Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incredible Hercules #132

Everywhere he goes, Hercules seems to provide his own special brand of trouble. This issue, for instance, he's merely driving along the interstate with the youthful, mind-wiped mortal body of Zeus in the passenger seat – innocuous enough, right – when a slew of harpies descend on their hummer and turn it into a convertible. Not ten minutes later, our hero's agreed to don the winged helmet, thigh-high boots and famed hammer of Thor himself, filling in for the god of thunder in opposition of a mysterious threat in the land of the Dark Elves. Life moves at the casual pace of roughly a mile a minute for this guy.

Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have made Hercules one of Marvel's most entertaining characters lately. Since taking over the ongoing narrative of The Incredible Hulk nearly two years ago, the Lion of Olympus has led us on a wild, raucous ride straddling the blurred line between Marvel's superheroes and the gods themselves. When opposition rears its head, Hercules doesn't take the time to ponder an appropriate response, or even plan at all. The man doesn't give that much of a damn… besides, why waste time with such nonsense when there's a perfectly good brawl brewing just around the corner?

This month's installment is a bit different, in that many of its best moments come from Herc's unexpected solo adventures in babysitting. Burdened with the task of looking after the blissfully confrontational ten-year-old avatar of Zeus, Hercules approaches the situation the only way he knows how: head-on, chin-up, guns blazing. Although Herc and Amadeus Cho have sadly gone their separate ways for the time being, the young Zeus may prove to be an even better sidekick in the short run. Pak and Van Lente might just be having more fun writing this series than Hercules is within it. They've thrown caution to the wind and completely embraced both the character and the often-hilarious results of his thoughtless leaps into action. I never know what kind of revelation might be hiding behind the next page, and I haven't yet been disappointed by what I find there.

Reilly Brown's artwork has a smooth, animated quality to it that furthers the light, jovial tone of the story. He nails the headstrong personalities of Hercules and Zeus, and never misses an opportunity to contrast the Olympians' unique choices in attire and interior decorating with the modern world they're occupying. Although his paneling habitually slips from time to time, particularly on pages with a lot of story to tell, Brown is usually able to strike a nice balance between cleanliness and detail. His best work is in the wide range of facial expressions and body language he brings to the page, especially when Herc and Zeus really start to tear into each other, and the sheer outlandishness of much of the issue's scenery also isn't lost on him. Perhaps most importantly, though, his work is a strong realization of the crazed enthusiasm intended by Pak and Van Lente's storytelling.

Incredible Hercules is a fine marriage between writer(s) and artist. The youthful exuberance of its storytelling is refreshing, full of surprises and constantly engaging, and the accompanying artwork only serves to enhance that experience. This is far from the most stern-faced, dramatic series you'll ever read, but it wouldn't be nearly as successful if it were. Buy it, it's one of the few titles out there that knows exactly where it wants to be and actually arrives at that destination.

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

Blackest Night: Batman #1

If it's not exactly a zombie invasion, it's at least the next-best thing. Inspired by the presence of Black Hand, nearly every fallen hero in the DC Universe has begun to rise from the dead, each wearing a shadowy imitation of a Green Lantern's ring. The plague seems almost universal, affecting everyone from Hawkman to the Martian Manhunter, and the heroes who still draw breath seem powerless to stop it. And what's perhaps the most disturbing revelation of all is the skull Black Hand has carried with him from the beginning – that of the recently buried Bruce Wayne.

As an irregular DC reader, it's nice to see a major crossover that doesn't require a full encyclopedic knowledge of a decade's worth of back-story to understand. Peter J. Tomasi's writing embraces that spirit and benefits from it. He keeps the cast of this issue very manageable, save a pair of pages near its midpoint, and focuses on character development and interaction, rather than explosive revelations and empty special effects. That makes this less of a generic tie-in and more of a unique perspective on a common series of events. There's no way Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne could have enjoyed this much time to themselves in the primary series, and Deadman may have been little more than a footnote, so it's great to see their unique points of view a bit more fleshed out by someone with a feel for their unique quirks.

