artwork. It offers nothing new and accomplishes little. Skip it and focus on the monthlies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3

House of Mystery: Halloween Annual #1

Well, if there were ever a holiday more appropriate for a themed Vertigo tie-in, I'd be hard-pressed to name a better candidate than Halloween. It's certainly a better fit than the Christmas annual they pushed out several years back. For an imprint that prides itself on its anything-goes attitude and almost complete creative freedom, an awful lot of creators have taken that kind of liberty as a hint to do something dark, spooky and otherworldly. Which isn't necessarily bad news; in fact, it actually serves to unite many of the publisher's most well-known characters, a sort of orange and black brotherhood of the night. Not to mention the natural ties such tales carry to the occult and arcane arts, which are like the peas and carrots of a Vertigo writer's diet.

So this month, in honor of the creepiest holiday of the calendar year, Vertigo is embracing that facet of their personality with a creator-loaded anthology of short stories. New authors try their hand at old faces, old ones take the opportunity to present their latest ideas in as brief a fashion as they like, and the whole thing is tied up with a single background narrative. Each tale is just a few pages in length, affording a certain degree of liberty to both author and audience. These stories are long enough to allow a good amount of depth, but short enough to be over before you're ready to give up on them.

More than just a common publisher and a universally spooky air unite these anecdotes. Although its subject matter has covered almost every single mature situation imaginable, the Vertigo line has often been home to a shared sense of gallows humor and black comic timing. It's also housed a cast of extremely charismatic and flamboyant characters, none of whom are the least bit shy about opening up and just being themselves when the spotlight shines, regardless of the creators in charge of their care. Add those together with the brevity of each individual story and you'll wind up with a raucous roller coaster of an issue that's a great encapsulation of what makes Vertigo tick.

For the purposes of this issue, that commonality is extended just a bit further into the realm of subject matter. See that big, handsome, droopy mask on the cover? It's passed around like a hot potato from character to character, scene to scene, era to era, as the issue winds its way from start to finish. Its involvement with some stories is as a mindless accessory, while others treat it with an almost holy level of fearful respect. Whatever its purposes within each plotline, it does serve as an effective tool for further tying each short story into the next, and for ensuring that the subject never wanders too far from the horrific. This is a Halloween issue, after all.

It's also a load of fun. Whether it's worth the full $4.99 cover price is debatable – after all, these are some very brief voyages we're taking into the various corners of the Vertigo universe – but if you've been a fan in the past, it's probably worth a closer look. DC has lined up a fine roster of creators to contribute to the issue, and they're each having a real ball with the opportunity. It's shallow, but in the end that winds up being a lot of its charm. Borrow it.

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

The Unwritten #6

Life's not always filled with peaches and roses when you're the son of a famous author. Tom Taylor is living proof. The child of one of the globe's most popular writers, he shares more than a father figure with his deceased(?) dad's old work. Turns out the lead character in every one of those generation-old masterpieces is also named Tommy, and that's led to some good-natured debate among devotees concerning which stories are truth and which are fiction. Some even claim he's the miraculous offspring of the pen and ink itself. For most of his adult life Thomas has made a slim living, feeding off the convention circuit and signing his pa's crusty old books, but lately that ho-hum existence has taken a swerve for the dramatic. That might have something to do with his beginning to believe the legends about his own literary origins. Or maybe it's the bloody massacre he's being tried for.

Mike Carey's done fine work here, tailoring an engaging, rich, playful world that's easy to fall in love with but close enough to cold, harsh reality that it actually stings. Wrapped within the veil of this fantasy tale is a sharp, intelligent dissection of the influence modern media has on our hearts, minds and culture. Mixed in with the frequent leaps between literature and current narration, Carey intersperses quick glances at a variety of news sources, chat rooms, forums, even online advice columns, revealing how the sudden, dramatic fall of such a prominent figure has touched every one of them. In a land where instant information is cleverly and transparently mixed with opinion and immediate judgment, how can anyone really expect to receive a fair trial?

