Monday, June 22, 2009

Red Robin #1

The recent death of Bruce Wayne has affected his extended family in different ways. Dick Grayson has assumed his role as Batman, Alfred mourns by throwing himself into his work, Jason Todd has… well, he's become even crazier. Naturally, the news has affected his long-time sidekick and adopted son, Tim Wayne, perhaps most dramatically. Thing is, Tim doesn't entirely believe that Bruce is dead, and in a way of dealing with his conflicting emotions, he's set out on a quest to prove it. Having left behind the role of Robin, Drake has embarked on a broad tour of Europe in search of his fallen mentor wearing a new outfit and a different moniker: the Red Robin.

He's got a lot of ground to cover in this first issue, but Red Robin's writer, Chris Yost, does so magnificently. In his first test drive with Batman's traditional players, Yost shows no hesitation. He dives right into the impending confrontation between Dick (the new Batman), Damian (the new Robin) and Tim (the odd man out), lets the events play through to their logical conclusion, and moves us forward to the present. This month's narration travels quickly, jumping from the Bat Cave to a hostage sitation in Madrid, a rest stop in Spain to a street-side explosion in Prague, but it hardly feels strapped for time. No single scene lingers for longer than it needs to – there simply isn't enough room for wasted pages – but it also doesn't seem excessively rushed or short on detail. From all indications, this is going to be a breakneck tour of Europe but not at the expense of good storytelling.

Yost tells much of the story via Tim's own internal narration, but show similar restraint there as well. He doesn't muddy up the artwork with a flood of narrative boxes, but instead uses them sparingly and effectively. The brief glimpses we're given into Tim's thought process are enough to establish the character, convey his mindset and reaffirm his reluctance and frustration. No one is more uncertain of what he'll find on this little adventure than Tim himself, but he knows undoubtedly that it's something he has to do before he can move on with his life. He's growing as a character and as an individual right before our eyes, graduating from sidekick to standalone in what's becoming a natural progression for former Boy Wonders.

For the character's new ongoing series, artist Ramon Bachs has brought along a more appropriately mature visual style. Blending the talents of Tony Moore, Tony Daniel and Darick Robertson, Bachs envisions a series of cities that are consistently gritty, seedy and filthy without producing an uncontrollable flow of linework in the process. His work is simple but serious, uncomplicated but not juvenile. In that respect, he reaches a nice balance between the relative innocence of the youth Tim's left behind with his Robin costume and the more serious, no-nonsense landscape he'll be dealing with as one of the big boys. It's perfect for the lead character's current predicament: no longer childish, but not quite ready to be a grown-up.

In a word, this is good stuff. Well, actually that's two words but you get the point. It's unusual for such a well-defined character to get as fresh a start as Tim is enjoying in Red Robin, so it's great to see his creators acknowledging that fact and taking full advantage. All the familiar aspects of this character that you've loved are still intact, but the apparent death of his mentor has changed him fundamentally and Tim is still trying to understand precisely what that means. This issue was just the first step. It's a wild ride that navigates a variety of emotions, before delivering a teaser at the end of the chapter that's left me hungry for more. Buy it.

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

Batman #687

Dick Grayson is Batman. After Bruce Wayne's heroic death in the line of duty, a series of imposter Batmen and the inevitable decision that he was born for this moment, the original Boy Wonder is now the one true Dark Knight. But, as he's beginning to learn, the responsibilities of a Caped Crusader go far beyond the decision actually don that famed grey and blue uniform.

The flashback that starts this issue has noble, appropriate intentions – reminding us of Dick's constant yearning to learn from, impress and become more like his mentor, then revealing just how close he's come – but the timeframe is all wrong. Robin had been around for seven years before the infamous giant penny first decorated the cave, and even if the scene in question was meant to take place later in the duo's career, I can't imagine the phrase "you got served" was yet a part of the public vernacular. I'd shudder to overhear the current Robin using that phrase, let alone the guy who's now wearing the cape and cowl. Are these little things to be picking at? Sure. But I have to imagine the goal of this little scene was to add a touch of legitimacy to Dick's new job role, and such authenticity lies primarily in these details.