Ardian Syaf brings a rich, expressive sentiment to the issue's artwork. Although the book's tone is quite morose, as I'd expect given the subject, he still manages to convey a broad range of appropriate emotions without upsetting the mood. From the unsettled grief of Dick and Damien at the site of the Wayne family's disturbed graves to the power-mad giddiness of Black Hand himself, Syaf is asked to cover a lot of ground and he's mostly, if not entirely, successful. The sharp contrast of his shading and the dynamic nature of his splash pages give his work a look that's more in keeping with what I expect of a Marvel book than something from DC, but after Andy Kubert and Mark Bagley's recent secessions, that isn't such an unusual thing to see any more. His work strikes a nice balance between crisp simplicity and incisive detail that's occasionally reminiscent of Jim Cheung, although Syaf's compositions aren't quite at that level.

If you're after instant action, this won't be your cup of tea. It's largely a setup issue, putting the right pieces in the right places and preparing for the moment the games really begin, but it does that job well and remains constantly relevant to the main story. It's easy to jump in and enjoy, even if you've never seen Deadman in action before, and keeps the lengthy monologues to a minimum. It's good writing paired with good artwork, moves a bit slower than I'd like for the first of a brief, three-part tie-in, but generally turns out better than I expected. This isn't essential to ensure your enjoyment of the crossover, but fans of Batman and Robin will want to stop in for the strong character development and strange personal trials they're about to endure. Borrow it.

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

Monday, August 17, 2009

Exiles #5

Blink’s back in action, which should please fans of the classic Age of Apocalypse storyline, and she’s leading her own crew of multidimensional outcasts in Exiles. Constantly traipsing from one parallel reality to the next, the gang has surfaced on an isolated landscape, a world that was conquered and smothered long ago by rebellious machines. But, lest you imagine something in-line with the portrait painted by the Terminator quadrilogy, don’t forget that the Marvel universe has more than its share of fully synthetic heroes and villains, too. Rather than Skynet, with its T-100s, the A.I. conqueror of this land goes by the name of Cerebro, commander of an army of Ultrons.

Although the title’s impending cancellation may have rushed this issue’s pacing, the majority of Jeff Parker’s plot is still easy to follow and infectiously energetic. Blink and company are always ready to push the action, which serves to drive both the storyline and its characterization. The Exiles have become accustomed to constantly playing the part of the strangers in a strange land, and that’s made them a bit too eager to react without thinking. They mean well, but they’re also prone to making mistakes, which in turn makes them much more human and sympathetic.

Although Parker does tread a bit too deeply into the realm of unstable molecules and Pym particles for my taste, over explaining the pseudo-science of the robots’ master plans, (and those of the resistance) he gets it over and done with very quickly and it’s not entirely unexpected nor unimaginative. In fact, most of the Exiles themselves seem to space out during the jargon-heavy technical bits of that conversation, which has grave results a moment later, when Cerebro’s henchmen launch a surprise attack. It’s a smart way to emphasize the important points of the story for the casual audience without dumbing things down, and a perfect example of just how clever Jeff Parker’s writing can be in the right predicament.

Sadly, I have a less glowing review to write for this issue’s artist, Casey Jones. With one or two exceptions late in the book, Jones turns in work that’s mostly flavorless and unfocused. While I can understand the need for a lighter, friendlier style to match the generally happy-go-lucky personality of the team itself, that doesn’t mean it needs to look like a part of the Marvel Adventures family. This issue seems unfinished and under-detailed, devoid of personality and flair. In other words, the opposite of the smart, rich writing it’s here to accompany.

Don’t let the bright, cheery visuals of this issue throw you off, because at its heart is an intelligent, intriguing adventure. The team is wonderfully fleshed out, a surprisingly tight-knit group with more than its share of depth, shortcomings and surprises. In emptying out all the twists and turns he had in store for this series before its sudden conclusion next month, Jeff Parker is proving just how fantastic it could have been over the course of a long, sustained run. The only thing holding it back now is the generic artwork. Borrow it and mourn what’s about to come to an end.

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

Ultimatum: X-Men Requiem #1

I guess the question shouldn’t really be how the X-Men can move on from the events of Ultimatum, but who’s really left to pick up the pieces. The path to Magneto’s final defeat took a hefty toll, and following the deaths of Wolverine, Cyclops and Professor X, (two of whom appear in action on the cover of this issue!) there’s a noticeable vacancy at the top of the team’s ranks. Who’s ready to stand up and take the reins of leadership for all of mutant-kind? How can they hope to overcome the black mark Magneto’s actions have left on the public perception of their race? I guess this farewell one-shot would be the first step.