Carey's partner, artist Peter Gross, uses the frequently shifting narrative to showcase his versatility. When the pages of Papa Taylor's old manuscripts are the focus, his style takes a thin-lined, beautiful illustrative slant, something that wouldn't seem at all out of place in the middle of a leather-bound six-hundred-pager. On the pages more concerned with modern events, Gross backs away from his early detail and relies more on his simple compositions to carry the show. A subtle shift in colorists between pages completes that transformation, resulting in a very deliberate and effective change in flavor that cleanses the palette and cues the reader's imagination that it's time to change gears.

There's a whole lot going on in this issue, and I still only feel like I've scratched the surface. While there's little doubt in my mind that this series would be best appreciated in a trade, where its subtleties can be better appreciated, that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed today in its original, episodic format. In The Unwritten, Carey and Gross have patched together a mature, diverse, enveloping central plotline, candy-coated it with a delicious fantasy cover story, then let the two bleed ever-so-slightly into each other. The lines between truth and fiction are as blurry within this issue as they are between its contents and the world outside your window. Buy it.

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

In Brief - September 2009

A quick glimpse at what else I've been reading this month...

Ojo - As a longtime Sam Kieth admirer, this is really tough for me to say but Ojo reeks. While this isn't the first time he's dealt with a very young protagonist, going through emotions more complicated than they deserve, it's the only time he's lost my attention along the way. Nearly all of Kieth's earlier creator-owned work is densely layered with a twinge of sadly genuine introspection, but by comparison this just feels like a shallow retread of ground he's already covered. Annie really isn't that fascinating of a lead character, and the only other faces in the story - her bullish sister and spaced out grandfather - are one-dimensional and don't bring anything extra to the story. Usually I can fall back on Sam's artwork and shut off my brain in that kind of a situation, but even that escape is lacking, since he only provides about half of the illustrations. The remainder are contributed by a small squad of imposters and fill-ins who don't even come close to meeting expectations. I've always loved Kieth's character-driven stories, but it's time for something different already, and Ojo seems all too familiar.

Dark Avengers #9 - There's very little going on this month, but after the total information overload of the last three issues that's a welcome change. Bendis spends most of this edition examining and progressing the motivations of Ares, his son Phobos and Nick Fury's band of merry men. I don't care all that much for Fury's generic Secret Warriors or their motives, but the extra focus on Ares is nice, especially since he's using his big boy voice and keeping the axe swings to a minimum. Mike Deodato's artwork is solid if not spectacular, and the sudden change in Sentry's life at the end of the story is, er, interesting. Really this is a ho-hum issue that less dedicated readers could get away with skipping, but the characterization is good to see and god only knows I'm glad the X-Men have finally gone home.

Batman & Robin #4 - The first issue sans-Quitely didn't do much to quell my fears about the series in his absence. Phil Tan was wise to get a fresh start without attempting to mimic his predecessor's style, and for the first few pages I was willing to believe he could actually get the job done. But as the issue bore on and the pace slowed down, he seemed to lose interest and my enthusiasm went right along with him. I'm mildly interested in the identity of the Red Hood, and I like the contrast of his message and methods against those of Dick and Damien, but this is quickly becoming just another mainstream DC book and not the continuous blast of fresh air it had been during the first three issues. Grant Morrison can write some fantastic material at times, but he can also get terribly self-absorbed. At around the two-thirds point I realized that I was just pressing toward the last page out of personal obligation and not because I was really all that interested in seeing where this story is going. That's a major change from last month.

Ex Machina #45 - Kind of loopy at some points, completely overboard at others, with a parting shot that's pretty much ensured I'll hang around for the rest of the series. The timing of Ex Machina has always been a bit suspect in my eyes, since author Brian K. Vaughan likes to jump from the middle of a finance meeting to the heat of an awkward super-powered fight without so much as a lead-in, but that's grown to be part of this book's charm over the years. To tell the truth, I'm actually enjoying the twists and turns of Mitchell's political career much more than I am the central plot point of the origin and intentions of his incredible powers. We get equal doses of both this month, and it's good but not great.

The Walking Dead #65 - I still haven't read an issue of Walking Dead I dislike. The current storyline is moving at an agonizingly slow pace, but that's only allowed me more time to savor and appreciate it from month to month. After playing the hunted for much of their time together, whether from the zombies or wandering groups of ill-intentioned survivors, Rick and company finally reach their breaking point this month and fight back. I was ready to jump off my couch and cheer when they caught the hunters unprepared and played their hand. Great pacing, fantastic characterization, unlimited potential for disaster and a sinister willingness to convince the readers that no single character is ever really safe. Most titles are lucky to count just one or two of those attributes in their stat sheet, but Kirman and Adlard's horror-tinged monthly digest enjoys a clean sweep.