Fortunately, that opening scene is just a small bump in the road for the book's author. Judd Winick spends the rest of the issue more or less in the present, dealing with the countless ramifications of Bruce's death and the impact it has on the DCU as a whole. He takes a long, hard look at Dick's reservations about taking over, at Alfred's forced resolve amidst trying circumstances, and at Damian's restless impatience for someone to take charge. While many of these characters have been explored quite thoroughly over the years, Winick is using the special circumstances to unveil new facets of their personalities. As he should. As the situation demands.

I don't have nearly as many good things to say about Ed Benes, the issue's artist. A DC regular, Benes has made the rounds with many of the publisher's best-known titles: he followed Jim Lee on Superman, spent some time with Supergirl and Birds of Prey, and has most recently contributed to Justice Leage of America. This is my first exposure to his work, however, and I'm not especially impressed. For one, Batman, Robin, Gordon and even Alfred are usually posed in such stiff, uncomfortable positions that I felt compelled to overemphasize my own posture, like I was the only one slouching at a funeral service.

I like a nice balance between detail and restraint in an artist, but Benes brings an overload of the former. The excess of crosshatch shading, paired with the obsessive folds and creases he brings to each visible bit of fabric make the pages feel heavy and cumbersome. There's often just too much going on at one time, although some pages are much worse off than others. Benes does enjoy a few rare moments of clarity, where he displays an ability to pull off that elusive balance, but they're regularly outnumbered. He can't decide if he wants to be Jim Lee in the '80s, Joe Madureira in the '90s or something different for today.

There's a lot of pensive, bottled excitement brewing around the books in the Batman family right now, and rightfully so. Although the promise of Bruce's imminent return is already hanging ominously above this whole house of cards, for the time being it's a new day in Gotham, both for the characters and for the creators. As far as Winick and Benes's run on the flagship title goes, this is a mediocre start. Flip through it and enjoy the occasional moments of brilliance, then hope they're a bit more frequent in subsequent chapters.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ultimate Spider-Man #133

In case you missed the update like I did, this would be a wrap for Ultimate Spider-Man: Volume I. Yes, despite Marvel's assurances that the series was safe from the kind of extinction that seemed inescapable for Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, the current run of USM ends with number 133. Following two issues of Requiem, the festivities will resume in August with a new number one, a new artist, and (perhaps) a new Spider-Man.

I suppose if the current run had to end, this would be the right way to do it. In light of the book's conclusion, writer Brian Michael Bendis chose to publish its final issue without a single line of dialog. That lack of diction could've made for a very quick, disappointing read, but between Bendis's thrilling plot and Stuart Immonen's fantastic visual storytelling, it never felt short on substance. In fact, the silence played into the story brilliantly. When the issue opened, moments after an enormous explosion had rocked the concrete beneath Spider-Man and the Hulk's feet, it produced a shell-shocked, white noise sort of sensation. I felt like my ears were ringing as everything fell into slow motion, surrounded by a faint light haze. As the issue progressed, that effect transformed to embody more of a stunned, speechless disbelief while it became less and less likely that Kitty and Spider-Woman would find Peter's body. No words could have delivered a stronger impact.

In Stuart Immonen's swan song with the character, he's delivered what is likely his strongest performance. Naturally, a wordless episode seems tailor-made to showcase the skills of the artist above and beyond those of the writer, but that sword has blades on both sides of its hilt. Under such circumstances, a bad artistic showing could be amplified just as much as a good one, if not more so. And despite my general love for his work, I must confess that I've seen some slack in Immonen's Ultimate Spider-Man efforts lately.