Assuming, that is, that your first step on the road to recovery is to have a three-on-three fistfight with the leftover bad guys, which is just about all that really happens in Requiem. As the last writer to deal with the series, Aron Coleite is tasked with sending it off into the history books. Strangely, though I’d imagine the thinking was to use a writer familiar with the characters to ensure a proper sendoff, from all indications this is Coleite’s first time playing around with the team. With the obvious exception of their mutant abilities, he provides nothing to distinguish one face from the next, and it doesn’t take long before they forego even that small shred of individuality to concentrate on simply throwing angry haymakers at the enemy and shouting. Coleite can’t even manage to do that right. Where did Mystique and Sabretooth go? One minute they’re in the midst of a brawl, the next it’s time for quiet reflection on the surface of a mass grave with no sign of them. Did the good guys just throw them on top of the pile? Where did Captain America come from? I’m looking high and low for the answers, but they aren’t here.

Ben Oliver’s artwork pairs with Edgar Delgado’s colors to produce some breathtaking work in this issue, although their collaboration is frequently too vivid for its own good. Oh sure, when they come together and hit the mark, the stylized realism of Oliver’s linework teams with the added dimension and texture of Delgado’s colors to produce something genuinely fantastic. Their pin-up style portraits of Mystique midway through this issue and Sabretooth a few pages later are truly breathtaking, poster material if I’ve ever seen it. That doesn’t make it suitable for the subtleties and implied motion of regular panel work. Many times I found myself lost, confused by the sheer number of competing hues on a single page. It’s an information overload, more description than you’d want or need in a single moment, and it single-handedly slows the pace of this issue way down. There’s a certain flow inherent in great artwork, something that sleekly moves your eye from one major point of emphasis to the next, and it’s missing in Requiem.

I suppose it’s a fitting tribute to this series that its final bellow is such an accurate representation of the sins that led to its demise. Flashy artwork that’s pretty but fundamentally lacking, vague writing with plot holes the size of Magneto’s floating island... yep, this serves as a pretty good outline of what went wrong. Ultimate X-Men began with such vigor and life, it’s hard to imagine this is where it would ultimately (no pun intended) wind up, but here we are. This is inessential to the core, something that wants to have depth and substance in the worst way but doesn’t really know how to get it done. Flip through it and then walk away.

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fantastic Four #569

This is it: the ultimate showdown between The Fantastic Four and the latest in a long line of ultimate nemesis from beyond our own reality. This time the bad guy goes by the name of the Marquis of Death, he's already established himself as Victor Von Doom's superior in each and every way, and he's convinced just about every last alternate version of the Four themselves to aid him in his quest. It's time to put up or shut up, with the fate of reality left to hang in the balance, and just one family standing between our world and the brink of eternity.

Though this is a somewhat larger-than-normal issue, the pace never attempts to slow down. For his grand finale with the team, Mark Millar tries to cram as much action and resolution into a single issue as I think I've ever seen in a standalone edition. The end result is roughly one major finale every page and a half, perhaps six issues' worth of storytelling in little more than a single month's page count. If that sounds like it moves pretty quickly that's because it does, and it's not always for the best. It's great that this whole arc is coming together so quickly (and the timing really does feel just about right) but when gargantuan battles are both begun and concluded within just a few panels, the magnitude of each moment is unfortunately tossed by the wayside.

While I appreciated the slow, intellectual pace taken during the first few steps of his run, Millar pays the price for that decision here. The issue holds a great lump of wonderful ideas that seem destined to go unappreciated, even unrecognized, because they're so abundant and rapid-fire. It's good stuff if you've got a microscope and the patience to figure everything out with such a minimal explanation.

