Monday, January 26, 2009

Action Comics #873

When a recent run-in with Brainiac resulted in the enlargement of the bottled city of Kandor, the world rejoiced. Now, instead of relying on just one flying, impervious Superman from long-dead planet, they could enjoy the protection of 100,000. But as the Kandorians explored the Earth, it was quickly made clear that while they shared a set of powers with the man of steel, their morals weren't on the same level. With tensions rising and new anti-Kryptonian laws about to go on the books, it's only a matter of time until everything boils over.

Geoff Johns fills this issue with a few strong observations, both about modern civilization and about Superman's place in it. Set against the backdrop of an invasion of flawed supermen is a narrative on the warlike nature of the human race, about how anything frightening or different is almost always met with anger and hostility. The Kryptonians have always been seen as a proud, almost arrogant race – they believe themselves to be noble at heart, but it's easy to see how they could come off as stuffy and elitist to a more working-class population. Neither side can see the wrong in their own actions, and while as observers we can note the benefits and drawbacks of both perspectives, we can also understand where each is coming from.

While Johns and his Superman collaborators James Robinson and Sterling Gates have delivered a complex, involved common plot to their respective books in "New Krypton," I was disappointed by the dialog in this issue. While it serves the purpose of pushing the storyline forward, it's missing a touch of warmth and personality. While I can understand the concept that native Kryptonians might speak with a different inflection than their human cousins, that's no excuse for filling an entire issue with emotionless, robotic drones. And these problems aren't even exclusive to the citizens of Kandor: Lois, Ma Kent and Superman himself all speak in a similarly monotonous voice. It's like Harrison Ford said when he first read the script for Star Wars; “you can write this shit, but you sure can't say it.” I have a hard time imagining anyone firing off lines like these on a whim.

An entire stable of artists have followed Johns into the fray, with contributions of varying lengths coming from Pete Woods, Renato Guedes and Wilson Magalhaes. Woods handles the vast majority of the issue, with a style that's sometimes a little awkward but generally solid. He keeps the page crisp, smooth and clean, although he's constantly forcing Supes into some very odd, uncomfortable poses. Woods enjoys his best moments this month in the two back-to-back splash pages around the middle of the issue – a set of large, panoramic landscapes that succeed without accompanying dialog.

As the seventh and concluding chapter of "New Krypton," it should go without saying that new readers probably won't want to jump onboard with this issue. While it does its best to keep the action understandable for fresh observers, too much of the story still depends on a knowledge of what's come before to make much sense of things. If you've been with “New Krypton” since the start, this issue does manage to wrap things up neatly without shutting the door on any future developments. It's inoffensive if not particularly stunning, occasionally bland with a few dashes of flavor, and all in all just about average. Flip through it if you're curious.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5.5

Faces of Evil: Prometheus

Serving as a prelude to the upcoming Justice League #1, Faces of Evil provides a revealing peek behind the façade of the man who once single-handedly overpowered the entire League. When the villain awakens in his cell within Blackgate Penitentiary, two years have passed since his last memory, thanks to a mental blockade provided by the Martian Manhunter. But if the real Prometheus has been catatonic for all of this time, who's been using his name to pull petty heists throughout the city over the last twenty months? Better still, what will the real deal do to him when they eventually cross paths?

In Faces of Evil, writer Sterling Gates is tasked with reinvigorating a popular character who's recently fallen on hard times. Prometheus never really returned to form after his spectacular first appearance left the entire JLA begging for mercy, and if he's to be used as the spoiler for the launch of the team's new series, it's going to take some doing before he can be taken seriously again. Fortunately enough, Gates has come up with a fine solution – the excuse that it's been a mere imposter running around in his clothes all this time may sound a bit too Ben Reilly for some readers, but in this situation it actually works. Gates immediately draws a thick line between the intellectual prowess of the real Prometheus and that of his stand-in, leading me to wonder how anyone could have mistaken one for the other in the first place. He emphasizes that, no matter what you may have seen or heard from him over the last two years, the real Prometheus is back, and this time he's extra pissed.

A lot of this issue takes place in the form of memories. While his body was unresponsive in a jail cell, the villain's mind had all the time in the world to dwell on its adventures, its mistakes and how best to exact its eventual revenge. The situation allows for an easy segue into a brief recap of the character's origin, his history and his relationship with the Justice League. Gates blends fresh details with old stories, effectively catching new readers up with the character's past and rewarding those already familiar with his exploits. When he opens his eyes for the first time in that jail cell, I caught a shiver. This guy means business.