Giant Size Wolverine: Old Man Logan - The finale you had to expect within the arc's first six pages. It's unabashedly violent, occasionally over the top and often shamefully self-indulgent, but it's also cool to finally get a straightforward payoff, rather than an open-ended invitation for the follow-up or a vague swerve at the last minute. Old Man Logan was always going to be a revenge story, a quest to put off Logan's berserker rage as long as possible before setting it off in a sudden gooey fireball of wetworks. Well, that wait's over and now it's time to pay the piper. It's not Millar's smartest work, nor his most respectful, but it's still an entertaining read if you don't mind getting your hands dirty and browsing thirty pages' worth of disemboweled bad guys and stacks severed green limbs. The non-stop mayhem is a great opportunity for Steve McNiven to really cut loose and impress with his visuals, which he does without hesitation. This wouldn't work all that well if the artwork weren't so gorgeous, but it's still a far cry from perfection. Millar's experiment was fun, but I'm glad it's over.

MK Daredevil, Volume 4: Underboss - I'm catching up on the few issues of DD I missed over the years, and this was a pretty important arc to have skipped out on. In their first baby steps with the series, Bendis and Maleev wasted no time in making a big impact; in the first issue alone they've upset the balance of power within the Kingpin's inner circle, introduced a new challenger to that throne, set a bounty on Matt's head and bombed the scene of his latest trial. Although I really grew to love Ed Brubaker's take on Daredevil, I'd forgotten how gripping and simplistic Bendis's plots really were. His writing is easily approachable, direct and moving. It's a breeze to read but also much deeper than it appears. The real focus of this arc, aspiring crime boss Mr. Silke, is charismatic, scheming and motivated. His dialog comes straight from the streets, but his aspirations are much loftier. That Silke's fate plays out without so much as a face-to-face with the red-garbed guardian of Hell's Kitchen speaks to both the immense depth of this book's supporting cast and Bendis's sharp, immediate understanding of it. At this point he was managing a fantastic balance of superheroics and dark, seedy noir, and while later arcs would dabble a bit more deeply in one direction or the other, right here they're working in perfect harmony. Maleev's artwork is also something I didn't realize I'd missed so sorely. His compositions throughout this arc are gorgeous, especially when he's playing with the masking effects of deep shadow and sharp contrast. Daredevil has never looked so sinister and menacing as he does in Maleev's hands, stalking through the shadows and striking fear into the hearts of villains (and readers) across the city. The ultimate repercussions of this arc are still playing out in the ongoing series, five years and ninety issues later. If that isn't the mark of an impressive debut, I don't know what is. It's great material that really set the mood and the direction of a series on the verge of a genuine renaissance. Fantastic on its own, in retrospect it's become even more impressive.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Northlanders #20

An old, familiar face takes the lead role in this month's Northlanders. Sven the Returned, the protagonist of the title's first storyline, has laid low and lived the good life in seclusion with his family since the last time we saw him. But such peace was bound to be shattered some day, and in the twenty years since his previous adventure he's become something of a walking, talking myth among the Viking people. So legendary are the tales of his ferocity that young would-be warriors have begun to search for his place of respite. After all, what better way to launch your own reputation than with the head of a genuine folk hero in your hands?

Returning alongside Sven is Davide Gianfelice, Northlanders' original artist. Having since moved on to a full-time gig with Vertigo's Greek Street, it's tough to overvalue the importance of his familiarity with both the character and author Brian Wood's vision of the world humanity left behind a thousand years ago. He's well suited for this series, with a knack for getting the most from his panels without overcomplicating them. He shows tremendous restraint, drawing your eye to the subject by emphasizing their stark, desolate surroundings. He calls his audience's attention to more subtle nuances of the scenery; the appearance of a seagull floating lazily through the sky, for example, indicates a sailing ship's sudden proximity to land. And, when it comes to it, he floods the war zone with blood, guts and enough crazy-eyed violence to send a shiver through the heart of even the most hardened veteran. Gianfelice is a perfect accomplice for this kind of work, and it's too bad he can't stick around for a few more issues.