In this issue, though, that's all a distant memory. This is Stuart Immonen taking over the show, pulling every last tool out of his box and putting it all on display right there on the page. Nobody delivers a sense of staggering perspective like Immonen, as evidenced by the fireball engulfed two-page cityscape that opens this issue. Few show restraint as effectively as he does a few pages later, during the fight scene between an enraged (and, literally, inflamed) Hulk and a fleet of Military helicopters. And, perhaps most impressive of all, he has few rivals when it comes to the kind of complicated emotions that flood the faces of Spider-Man's supporting cast as the tale goes through its paces. From the unrestrained fury of the Hulk to the heartbroken concern in the face of Kitty Pryde, there's nary an expression that goes untouched in this issue's thirty-two pages, and Immonen nails every last one. Incoming artist David LaFuente has some humongous shoes to fill when he takes over later this summer.

After finding myself terribly disappointed by last month's story, this provided a nice rebound that left me upset about the impending relaunch. Why screw around with something that can still work this well? Buy this one and enjoy it, because who knows what twists and turns the future might hold.

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

Dark Avengers #5

Norman Osborn's crew of evildoers masquerading as heroes seems to have achieved its ultimate goal of unconditional public acceptance. While the old Avengers are out on the streets, struggling to evade arrest, Osborn and company are thriving under the public spotlight, taking credit for their good deeds and living the high life in their old headquarters. It's funny how much good a little well-timed PR can do for a team's image.

Although it's certainly a dangerous proposition, I love that Brian Michael Bendis has such creative freedom at Marvel. He seems unbound to try just about any idea that floats into his mind, for better or for worse, with this issue providing no exception. If he wants to explore the seedy underbelly of crime in the Savage Land, we're headed straight for the land of the lost. If he suddenly decides he'd like to spend an entire issue on Norman Osborn's live TV interview with Katie Couric, by God, we're getting a full issue of talking heads. And that's just the kind of indulgence this month brings us, with a few very brief glances around at the rest of the squad for completion's sake.

Compared to the last few months, when the former Goblin single-handedly carried the narrative to its conclusion, this wasn't a great issue. Norman had plenty of time in the spotlight, which is always a good thing, but his dialog wasn't nearly as revealing, nor was it as charming. Rather than finding a new respect for the character via another introspective peek into his psyche and a few well-placed compliments, I just saw him as a conniving snake – and that's nothing new. He did a decent enough job of deflecting Hawkeye's public criticisms, which was basically the point of this out-of-armor appearance on the evening news, (I especially loved his calling out the fact that Clint himself was a reformed felon) but his points weren't convincing enough that I could see anyone buying into him as America's new, improved white knight. Instead of giving the majority of our population something to blindly throw their faith behind, he went on the offensive, attacking Barton's past but not his criticisms. It's like Bill O'Reilly has been given the keys to our nuclear arsenal.

After five issues, the jury's still out on the work of Bendis's artistic partner, industry veteran Mike Deodato. While his style has changed markedly since the mid '90s, when he was just another wave in the sea of Jim Lee clones, I can still see a lot of that era's influences in his new work. He's worked diligently to minimize the amount of detail in his artwork, but it still has a tendency to feel overworked and excessively meticulous. Although he's nailed Osborn as the smarmy, arrogant leader of the pack, he still hasn't quite come to grips with most of the rest of the cast. His male characters seem lumpy and heavy, his females uncomfortable and awkward. With his continuous use of deep shadows painting the entire team in a suspicious light, I can see why he was chosen for this series, and Deodato could still prove to be the definitive Dark Avengers artist. He just isn't there yet.

Conceptually, this has become one of my favorite mainstream comics. There's plenty of embedded social commentary in the prospect that most Americans wouldn't know or care if the men in charge of their well being were violent repeat offenders, and Bendis seems as content to delve into that as I am to buy it right up. Dark Avengers is still going strong, but its pace has slowed and during the down time I've noticed a few cracks in the veneer. Borrow it.