Federico Dallocchio's artwork has its moments. At his best, he's an offbeat mixture of Jae Lee and Tony Harris, abstracting the page with adventurous camera angles and thick, bulky characters. Dallocchio is capable of delivering some nice work, but we only see his best in a few brief glimpses this month: a fantastic panel of the imposter Prometheus leaping from a hotel rooftop in a driving rainstorm, for example. His finest moments are almost good enough for me to overlook his worst, were they not so much more widespread. Federico's page layouts are often so busy and detailed that they border on illegibility. His unique choices in perspective are hit and miss, with every fantastic shot from an original angle matched by three or four choices so bizarre, it's nigh impossible to figure out what it is we're looking at. With a bit of restraint and a focus on consistency, Dallocchio could be a solid contributor, but he's presently lacking on both counts.

That said, this remains a solid issue. As a one-shot with a specific goal in sight, the story doesn't linger. It retells a concise, convincing origin for the character, returns him to a spot near the top of the villainous pecking order and almost immediately reminds readers of what made him such a cool freaking enemy for the League to face in the first place. Borrow it.

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

Manhunter #38

Federal prosecutor Kate Spencer has seen enough guilty men walk free on technicalities to fill a bus two miles long. When one particularly unsettling villain enjoys the same treatment, skipping out on a mass murder conviction and celebrating by slaughtering a pair of prison guards, Kate decides she's finally seen enough. Using equipment “borrowed” from an evidence room, she tracks and kills the man, inadvertently launching her own career as the costumed Manhunter along the way.

Sadly, this month marks the final issue of this third Manhunter series at DC. Though the title had dodged two previous threats of cancellation, low sales number have finally caught up with Kate and her friends. To his credit, writer Marc Andreyko doesn't allow the issue to read like an epilogue. It's business as usual for Kate, her ex-husband, their son and the bad guys out on the street, and the story casually cruises along without any real sense of urgency.

Andreyko's goal seems to be a balance between the insignificant drama of Kate's personal life and the sudden physicality of the hours she spends in-costume. And, so long as her two lives are kept isolated from one another, that works just fine. It's only when they begin to intertwine this month that the story loses its focus. The dry humor and casual indecision shared by her supporting cast may be charming over dinner, but when a pair of super villains literally crash into her son's graduation party, I'd expect a different set of emotions. Instead, the guests confront the intruders with bad puns and false bravado while Kate changes into her Manhunter costume. What's the point in wearing a costume when every spectator will be able to recognize you? Why is granny squaring off with that bad guy? Why doesn't the FedEx truck parked in the fountain disturb anyone? I have no idea, and the plot isn't exactly forthcoming with explanations.

Michael Gaydos, Dennis Calero and Fernando Blanco each have a hand in the artwork this month. Gaydos, who's been the book's primary artist since its return from hiatus, handles the first half of the issue and showcases a strong familiarity with its cast. If you're aware of his contributions to Marvel's Alias or The Pulse, it should be easy to imagine what his interiors look like in Manhunter. His style includes a lot of rough, jagged edges, an armload of shadows and an amazingly light touch. Although his lines are selectively limited, his work is never lacking in detail or realism. He's one of the few artists who can deliver near-photorealism without drowning the page in ink. Gaydos's characters look human and wear their emotions on their sleeve, whether they're scuffling in an alleyway or chatting on the phone at 6:30 in the morning.

When the other artists climb into the picture, the drop in quality is both harsh and swift. Calero tries to emulate the style that Gaydos has brought to the series, but his approach is too sterile and vacant. Although he doesn't make the same attempt to shift his artwork to match his big-name contemporary, Blanco's pages don't fare much better. Next to the moody, dark-veiled efforts of the other artists, his more expressive, cartoonish efforts are a huge mismatch.

I can see why this series is being cancelled. While the concept of an angry Fed hunting the guilty with a suit of armor may sound serious, Manhunter never offers more depth than an episode of a bad ‘80s sitcom. While Michael Gaydos contributes artwork that's best suited to a somber tone, Marc Andreyko is writing a story that's more goofy than gritty. This is a weird blend of styles, flavors and directions, and while sometimes great things can come from unexpected combinations, Manhunter completely misses the boat. Skip it.