Brian Wood's storytelling is one part epic poem, one part standard comic book narration. Its brevity and easy vocabulary ensures that the story will remain an easy read, but its unusual setting and large-format, almost boastful scale give it plenty more substance than your typical comic. Sven clearly hates waiting for these potential assassins to arrive at his doorstep. He'd rather dive right into the heart of the fight and let the violence of the battle sort out who actually deserves such legendary status, but the appeal of spending just one more day at peace with his family is too much to leave behind. Instead, Sven stands lonely vigil at the furthest edge of his land and waits impatiently for the day his quiet isolation will eventually be disturbed by an invading force. He's a complicated character, filled with conflicting impulses, and left to his imagination the perceived incoming threat grows more and more serious with every new day.

Northlanders has a lot in common with Brian Wood's other, more well-known Vertigo series, DMZ. They're both period pieces, dependent upon the unique identities of the era in which they're set to instigate the action that defines them. Sven and Matty share a thoughtful, uncertain nature that makes them relatable and appealing, and both know more about the world than they'd ever admit to themselves. If you've enjoyed one, you'll no doubt find a place in your pull list for the other, and if you can't enjoy either... well, we don't really have all that much in common. Buy it.

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

Strange Tales #1

One of Marvel's most experimental and well-known titles, dating back to the era when the publisher was still known as Atlas Comics, Strange Tales has gone through more face lifts over the years than Joan Rivers. Depending on the arrival of new talent, the tides of the political climate or the whims of the present editorial team, the series has endured countless false starts, format changes and cancellations over the years. Before the EC Comics-inspired legislature of the mid 1950s, its focus was on graphic horror and gore. Later, Jack Kirby gave the series a string of well-received sci-fi monster stories. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Doctor Strange and traipsed around the abstract mystical countryside. Jim Steranko changed the game with a classic psychedelic espionage romp, dubbed Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And so on.

Today, thirty years removed from the cancellation of that original series (and with a decade's worth of distance from the latest attempt at a revival) Strange Tales is changing shape yet again. With a new vision, a radically different landscape and a willingness to try something completely off-the-wall at the front of their minds, the head honchos behind this series have, amazingly, corralled a high-powered squad of well-known independent creators and set them loose without restriction in the merry Marvel playground. The results are, at times, stunning. The sheer amount of variety and boundless creativity alone make this worth a peek: if you don't like what you're reading now, a completely different approach is never more than two or three pages away. Everyone from James Kochalka to The Perry Bible Fellowship chimes in this month, touching every genre from absurdist black comedy to surreal, wistful adventures through the subconscious.

My favorite segment in the premiere would have to be Peter Bagge's blunt, hilarious "Incorrigible Hulk," in which the renowned underground prodigy tackles every subject from second-hand smoke, uber-liberal apologists and the green goliath's historical wardrobe decisions. All this and a drunken rampage through the NYC streets in just six overstuffed pages. Alas, this also reveals one of the shortcomings of the format – as soon as you fall in love with something, it's over and done with a moment later. Fortunately, the Bagge tale (and one or two of its peers) concludes with a promise to continue the adventures next month.

The Hulk proves to be a favorite subject for many of the issue's contributors, further proof that they were given an unusual level of freedom for this project. The indie darlings are free to use whomever they like in whatever situation they want without fear of repercussions and, predictably, a select few go out of their way to push that leniency to its limits. The second brutally short one-page Perry Bible Fellowship strip is proof enough that Marvel was willing to let just about anything slip by, and the result is a punchline that had me genuinely laughing out loud.

Frankly, I'm stunned a major publisher could allow something so fresh and open-minded to hit the market. Strange Tales #1 continues the proud legacy of innovation established by its forefathers, refusing to follow the rules of what constitutes a mainstream comic and emerging with a real winner of a premiere issue as a direct result. Get out there and buy this, let Marvel know that this kind of experimentation is something you want to see more of. I can guarantee it's thirty times more interesting than anything you saw in Ultimatum.