Fresh off a lengthy run with Brian Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man, Stuart Immonen has stepped in to cover for Bryan Hitch, providing artwork for the final leg of this storyline. It's a bit odd that Hitch couldn't manage to produce more than the cover for this, his swan song with the team, but if such a replacement really was necessary I can't argue with Marvel's selection. Immonen made quite a name for himself aboard USM, more than adequately filling the shoes of longtime collaborator Mark Bagley, and he proves to be up to a similar creative challenge here. His rendition of the publisher's famous first family carries a more mature flavor than his preceding efforts with Spidey and pals, but lacks none of the panache.

Immonen doesn't shy from the same incredible timing, deep personalization and knee-shaking perspective that made him an instant favorite in his previous gig. His take on the four has a slightly different slant than his rendition of Peter Parker – they wear their years and accumulated wisdom on their sleeves – but they still bounce around the page with boundless enthusiasm and limitless energy. If he hadn't already done so beforehand, Immonen really solidifies his status as one of Marvel's greatest, most consistent talents within this issue. It's great work from cover to cover.

There's a little bit of everything here; sci-fi adventuring, brutal action, brainy meetings of the minds, warm romance… the works. Problem is, it often borders on (and occasionally leaps beyond) the line of excess. There's so much going on that it can be difficult to stand still and savor the moment. It's well written, despite a few lines of corny dialog from guest scriptwriter Joe Aheame, and the visuals are genuinely outstanding. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right. It's worth borrowing, at least, because when it's good it's really good. Just expect a bit of whiplash.

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

Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #5

Let's just get this out of the way right now – I may be precisely the wrong person to be reviewing this series. Then again, maybe I'm exactly the right guy to give it an honest run through the wringer. Let me elaborate: I haven't historically been one for the larger DC universe. I've always been a Marvel guy first and foremost, with a bit of a soft spot for DC's big players and something of a curious ignorance of the publisher's lesser-known heroes. Throw me an issue of Detective Comics or Green Arrow and I'm right there with you, but the majority of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths was lost on me. I just couldn't keep up.

I'm no DC historian. If that's who the series is aimed at, it's going to land well short of the mark with me, not to mention the vast majority of its potential audience. I do like to proudly proclaim myself a frothing superhero fanboy, however. If it's got capes and good writing, takes an interesting direction and doesn't require too much of an encyclopedic knowledge of the back catalog, I'll gladly climb on board and enjoy the ride. And that's exactly what I tried to do, but this issue lost me within the first four pages.

The potentially interesting content within Legion of 3 Worlds was way, way over my head. The few moments I could actually comprehend were so overstuffed with corny dialog and the reckless use of superpowers that I was shaking my head and blinking with every new panel. Geoff Johns has produced fine work in the past, so I know he's capable of better, but if this is his love letter to the DCU of the '80s, as it seems, perhaps it's material best left remembered and not revisited. It's one excessively complicated scenario after another, with a random, nameless hero stealing the spotlight around every corner. Sure, if you're a big fan of one particularly obscure character that never gets any page time, you might be able to look really closely and make him or her out somewhere in the scenery, but is that really enough to keep something like this afloat?

Even worse, the central storyline that's supposed to tie it all together is dependent upon the existence and exploitation of a loophole in time and space itself. Right, because things weren't convoluted enough before the introduction of time travel and a routinely rewritten history. God help us.

Furthering the throwback flavor of this series, the legendary George Perez is on hand to provide its artwork. Which should have been expected, really – nobody can manage to toss a hundred unique characters onto a single page as effectively as Perez, and he proves up to the task yet again here. He's at his best during the super-powered gang wars that erupt throughout the issue, but his work does show some of its age when the focus shifts to a single character. Of course, good compositions will never be dated, but it's difficult to imagine anyone managing to balance so much action with so many word balloons without making a few sacrifices along the way. Perez does all he can, which is often good enough, but isn't without his own moments of weakness.

I'm sure this issue is going to hit all the right notes with a very select portion of the comic book audience. I just can't count myself among them, and neither will any curious new readers who happen upon the issue and, impressed by the cover artwork, decide to give it a chance. It takes so much for granted, crosses so many lines, that I can't imagine more than one or two out of a hundred even understanding what's going on, let alone enjoying it. The only thing I gained out of this experience was the knowledge that I shouldn't have read beyond the second page. If you haven't already purchased it and devoured it, you should keep your distance. It's not for you, or for me. Skip it.

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