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

Monday, January 19, 2009

Doktor Sleepless #11

I've slowly begun to understand that there are two very distinct types of stories Warren Ellis likes to tell: inspired, intelligent action / adventure and elaborate, high-concept musings on culture. Like Transmetropolitan, this one falls firmly into the latter category, and I'm not overly impressed by it. When he has a specific route in mind, I count Ellis among my favorite writers. Take his all-too brief runs with Ultimate Fantastic Four or The Authority for example; both spotlight his powerful imagination while also telling a deep, compelling drama that keeps the pace moving at a good clip. He keeps a specific finish line in sight, and the plot is constantly moving in that direction. But when he spots an opportunity to slow down and wallow in elaboration, Ellis loses me. And that's precisely what he does from page one in Doktor Sleepless.

Look, I'll never be able to fault this writer for telling a dull, empty story – it just never happens. Even when he's lost on a tangent somewhere far, far removed from the central storyline, Ellis is filling our minds with something undoubtedly original and fascinating. Problem is, without that forward momentum his diatribes take the shape of a blog entry more than they do a legible storyline. Roughly half of this month's issue is blown on a long-winded conversation between two characters with zero connection to the reader, serving as little more than vessels to recant another twisted vision of the future. It's full of great theories and fun ideas, but makes for slow, dreary reading. The pace is much quicker in the secondary storyline, focusing on a rumble in the city's drug market, but it never feels important. The characters at its core aren't worth all that much, neither to their community nor the narrative, and many are thrown out with the garbage within pages of their introduction. Ellis gives you seven pages of talking heads, four pages of gunfire, then three more pages of dinner table dialog. It makes for awkward pacing and random narration, united only through a shared lack of consequence.

Ellis's artistic companion for this series is Ivan Rodriguez, whose bland style and dull choice in camera angles may have soured me to the issue before the storyline took its first turn for the worst. Rodriguez is better suited to the scenes that focus on the drug dealers, primarily because there's actually something happening beyond the lighting of cigarettes and the drinking of wine, but even then his work is nothing to write home about. His perspectives are odd and repetitive, many characters look the same and there's a noteworthy lack of energy throughout. He's like Gary Frank on Ny-Quil.

If you like the idea of two ladies sitting at a table, debating the finer points of a hypothetical culture clash in a dreary future, this is your jackpot. It's the ultimate pontification, a whole lot of concept with a serious lack of follow-through. I'll readily admit that my opinion of Warren Ellis's work is decidedly hot and cold, and in Doktor Sleepless it's frigid. There's nothing happening here, and the artwork doesn't help matters. Skip it.

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

Kull #3

Continuing their love affair with Conan and his related properties, Dark Horse recently nailed down the rights to Kull, a Richard E. Howard creation that actually predates the existence of the famed Barbarian. Oddly enough, Conan's first appearance came as the centerpiece of a story that had previously been rejected as a Kull vehicle. It should go without saying, then, that the two have quite a bit in common.

Having read issues of both titles, I have to admit that I found Conan to be twice the storyteller its cousin is. Where that series never spends more than a few moments between plot developments, the first half of this issue is burned on light banter and premonitions. I have a hard enough time getting into tales of swords and sorcery, set somewhere in the dark ages… is it too much to ask that something happens beyond a few aimlessly unsheathed swords and one or two cautious whispers about a dark power? Even when the page does finally erupt into violence, the moment quickly passes, fading back into yet another long, boring stream of discourse.

If his pace leaves something to be desired, writer Avid Nelson doesn't exactly make amends with his dialog. I can understand that the tone of these stories is a big part of their appeal, that every revelation must be treated as a significant change in the status quo. It can grow a bit redundant, and paints the supposedly bright Kull as a bit of an ignoramus, but fair enough – that's part of the original material's lore. But if I can't even understand what it is that he's reacting to, what startling message the messenger has delivered to merit such a reaction, then what's the point? While everyone makes sure to address each other by name a dozen times over, ensuring we don't forget that yes, the Queen's name is Igraine, no such explanation is forthcoming for the details of their conversations. As a new reader, I was abandoned only a few pages in and never caught up. If this series has managed to become so lost within itself during just its third issue, I can't even imagine what it might be like after twenty or thirty.