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

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2

Although a few things may have changed in Peter Parker's life since he was presumed dead at the climax of Magneto's summertime attack on humanity, for the most part it's been business as usual in his newly-relaunched eponymous ongoing series. Peter has swapped lady friends, taken a new job and finally clued in Aunt May to his alter-ego, but otherwise very little has changed. He still attends classes at Midtown High with Kitty, Gwen and MJ, still manages to skip classes to fight crime with minimal consequences. A glowing preemptive obituary from J. Jonah Jameson has made Spidey a much more popular hero than in the past, but he still feels just as ostracized from the general population as ever, if not more so.

On board with the series from the very beginning, nobody has a better grasp of these characters, or perhaps of the Ultimate Universe as a whole, than USM writer Brian Michael Bendis. With the new launch and renumbering, Bendis had a big chance to shake things up and completely change the tone and identity of this series, but (for better or for worse) he's opted instead for a direct continuation of what was working before. That makes this an extremely easy series for old fans to jump right into without missing a beat, although he's also been careful to keep it open and welcoming for new readers. Bendis has kept marching right along with the curious, conversational asides that made the original series so approachable, constantly toying around with the specifics of the heroes' identities, their powers and the average man's reaction to them. This month, for instance, while Johnny Storm lies incapacitated in the living room, Aunt May wonders if he'll ignite her couch in his sleep. I'd never really thought of it that way before, but the question alone cuts through some of the tension of the moment and grounds the book more squarely in reality. Hey, it's a valid question.

Bendis has his flaws, though, some of which are coming a bit more into focus with the new series. Gwen, in particular, has been treated like an entirely different character since the relaunch. I get that a lot has changed in these kids' lives since the end of the last series, but I'm not entirely sure how that would lead to her transformation from the mature, older sister-type into the bubbly, cheery teeny bopper she's been for most of the last two issues. The rest of the cast has gone through some similar changes in the new series, too, although none are quite so profound as Ms. Stacey's. They're familiar, but skewed. Almost like a new writer is still trying to figure them out.

Which is precisely the status of new artist David Lafuente. Following up on the quality of work put forth by Mark Bagley and then Stuart Immonen is no small task, and so far it's one I haven't discovered Lafuente is up to. His ultra sleek, manga-influenced visuals float somewhere in between John Romita Jr. and Archie Comics, rarely settling in one place for long. His emphasis on the lead characters as kids is important, because it's easy to forget most of them don't even have their driver's license yet, but also drains a lot of the magnitude from the book's more serious moments. Perhaps most unsettling, Lafuente still hasn't managed to produce an illustration of Spider-Man in costume that I've been happy with. He's a work in progress.

The same can be said for the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man as a whole. It's very familiar, but also ever so slightly off base. It's like watching Magnum PI with Don Johnson playing the lead role. He's saying the right words, doing the right things and the look is right, but something's just... off. Long standing fans will want to give this a borrow, because the new developments have a lot of potential, but everyone else may want to settle for a brief flip through first. It isn't the world-killer it's been in the past.

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dark Wolverine #77

Well, it seems like not every member of Norman Osborn’s Dark Avengers is completely on board with the maniac’s plans to oust Marvel’s most popular superteams from power. Not directly, anyway. Osborn’s “Dark Wolverine,” Logan’s son Daken, has stepped out on his own, forming a complicated series of alliances with several of the former Green Goblin’s most visible targets, particularly Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four. Just how honest Daken is acting in these negotiations is, naturally, up for debate – it seems his only true allegiance is to himself – but he’s valuable enough of a wild card that members of both sides seem willing to deal with the consequences for a chance to get him on their side.

The story this month, provided by Daniel Way & Marjorie Liu, features more of the team than the last two issues of Dark Avengers combined. If you’ve ever needed a bit more proof of why the concept of a squad comprised of loners can never work, look no further. Osborn’s Avengers are going in thirty different directions at the same time, and they’re not only on different pages, they’re often doing everything in their power to thwart the goals of their teammates. More so than even the group’s brave leader, Daken plays the role of the instigator, constantly doing everything in his power to turn and rankle his fellow Avengers in a way that’s sure to lead to fireworks. That’s a welcome change from the character’s usual role as the silent guy in the corner with a pair of claws popping out of his hands, and it fits him well. On the large scale, Way and Liu don’t quite have the knack for each character’s personality that Brian Michael Bendis does, but they’re close, and their actions here will likely have big ramifications on the main series once it returns from a crossover-induced hiatus.