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

Monday, June 1, 2009

In Brief - May 2009

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

The Avengers: Free Comic Book Day Special - Twice as much fun as any issue of New Avengers has been since the start of the Skrull invasion. Rather than continuing to pussyfoot around the impending confrontation between New Avengers and Dark Avengers that's looking less likely with each passing day, here Bendis throws both teams into a common predicament and forces them to work together. Not without its corny moments (yet another "fastball special"), nor its head-scratchers (why did daddy Wolverine retract his claws before throwing a punch at Daken?) but as self-contained storylines go, this was above and beyond anything I could've expected. It had to make a few sacrifices to fit the page count but still came through as an enticing, coherent story that provided some valuable depth to select members of both teams. Jim Cheung should be the full-time artist for New Avengers; his work here isn't the greatest to ever grace the page, but it's worlds better than anything I've ever seen from Billy Tan. Much better than I was expecting.

Blackest Night #0 - The free comic book day edition. Basically a short conversation between Barry Allen and Hal Jordan over the unmarked grave of Bruce Wayne, remembering and reminiscing about their own shared experiences with death and beyond, which I have to admit might change one's perspective on the grieving process. It occurred to me that perhaps Flash and the Lantern were speaking for their readers in this issue, in that they weren't all that shaken up by the heroic death of their dear friend because they knew it was inevitable he'd be making a return from the grave. So really, they weren't saying goodbye so much as they were wishing him well on his journey. As a long-standing Marvel diehard, I found a few things to dislike about the traditional DC archetypes prevalent in this issue, but unless I'm being overly nitpicky I have to admit I enjoyed the food for thought. The price was certainly right, although Ivan Reis's artwork wasn't doing anything for me.

Daredevil Noir #2 - Maybe it's because I knew what I was walking into this time, but this issue just didn't seem to burn with the same kind of intensity as the debut. Last month set the scenery and jumped right into the machinations without even taking a breath, but this episode is much more lackadaisical and run of the mill. Even the big reveal of Elektra's identity at the end of the issue was kind of a yawner. As eye candy goes, though, Noir is still second to none. Coker's artwork is just as breathtaking in the Kingpin's private study as it is on the rain-soaked streets of Hell's Kitchen. Bullseye next month - could go either way.

Ex Machina #42 - Brian K. Vaughan is keeping a dozen plates spinning on his fingertips within this series, and I haven't the foggiest idea where it's headed. After lounging around for what seemed like an eternity, the whole of this story's cast has finally clicked for me. The only part I'm not really sold on is the debuting arch-nemesis, and that goes beyond my shallower concerns that Bioshock's Big Daddies have already laid claim to his wardrobe. If the big, conclusive battle of this series does wind up being animal vs. android, it's going to take a lot of convincing before I'm ready to look at it as a fair fight. Here's hoping this month's killer rat attack wasn't all the proof we're going to get on that front. Pretty good stuff, with a wonderfully consistent artist in Tony Harris.

Terror Inc: Apocalypse Soon #1 - Man, what happened to this series since the last time I saw it? The first mini was a great balancing act of horror, science fiction, fantasy and gallows humor, and that's a pretty good summary of what's missing here. With a lead character who's lived through the rise and fall of a dozen different empires, there's the potential for a lot of kickass storytelling built right in, but the brief glimpses we're granted this month were terribly shallow and generally useless. As a frothing fanboy of David Lapham's, this really isn't an easy thing for me to say... but he's totally missed the mark here. The jolting change in artists only makes things worse. What a disappointment.

Ultimate Spider-Man #132 - I could overlook Bendis's treatment of Ultimate Hulk in last month's issue because it was surrounded by so much awesomeness. But with a lame central storyline focused on the effects of a flood on Dr. Strange's headquarters, the same can't really be said this time around. What I've loved so much about the ultimate iteration of the Hulk is how he's been handled as a ferocious, unpredictable, violent ball of fury - Millar and Ellis nailed it down in The Ultimates and Ultimate Human, respectively. But in USM he's something else entirely. He's weak-willed, he's generic, he's comic relief. In small doses, I could probably deal with that. As a recurring character with as much page time as the lead, that's not so easy. Yet such strangely inconsistent characterization isn't even exclusive to the Hulk in this issue: Mary Jane acts completely out of character, Kitty Pryde loses her cool under pressure, and now Kong is one of Peter's closest friends? I'm speechless. Here's hoping this was just an off month.