Will Conrad's artwork is detailed, if unspectacular. His renditions of Kull and Brule, with whom we spend the majority of this issue, are equally lumpy and top-heavy. Their faces never seem to match from panel to panel, and I found the excessive amount of linework that's spent on their bodies gave the impression that both were much older than they're intended to be. Either these guys are managing to flex every muscle in their bodies from dawn to dusk or they've developed such a terrifyingly wrinkled physique that they should be ashamed to be walking around shirtless. Conrad's landscapes fare a bit better, particularly during the scene setting panels early in the issue, but they too eventually fall prey to the artist's tendency to over-detail.

If you thought Conan was tough to follow, Kull will make it seem like a walk in the park. While the issue's period-specific vocabulary and constant breaks in the action may please fans of the original material, it also ensures that they're the only ones who will enjoy it in this new incarnation. I'm going to skip it, and unless you were already lining up to buy it on release day, chances are good you'll want to do the same.

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

Vixen: Return of the Lion #4

For all of these years, Vixen has subscribed to the belief that poachers were responsible for her mother's murder. But when a Justice League bust reveals that not only were the wrong men fingered, but the real culprit is still alive, the heroine decides that it's high time she return to her old home in the African plains. So far she's endured threats both physical and emotional, connected with her spiritual side and learned things about the mystical Tantu Totem that were never understood. Now it's time to have a little sit-down with that man about her mom's demise.

In Vixen's first true taste of the limelight, G. Willow Wilson hasn't put together the most unpredictable story, but one that's nevertheless well written and engaging. Although the revelations Wilson shares about the origin of Vixen's powers may not be especially fresh, they do make her a stronger character and a potentially bigger part of the Justice League. She's clearly the star of the show, with the rest of her buddies along for the ride, albeit in a very limited supporting role. When there's detective work to be done, she's the one doing it while Batman sits on the sidelines and keeps an eye on the aircraft.

Where the writer does show some ingenuity is in the methods and the vision of Vixen's opposition. In Aku Kwesi, a warlord who aims to control her home country of Zambesi, Wilson has developed a versatile character with many different faces. His status as a natural citizen of the country ensures that he'll have no shortage of passionate supporters in his corner, while his international connections and complex planning makes him a threat to even the combined efforts of the JLA. Though his eventual defeat is badly telegraphed at the end of this issue, I enjoyed watching his master plan unfold as the pages slipped by.

The style of Cafu's artwork, combined with the colors of Santiago Arcas, reminds me of the warm, vibrant, uncomplicated work that Niko Henrichon handed in for Vertigo's Pride of Baghdad a couple of years back. And I'm not just saying that because Vixen struggles with a fully-grown lion within the book's first few pages. The two books share a rich, almost glowing color scheme that takes over the page and a clean, straightforward illustrative style to embrace it. Under a more line-crazy artist's watch this would be a jumbled mess, but since both contributors work styles that compliment the other it's an instantly beautiful pairing. While their work isn't quite as easy on the eyes when the rest of Vixen's JLA associates show up, the majority of this issue takes place elsewhere and the err is forgivable.

Return of the Lion enjoys beautiful, appropriate artwork that sets the stage for an entertaining, if low-key, mini-series. The series enjoys a unique flavor, both in setting and in appearance, and while many of the basic plot devices have been done before, the issue is peppered with enough little touches of originality to compensate. This won't rock your world, but as a first attempt with a character I really didn't care for coming in, it'll do. Borrow it.

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

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cyblade #2

The winner of 2007's Pilot Season continues its look back at the triumphs and tragedies that made Cyblade the person she is today. Robbed of her memories and inducted into a government super-agent program, Dominique has spent the first months of her new life blindly following her handler, Stephen Rashell. But when he's revealed as a double agent and flees the scene, the responsibility of furthering her education falls to Jocelyn, the woman who provided Cyblade with her very first combat training and then, er… killed her father and brother.

Series author Joshua Hale Fialkov draws repeatedly from the well of recycled ideas throughout the issue, rarely pausing in between to add something of his own to the mix. The issue's characters fall flat universally, rarely demonstrating more personality than a cardboard cut-out, and fire off dialog that delivers a rare mix of cliché, vague presumption and run-on sentences (like I'm one to talk). Since this is a retrospective origin tale you've got to assume that readers will know the lead character survives the ordeal, yet Fialkov constantly places her in desperate peril as a major plot device. It's even the cliffhanger for the end of this issue… Cyblade is in great danger, tune in next month to see if she survives! I don't want to spoil anything, but I'm betting she manages to pull through, and then goes on to become a key member of Cyberforce. Call it a hunch.