Daken’s snide, self-serving taunts of Ares (coupled with the hot-headed god of war’s natural reaction) in this issue’s opening moments give artist Giuseppe Camuncoli a great opportunity to get his foot in the door with a few intense visuals, and he takes it in stride without so much as a glance over his shoulder. By going out of his way to highlight the gigantic size differential between the two, Giuseppe casually shifts what would’ve been a rather ho-hum scene into something else. He keeps the action moving like a good martial arts movie, with a sense of selective slow motion thrown in to highlight the fight’s most explosive moments. Even during the seconds of fleeting pause in between thrown punches, there’s always something moving: an airborne set of dumbbells here, a collapsing door frame there. The dude knows how to put together an exciting fight scene.

Giuseppe performs just as well away from the action, although he isn’t quite as comfortable with the Fantastic Four as he is with Daken and the Avengers. Dark Wolverine’s uncomfortable little chat with Venom provides a great display of how restrained body language can often tell more story than a glob of extraneous dialog, but the artist’s renditions of Reed and Sue are shaky, over-muscled and unfamiliar. I guess not every swing can be a home run.

If you’re as infuriated with the lack of forward progress offered by Dark Avengers since it was lumped in with the Utopia crossover last month, you might want to give Dark Wolverine a chance to play pacifier. It’s not on the same level as what Bendis was offering, but it’s close enough to make for a decent surrogate until he’s back in the commander’s chair. Borrow it and re-evaluate when things return to the status quo.

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

The Red Circle: The Shield #1

The Shield is the last in a series of four one-shots to introduce a historical character from the heyday of the MLJ (Archie) Comics superhero division into the modern DC timeline. Basically a modernized Captain America with a twist and a few additional abilities, our hero was airlifted from certain death on an Afghan battlefield and used as the guinea pig for a radical new suit of military armor. In theory, the nano-machines that comprise this soldier’s new suit would be summoned and retracted by his thoughts and actions, but seeing as how his wardrobe is the only thing presently keeping him alive, it may be a while before he’s ready to test the waters with that particular feature. Which, I guess, would actually make this a sort of three-way marriage between Cap, Iron Man and the Six Million Dollar Man.

Try as he might, J. Michael Straczynski still has a hard time moving the character too far away from his somewhat cheesy golden aged roots. The techno babble may have been modernized, the scenery shifted from Germany to the Middle East, but the core of the character himself is still somewhat antiquated. Perhaps the brevity of a single issue lifespan has forced Straczynski’s hand, leading to a few of the seams showing in his storytelling, but this simple origin tale feels a bit too rudimentary and straightforward. Too many questions are answered with too much certainty, leaving very little unrevealed about the man, his superiors and the suit itself. If this was merely intended to be a teaser, why don’t I have much of an appetite for the main course?

I used to adore Scott McDaniel’s artwork when he was a regular on Nightwing about a decade back. He gave the series an energetic, youthful vibe that was grounded with a certain degree of maturity. It wasn’t just another Batman spinoff when he was around, it was the next step of a natural evolution for current and former members of the extended Wayne family. That element was lost for good when he left the series for another project, and as fate would have it, I haven’t kept up with his work since.

Not a lot has changed. While he endures a few struggles throughout the issue, particularly in its opening pages, it’s not long before McDaniel finds a sweet spot and resumes churning out his excellent, exciting brand of visual work. I may not care much for the character’s costume, which is bright, cheery and unabashedly patriotic, but it’s easy to overlook that when McDaniel has him lifting tanks and punching out aircraft with such mesmerizing grace and astonishing ease.

Still, The Shield is average at best. It’s got a decent, if not original, basic origin in place, a natural eventual conflict built right in and a few eccentricities to set it apart from the books it’s likely to be immediately compared with. The lead character is certainly no Steve Rogers; he’s more ruthless in battle and less headstrong a personality, and he’s missing the charm and flavor of his storied Marvel counterpart. In short, he’s less suitable to carry an entire series on his shoulders. This isn’t bad, but it’s also far from great and some aspects of the story feel particularly watered down. Flip through it for the better moments of Scott McDaniel’s artwork if nothing else.