The Walking Dead #61 - Holy crap! Every time I try to stand up and gain my bearings with this series, Kirkman yet again pulls the rug out from under my feet. The man is absolutely ruthless. Like many of the others that came before, this issue is overflowing with moral quandries, harsh realities and terrifying moments of foreshadowing. I can't believe what went down this month, and from any indications that's just the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, Charlie Adlard was tasked with some seriously difficult emotional moments and performed heroically. Without exception, he nailed every last expression. Walking Dead is quickly lumbering to the top of my monthly checklist. Another fan-fuckin-tastic issue.

The Ultimates: Volume 1 - An old favorite that I threw into my backpack before climbing on a plane. I wanted to open it up again just to be sure it was actually as good as I remembered it being the first time. Guess what? It was even better. This is an examination of precisely how a team of government-endorsed, frighteningly powerful superhumans would more than likely carry themselves under the harsh spotlight of the real world. That they're also mind-bogglingly deep, complex, often bone-chillingly human characters just makes for an extra treat. And this is just the getting-to-know-you chapter. It doesn't really start to hit the fan for a few more issues! An all-time classic that I never should've even thought to question, both from a writing perspective and an artistic one. My only qualm is that everything else I was reading at the time paled in comparison and was probably knocked down a few unjust pegs as a direct result. Read this now, even if you've already read it a dozen times before. Love it.

New Avengers #53 - It just keeps getting worse and worse. The cavalcade of nobodies continues this month, as the crew lands in New Orleans just in time to throw down with a few demonic also-rans. If it weren't for a few great one-liners from Spider-Man, this would've been a complete waste of my time. I don't care about Brother Voodoo, I don't care about Daimon Hellstrom, I don't care about Doctor Strange and I'm really falling out of love with the Cowl since he's taken on this extra demonic personality. In stark contrast to the Avengers FCBD Special, this might just be the slowest moving, least interesting direction The Avengers has ever taken, and Tan's artwork is about as bad as it gets. One more month like this and I'm outta here.

Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk #6 - Wow, did this mini-series taper off. Damon Lindelof's writing is extremely inventive in concept, but in execution it's beginning to struggle. This issue, for example, Logan gets through the airport without setting off the metal detectors by dropping a grenade into an unsuspecting traveler's briefcase. As security takes the man to the ground, Wolverine slips by unnoticed and quips "Once they figure out the grenade's made outta soap, they'll let him go." So why did it set off their alarms then? Such quandries and incredible coincidences plague this issue, holding it back from becoming the big, conclusive answer everyone expected (and certainly intended) it to be. What's more, Lindelof refuses to stop reminding us of the one memorable moment of the entire mini, the unforgettable shot of the Hulk tearing Logan in half at the waist. I don't think an issue of this series went by without a flashback or offhand remark about that incident, and by now it's just getting in the way. "Hey, I tore you in half, remember?" "Why yes, I certainly do remember that time, when you tore me in half." We remember too! Get on with it! This wasn't good, it wasn't bad, it just was. After the shocking, full-speed first issue, UWvH has just coasted on fumes the rest of the way to the finish line.

Wolverine #72 - After missing a few chapters, I very nearly let this storyline slip away. I'm glad I didn't. Millar's warped, twisted rendition of a victorious Red Skull is gorgeous: one part Cobra Commander, two parts Skeletor, fifty percent Megatron. He's drunk with power, reckless, entirely unpredictable and utterly fascinating. This isn't the best writing of Mark Millar's career - in fact, it's surprisingly sloppy and one-dimensional - but this particular chapter was so much fun that I'm willing to let it slide. The big payoff that each issue has been building towards finally arrives this month, but after all that came before it just comes off as anticlimactic, ending the chapter on a flat note. McNiven's artwork is showing a bit of wear and tear, clearly rushing in a few instances just to finish the damned thing off, but he still brings the goods. A profanely beautiful issue that succeeds almost entirely on the back of its villain. Pity it couldn't have ended right here.