Of course, it's only natural to assume a book that's focused on a rivalry between two busty female characters would include a hearty helping of skin, and on this front, Cyblade does not restrain itself. The sheer number of awkward camera angles and weak excuses to catch the ladies threadless in this issue provides a certain degree of comedic brilliance, although I'm quite sure that isn't intentional. Within the first six pages, we're treated to an array of gratuitous crotch shots, an assless battle suit and a wrestling match in the shower. If it weren't for the conveniently placed debris that surfaces throughout the latter scene, I'd be sure this was the storyboard for a late-night Cinemax original.

Rick Mays and Lee Ferguson provide artwork that suits the tone. Their work is similar in that they both employ a clean, spacey style that's generally attractive. The characters that fill this issue share a dumb, vacant stare that makes it difficult to believe they're actually saying what's written in the word balloons, but at least the rest of their bodies look good in doing so. As always seems to be the case with a Top Cow series, the real visual power here is in the colors. Guru eFX does a tremendous job of enhancing Mays and Ferguson's work, adding substantial depth and mood to the page and generally making the artists out to be better than they really are. Rather than merely enhancing the atmosphere that's already present in the artwork, this issue's coloring brings almost everything to the page itself.

Not the best book I've read this month, but also not the worst. Cyblade has some serious issues, but it's light reading by design and at that it's successful. I blew through this issue so quickly, I felt like I'd been shortchanged a couple of pages, when in actuality it was just a combination of light dialog and constant action. It's nothing substantial, flip through it on the shelves and put it back when you've finished three minutes later.

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

Fantastic Four #562

Our planet's best days are behind it. Well behind it, in fact, if you believe Reed's old flame (and intellectual equal) Alyssa Castle. She and her husband have been tasked with building a replacement Earth to be employed when ours finally bites the bullet, which they're estimating should take place within, say… the next twenty years, give or take a week. Thing is, sometimes the best of intentions work out to have the worst consequences.

I've loved the premise and obvious social commentary behind this story arc, but I have to admit it hasn't been Mark Millar's most accessible work. It's perfectly in tune with everything the Fantastic Four has ever been about; brainy adventures into the unknown using Reed's mind, Sue's passion, Ben's fists and Johnny's impetuosity. Millar's Doom may go down as one of my all-time favorite interpretations of the character, a gorgeous blend of smarts and spite that's never uncertain about the assuredness of his ultimate victory. All of the pieces are there, but like the writings of Philip K. Dick, it's not something that's for everybody. Because the subject matter is so big, the tone is so verbose and there's so very much going on, this arc can be a real challenge to read. But the rewards of being enveloped in this world are so great that they're worth the effort it takes to get there.

This issue is little more than an epilogue, observations on what the team has learned during their latest adventure… yet, even as a brief respite before the next onslaught, it's overfilled with little developments and big ideas. The story never stops moving, even when the team's adventures are on hiatus, which is odd for a team of superheroes. Millar's run on Fantastic Four should be adored by any hardcore Sci-Fi fan, for many of the same reasons it will likely be avoided by more casual readers. If Mark has produced better work in his career I've never seen it, but it won't deliver the kind of accolades he's enjoyed on The Ultimates.

Millar's longtime collaborator, Bryan Hitch, isn't as sharp this month. His work feels more hurried and imprecise than I'm used to, and the story's heavy focus on details and mobs of characters hurts his compositions. There's a whole hell of a lot going on here, and Hitch is struggling to convey it all. If you'll remember his work on The Ultimates 2 #13, the end result here is very similar: same artist, same style, same strengths and weaknesses, but it's like he was working with an unsharpened pencil. That's not to say he doesn't still have his moments of brilliance, specifically during Doom's brief appearance this month, just that he's had better showings.

Millar and Hitch's Fantastic Four is adventurous, imaginative, genuinely surprising and all-around brilliant. That said, it's most certainly not for everybody. If you've been following this story since the beginning and like what you saw, you'll continue to do so this month. If you haven't, it's most certainly not the right place to try jumping on board. You'll be lost in six seconds flat. It's still great stuff if you're in the target demographic. Borrow it to make sure.