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Brief - July / August 2009

A quick glimpse at what else I've been reading this month...

Dark Avengers #7 - I hate crossover tie-ins. I especially hate when I don't know they're coming, and it really rises my ire when they interrupt a book that's been rolling along as well as Dark Avengers has been. With that said, I'm usually quick to forgive in such situations and I generally like what I've seen from Matt Fraction, but this was total crap. The vast majority of this issue was spent introducing generic characters I've never heard of, half of which were then promptly knocked off or knocked out in an orgy of superpowered glee and randomly exploding city streets. What was the point of that?! Honest to god, I thought I'd returned to the early '90s for a sort of X-Cutioner's Song Redux. The few nuggets of goodness that were scattered around this issue weren't nearly enough to compensate for its flavorless artwork and disconnected approach to the Avengers themselves.

The Walking Dead #63 - Even when it's treading water, this series is more entertaining than most titles experience during their greatest arcs. I'm constantly astonished at how effortlessly Kirkman can integrate deep new personalities to Walking Dead's roster. They're each multi-dimensional, inherently flawed, genuinely compelling individuals, and the writer casually slides their tales into the flow of the story as though they were nothing. This month we're learning a bit more about Gabriel, the priest who strolled into the group's life a few issues ago, and he fits that mold just as well as those who came before. I felt like the ending of the issue was somewhat telegraphed, but that doesn't make it any less harrowing or ominous for the near future of Rick and his cluster of survivors. Once again, this is great storytelling from both writer and artist, intense characterization and a sudden zombie attack or two thrown in to make sure we don't forget about the big picture. I'm glad I jumped on to enjoy the ride.

Chew #1 - Well, that was imaginative if nothing else. This issue changed gears and directions so many times that by the last page I felt dizzy. Is it a crime drama? An open discussion about the treatment of America's poultry? A rant against prohibition? Maybe a bit of science fiction with a hint of superheroism? It's all and none of the above, like the creators couldn't decide on a specific direction and instead chose to pursue everything that came to mind. I enjoyed certain aspects of the story, like the premise that chicken was outlawed by our government after a particularly nasty bout with the bird flu, but really found myself at a loss when it came to others. I'll give John Layman, the writer, points for originality; I've never seen a power quite like Tony Chu's ability to learn everything about a creature by ingesting it. There's a lot of potential for ingenuity there, but to be frank I'm not particularly taken by the direction. It's playful, but lacking. I loved Rob Guillory's artwork, though, which matched the manic, odd flavor of that storyline beat for beat. If you're a fan of Jim Mahfood, you'll like Guillory's work too.

The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye - Finally got my hands on the first volume, and tore through it in one sitting. I was worried I'd be distracted by Tony Moore's initial interpretation of the characters, since I got to know them in the hands of Charlie Adlard, but instead found the two artists' styles to be very compatible. I was struck by the much faster pace of this chapter, especially compared to the current arc, but looking back that's understandable. The cast hadn't really figured out what they were doing yet, so it's only natural that they'd come under fire (so to speak) with much more regularity than they do now. I thought the friendship / rivalry of Rick and Shane made a great outline for this first arc, before being effectively cast aside at its conclusion, like a pair of training wheels. For all the growing the cast did in this arc, they've got a long ways to go before becoming the hardened, jaded faces we're following today. It's nice to have a little perspective now. Great reading.

DMZ Volume 3: Public Works - Another fine volume, if lacking the sharp direction and focus of the first two trades. With such a tremendous supporting cast already established, Brian Wood may have been overextending himself by introducing a whole new roster for Matty to interact with in this arc, because the new faces really pale in comparison. Amina, the only one I could imagine making a return visit, is so shallow and indecisive, it's hard to comprehend how she manages to survive at all. It probably sounds like I'm coming down on this really hard, but that really isn't my intention. It's just an unusually linear storyline. Books one and two were moving a thousand miles an hour in a million different directions, and I came to adore that frenetic personality. Public Works, by comparison, is wearing a small pair of horse blinders and charging straight ahead. DMZ's constant parallels to the current political climate may date it in the coming years, but it still feels relevant today, two years after publication. Riccardo Burchelli's artwork remains gritty, flavorful and delicious. I'd buy the rest of the trades for his work alone.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 - I guess the huge, world-shaking ramifications of Ultimatum have resulted in... a return to the status quo, more or less. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing since Ultimate Spider-Man has consistently been one of my favorite monthly books. It's just a little weird to step in expecting black to be white and up to be down, only to be confronted with an almost-direct continuation of the storyline virtually right where we left it. Bendis is good for a few really fun bits of dialog, as always, and he has actually changed some minor details (like Parker's choice in lady friends) but this didn't really sell me on the need to relaunch the series with a new number one. I didn't care for David LaFuente's take on the famous webbed threads, but the rest of the issue looked decent enough. I'll give him some time to grow on me.