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

Incognito #1

The dynamic duo behind Icon's Criminal is back with Incognito, an imaginative examination of a different kind of crook. With a huge body count and dozens of high profile heists to his name, Zack Overkill was one of the best-known super villains of his day. But such rampages always seem to carry a giant-sized price tag, and for Zack, the time has come to pay the piper. When we're first introduced, Zack has adopted a new surname, a new location and a new job as a lowly paper-pusher, all thanks to his spot in the witness protection program. But how will he react when many of those same old urges begin surfacing once again, threatening the very foundations of his new life?

Ed Brubaker spends much of this premiere issue laying the groundwork for what's to come. He's introducing us to the cast, he's walking us through Zack's history, and he's establishing just how big a lifestyle change this is for the former super baddie. Like many of Brubaker's leads, Overkill isn't an extremely likeable guy. He's shady, conniving, and spoiled. Because he had it so good before the abrupt ending of his previous life, he's never going to be happy as a mere cog in the grand machine of modern society. And though he is such an irritating individual, it's Zack's unhappiness with an average existence that connects him with the reader. While most of us can cloud our minds and expectations enough to accept our roles as worker bees, I'd imagine none are truly content with their post in life. We want to be special, to do what we want rather than what we're told, and though he goes about it in objectionable ways, that's all Zack is after, too.

Incognito is just the latest in a long line of superb contributions from artist Sean Phillips. Where Criminal offered a fairly singular tone of grit, shadows and grime, the new series provides him the chance to showcase his versatility. Zack's life supplies a good mix of flavors, from the sterile, repetitive confines of his day job, to the sad, desperate décor of the singles bars he frequents and the filthy, grimy alleyways he visited as a super villain. Phillips provides solid visuals in each scenario, subtly shifting his style to match the tone set by Brubaker's storyline. I also remain constantly impressed by how much Phillips can do with a minimum of linework. Like Mike Mignola, he's developed that perfect eye for the very point where simplicity meets legibility. His work is no more complicated than it needs to be, but at the same time lacks neither depth nor description. It's just right.

This is just another chapter in what's sure to be a long and fruitful collaboration between Bubaker and Phillips. The pair have worked together long enough for their familiarity with one another to really pay off, as was evident when Criminal really started to take off, and for the most part, it does so here. Incognito provides a cast that's instantly identifiable, a conflicted, complicated lead character and a fresh scenario, but at times it feels like Brubaker is straddling too many genres at the same time. I'm sure the series will really grow wings by the end of its first arc, and even at the moment it's quality reading, but it's not entirely sure of its identity just yet. Borrow it at the very least, it's very good material but doesn't quite match the intensity of their preceding work.

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

Proof #15

Proof follows the adventures of a government-employed Sasquatch, John "Proof" Prufrock, as he hunts mythological beasts and unknown monsters around the globe. What better agent for that line of work than Bigfoot himself, right? Paired with a young agent named Ginger Brown, the Sculley to his Mulder, Proof has already run into El Chupacabra, The Kraken, The Loch Ness Monster and a living, breathing pack of dinosaurs. So why is he convinced he's hallucinating when he randomly bumps elbows with the Savage Dragon?

Alex Grecian's writing is playful and entertaining, reminding me of why I found tall tales and mythology so fascinating when I was younger. His enthusiasm for the subject is unquestionable; within the first dozen pages he's scattered more fantasy-housed creatures than I can count, and that's before the action really starts to pick up. These critters are so common, in fact, I had to wonder whether their existence could really be in question to begin with. Why would the government invest time and money in a department dedicated to finding and cataloging such beasts if the lead characters are basically tripping over them with every step?

Nevertheless, Proof doesn't bother itself with such details. The name of the game is imagination, in excess, mixed with a heaping helping of adventure and a splash of action. While this issue does have an awful lot going on from time to time and a cast that's nearly large enough to fill a football team, (long snapper and all) I didn't find it confusing or unwieldy. The narrative jumps around a lot, with little regard paid to smooth transitions, but it's still understandable. Grecian's craft needs a lot of work, but his ideas are so original, so numerous, that many of his sins are forgivable. I look forward to the day this writer can combine his overactive imagination with a stronger grasp of good storytelling.

I had a lot of trouble adapting to Riley Rossmo's manic, scatterbrained artwork. His style is so loose and playful that at times it felt like I'd been browsing the artist's sketchbook, rather than his contributions to the finished page. His camera often dips and sways drunkenly, which left me disoriented and almost motion sick, like I was reading this issue aboard one of those ships from Deadliest Catch. It's not that Rossmo's artwork isn't without its merits; the energy of his work jumps right off the page, he's keyed in to the silly, lively vibe embraced by the storyline, and he's nothing if not original. Nothing else on the shelves today looks quite like this, it's as if Bill Plympton, Sam Kieth and Peter Chung were thrown into the same jar and shoved in a high-velocity paint mixer. So Rossmo deserves high marks for originality, but the craziness of his work demands all of the reader's attention when it should be splitting time with the story.

This is a series that appears to be in the midst of a shared set of growing pains. Both Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo have the skills to really make some waves in the industry, but both are so raw and unbridled at this point that they're flying way, way under the radar. As a straight-up mind dump, Proof is second to none. It's playing with ideas and concepts that many creators can only dream about, and moving at such a breakneck pace that I can't imagine how it's survived for fifteen issues. As a coherent narrative, however, it struggles. Flip through it to enjoy the positives, but pause to consider the negatives before you take it home.

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

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vigilante #1

DC's new Vigilante series is, in actuality, a relaunch of a remake. The original character, a gun toting, cowboy hat wearing, red kerchief donning Wild West hero, fought crime in Action Comics beginning in 1941. In the early '80s, a second Vigilante appeared on the scene. Inspired by the Punisher, the new character set out to exact revenge for the murder of his family by launching an all-out assault on crime of all shapes and sizes. Take a wild guess which one we're revisiting today.

Marv Wolfman, the writer who originally defined the reimagined character alongside George Perez twenty-odd years ago, is back at the steering wheel for this new series. And though his inspiration may be Punisher MAX, Wolfman adds in enough fresh ideas to make the issue (and the character) his own. His decision to blend the shady, criminal elements of a noir series with the bright, shiny superhero community has resulted in a series that's both vaguely familiar and appealingly original. And from the hints he's dropped in this issue, Vigilante's first storyline could be one for the books.

Frankly, I was worried that Wolfman's long years in the business would show here, particularly when he focuses on the grunts working the streets. If a writer has lost touch, the first place it's going to show is in the dialog and actions of a supposedly street-smart group of thugs. Fortunately, Marv passes that test; his work still feels sharp and authentic, and none of this book's characters talk or act like they belong in a period piece. Time hasn't passed this old hand by just yet, and his writing is as relevant as ever.

Wolfman's partner this time around, Rick Leonardi, provides artwork that's quite reminiscent of Frank Miller's efforts with Batman. It's not the most proficiently illustrated work, with a style that's extremely loose and linework that's quite sparse, but he owns a very firm grasp of the fundamentals and his compositions are often enough to compensate for his shortcomings. In fact, as with Miller, Leonardi's work grew on me as the issue carried on; his grungy take on a dark subway tunnel enveloped me, his under-detailed rendition of the title character enhanced the mysterious air surrounding him. It's strange, because while the style of his artwork is very much in the same vein as Miller's Dark Knight Returns, the story is more in line with the famed creator's preceding work on Daredevil. If Frank had jumped back to the Man Without Fear after his stint with DC, I have to imagine this is how it would've looked.

As first issues go, this one was very strong. Though the lead character has a deep back-story, an encyclopedic knowledge isn't necessary to jump right in and enjoy this series from the word go. Vigilante is smart, but not stiflingly so. It's not as heavy as some of its crime-focused contemporaries, but not as fluffy as a lot of the mainstream superhero fare it's sharing the shelf with. Borrow it from a friend and see for yourself. It's not an instant classic, but it could easily grow into one.

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

Ultimatum #2

Everything was swell in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. Reed Richards had just proposed to Sue Storm, Spider-Man was planning a lazy day with friends and the X-Men were headed to Broadway for a little R&R. And then the bottom dropped out. A massive thunderstorm sent a tidal wave crashing into the heart of New York. Everyone in Latveria, save Dr. Doom himself, was suddenly frozen in time. And at the center of it all, Magneto sat in his floating citadel, Thor's hammer by his side.

If you enjoyed Jeph Loeb's work with The Ultimates 3, this will probably be right down your alley. It's bursting at the seams with the same action-focused, summer blockbuster style pseudo-storytelling and disregard for continuity that made me drop that series after the second issue. Ultimatum's inhabitants may look familiar, but they act like brand new people. As a supporting character in Ultimate Spider-Man, Carol Danvers has evolved into a smart, confident, well-rounded individual. Within moments of her first appearance here, though, that's all thrown out the window as she strolls into the scene wearing an outfit that's straight from the ‘90s (complete with padded push-up bra and top to bottom zipper) and lugging a pair of guns so large, they'd make Cable quiver. Although she's become the leader of SHIELD in Nick Fury's absence, evidently the promotion involved a partial lobotomy because she sounds every bit as stupid as she looks. I won't even get into what Loeb is doing with Reed Richards.