Ultimate Comics Avengers #1 - This read like even parts Ultimates 2 and Ultimates 3, which is perplexing since I didn't really imagine Millar would want anything to do with the latter. The team is amazingly thin, basically just Cap and Hawkeye with Fury and Stark making brief cameos, but they didn't need much more for the purposes of this issue. Remember when the Widow and Hawkeye were leaping between skyscrapers, shooting down helicopters and KOing terrorists a few years ago? The majority of this chapter is an extended rehash of that scene, with good ol' Captain A taking the lady's place and a super cheesy, overthought rendition of the Red Skull standing in as the evil mastermind. If it were a movie, this would be a popcorn chomper, if not an especially deep one. Color me disappointed.

The Walking Dead #64 - The requisite bi-monthly storm between calms. Holy crap, every time this series seems like it's slowing down or heading in a remotely predictable direction, it jukes ferociously and leaves me wondering where my center of gravity went. I'm running out of adjectives for Kirkman and Adlard's masterpiece, and issues like this one are the reason why. Constant action, relentless suspense, fantastic characterization and fundamentally perfect artwork. Who could ask for anything more? Keep 'em coming, boys, and I'll keep buying.

Ex Machina #44 - The secret origin of the Great Machine was honestly pretty surprising, so as it turns out Brian K. Vaughan actually does know how to follow through on a good premise from time to time. As usual, the big reveal asked more questions than it answered, and still found the time to completely wig the fuck out on me once or twice. So... there's just a giant gleaming cube underneath the helmet of the Big Daddy that's been wandering the NYC sewers for the last six months? What?! And what's with Bradbury going nutso and playing teeball with a reporter's noggin right in the middle of a conversation? I mean, in retrospect I've got a few ideas about how the two might be related, but at the time I thought somebody had snuck some LSD into my toothpaste or something. An interesting twist surrounded by a nice big glob of WTF.

Batman and Robin #3 - I'm still having a hard time deciding what I think of this series. Well, scratch that, I'm having a hard time figuring out what to make of the writing, because Quitely's artwork is freaking phenomenal. Every month he's exploring new territory in creative storytelling, inventive integration of sound effects and unsettling characterization. He's a master of his craft, and Morrison, believe it or not, is mostly just along for the ride. I can't imagine this storyline working with another artist, but work it does, with a few well-placed nods to the classic The Killing Joke thrown in for good measure. This tour of the deranged inner workings of a local sideshow was lots of fun, although it was also quite a bit more skewed than I'm used to seeing from one of DC's big guns. I guess the time's right to try out a few new ideas with these characters, what with the change in protagonists and accompanying editorial leniency. All right, the jury's in, I've decided to like it.

Dark Avengers #8 - Complete garbage. I should've known better than to buy it after last month's sneak preview, but like a good little reader I had to go and give it another chance. It was nice of them to shrink the "Dark Avengers" typeset on the cover, because the team itself enjoys maybe four panels of attention from front to god-forsaken back this month. The rest of the time we're celebrating Emma Frost's public speaking in the middle of a flashy, hyperactive mutant throwdown. Listen, Marvel, if I want to buy an X-Men book, I'll grab one of the sixty X-Men books on the shelf. Please stop using one of the few genuinely interesting titles in your roster to sell me the same old jumbled, convoluted mutant BS that chased me shrieking from Xavier's dream years ago. Sorry to say it, Fraction, because I usually enjoy your work, but this is pure drivel. Thanks for taking the time to let me know it'd continuing into next month's issue, though. Now I know to just keep on walking.