I wish I could say the story's consequences made up for these shortcomings, but if anything they compound them. As the latest imprint-wide event in the Ultimate line's short history, Marvel intends this one to mean something, and they're putting their money where their mouth is by discontinuing both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four immediately following its conclusion. This issue takes full advantage, throwing a handful of familiar faces into serious danger, but the circumstances of each character's perils are so complicated and bizarre that it's hard to take any of them seriously. The sheer number of characters in trouble is hard to keep track of, and the fact that they all supposedly spiral from the same source is asking too much of even the most impassioned reader. This story is a mess, it's difficult to follow, it's poorly written and no matter how many heroes may be on death's doorstep, nothing seems to carry any weight.

I've generally been a fan of David Finch's artwork, especially of late. While his contributions here are typically very strong, particularly when he's given a splash page to work his magic on, many pages are overloaded with so much content that he doesn't have room to breathe. Finch's heavily detailed style is gorgeous when it fills the page, especially when he deals with the wreckage of New York City this month, but when he's crammed into too many small panels, that patented level of detail becomes a handicap. The artwork isn't the problem with this issue, although even at his finest moments Finch does seem to have rushed for the finish line. He's still producing quality work, but I find myself wondering if he peaked with New Avengers.

Ultimatum is like a bad dream. It floats from one hardship to the next with only the barest of narratives, focuses on shock value without a firm supporting plot, and ultimately (no pun intended) leaves me wishing my alarm clock would go off so I can write it all off and move on. This is miserable work, and it's a shame that it's being featured on this large of a stage. While it doesn't skimp on its promises to shake things up within the Ultimate universe, the style in which it does so is almost laughable. Skip it.

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

Flash #247

Well, this is it. After 246 issues as bearer of the Flash's crimson and gold uniform, Wally West is officially calling it quits. With Barry Allen set to return to the role in a new ongoing series, the only real question this month is whether Wally will live to see the day his mentor resumes his work. Facing a rejuvenated Queen Bee wouldn't normally be cause for much concern, but with his powers on the fritz and his family in trouble, the modern Flash isn't exactly running at full speed.

Writer Alan Burnett has drug Wally to the end of his rope. Confused and frustrated by the slow degradation of his powers, furious over the abduction of his children, shaken by his wife's sudden turn for the worse and incensed over what little his super powered friends can do to help, West isn't immediately recognizable. His temper may be excusable, considering the severity of the situation, but as a parting shot it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. As a former Teen Titan and longtime member of the Justice League, Wally must have faced similarly trying times in the past. Watching his emotional breakdown, lashing out at his friends in a crisis, whining and complaining rather than immediately confronting the problem, is one of the most awkward farewells I can imagine.

Even stranger is the inconsequential way the whole ball of wax is resolved. West and company spend more time bemoaning their predicament than they do actually resolving it, so when it's all said and done I was left wondering if things were ever really as bad as they seemed. Burnett did a great job of building hurdle after hurdle for Wally to deal with, but the blowoff is so brief and matter-of-fact that it nearly spoils the entire ride.

Carlo Barberi, J. Calafiore and Andre Coelho split the artwork duties, resulting in a book that looks like an afterthought, fired off to satiate longtime readers and nothing more. I won't pretend to know which artist was responsible for which portion of the issue, but the constantly shifting style and quality of the artwork is blatant and distracting. One moment Wally and company seem vibrant and three-dimensional, the next they're flat and stoic. The lack of visual continuity is distracting and disturbing; it often removed me from the moment and explained that the conclusion of this series was nowhere near as much of a priority as the launch of its successor.

As the culmination of Wally's career, this issue left a lot to be desired. For all his efforts to the contrary, Alan Burnett never convinced me that this adventure was any different from the hundreds that had come before, which in turn makes Wally's decision to call it a career at its conclusion difficult to comprehend. It's less like he's chosen this for himself and more like he's been elbowed out of the way to make room for the next big event. Even longtime readers won't find much to celebrate here; skip it. It isn't an ending so much as it is a discontinuation.

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