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.

Daredevil #500

I guess one of the fringe benefits of renumbering a long running series like Daredevil is the chance to pick and choose your landmark events. Need a few extra pages to give a little extra emphasis to the ending of a major story arc? Well, let's look around and see if we're near an anniversary issue of some kind. As fate would have it, the 500th published edition of the man without fear's ongoing adventures just so happens to coincide with the final chapter of Ed Brubaker's last hurrah with the character. Hence the awkward leap from issue #119 last month, and the seemingly rapid-fire "anniversary" editions. But hey, if it means more content and weightier circumstances on a regular basis, I don't really care what digits they have to throw up on the cover.

Goofy numbering aside, it's easy to see that Brubaker's really made his mark with this character. After devouring Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's run on the series, I had no amount of envy for the creative team tasked with continuing the story, but Bru and his ensemble of partners have performed better than I ever could have imagined. Not only did he pick up and run with the brutal cliffhanger handed to him by the culmination of Bendis's run, he's slowly built to the point that the cast is ready for another huge change in direction, delivered it, and then immediately handed the ball over to the next team. Is this becoming some sort of rite of passage? If so, the expectations have just doubled for poor Andy Diggle, who takes over next month.

Now that he's concluded his run, I can look back and see how much of Brubaker's work was leading toward the enormous revelation that caps off this issue. One by one, he's been slowly cutting the threads connecting Matt to a sense of normalcy and comfort, removing bits and pieces of his civilian identity until we were all ready to see this kind of major lifestyle change. Which isn't to say it was telegraphed… more the opposite, in fact. I didn't see this coming, but now that it's happened I've realized that every last clue was right there, waiting to be discovered. He hasn't wrapped up every single plotline from his run, to do so wouldn't have felt right, but Brubaker has certainly cleaned a few cobwebs and made room for whatever direction the series decides to take next.

An entire cadre of artists has joined the writer for his swan song with Daredevil, with frequent collaborators Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano holding the reins for most of it. These two have swapped places several times over the course of the series, with artwork that's similar enough in tone and foundation that most readers probably didn't even notice. In play within the same issue, their faint distinctions are a bit more noticeable, but they're still similar enough that the switch between scenes is comfortable. They're each asked to deliver a series of very complicated emotions, both in the characters' facial expressions and their body language, and they each deliver across the board. It's clear that both knew just how important this issue was, and brought their "A" game accordingly.

It's only fitting that the best issue of Brubaker, Lark and Gaudiano's run is also their best. I'll miss the noir-meets-ninja flavor they brought to this series, just like I missed the courtroom drama and media headhunting that Bendis and Maleev delivered, but it's time for something different. A great deal of the magic of this series lies in its constant ability to seamlessly reinvent itself, and it's cool to see that Marvel not only gets that, but embraces it. This was the right time for Brubaker and friends to step away, because I don't think they'd have been able to top this issue. Buy it up and get ready for another new beginning.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.5

Witchblade #129

It's always about the angels and the demons, isn't it? Why can't they just get along for a change? In Witchblade, that unrelenting struggle takes the form of the Angelus and the Darkness, two extreme variations of the same color, with Sara Pezzini's Witchblade straddling the line between the two. Constantly in search of some sort of eternal balance, Sara's role has changed quite a bit over the years. For one, the Witchblade itself has divided and sought out a second master, Danielle Baptiste, and (surprise surprise) the two don't get along. Having finally come to blows, both women managed to escape with their lives but the rift between them has grown wider. Now Sara's blade is beginning to lean toward the darkness, while Danielle's embraces the light.

For all the pomp and circumstance proposed by his plot, Ron Marz takes an absurdly casual approach to writing this issue. When Sara transforms the Brooklyn bridge into a gothic cathedral, complete with glowing green windows, Danielle reacts as though she's ordering a pizza. It's downright hilarious, the way so many absurd, fantastic situations are treated as though they were commonplace. Maybe the residents of this version of New York are accustomed to seeing armor-plated angels sail through the sky, four-foot long swords protruding from their forearms, but I certainly am not. When did this series completely lose its link to reality, and why does it flaunt that disconnection so proudly?

Remember Spawn: The Impaler? A fully painted three-issue mini-series from the mid ‘90s, the height of McFarlane-mania, when Image was cashing in on the character's popularity with weak spinoffs and terrible movies? If not, thank your lucky stars. It was brutal: horribly written and essentially impossible to follow thanks to artwork that really had no business being painted. In either case, Stjephan Sejic's artwork in Witchblade #129 is its spiritual successor. It's so ugly it detracts from the story, which wasn't exactly the stuff of legend in the first place.

Sejic's touch with the paintbrush is fine – he'd do well as a full time colorist – it's his compositions and stale underlying sketches that ruin the issue. Most characters look alike, if not identical, like rejects from an open audition for All My Children. The landscapes they occupy vary wildly from needless, excessive, distracting detail to lazy, half-assed afterthoughts. Sometimes he takes that leap more than once on a single page. Sejic can't settle on a paneling style, either, flying recklessly from a strict grid layout to a series of wild, arcing, jagged-edged trapezoids. He really doesn't seem to be ready for this kind of gig.

Witchblade #129 is a bundle of regurgitated concepts and weak execution. While it professes to be much more, Ron Marz's script is really just an excuse to jump into a fight scene. His cast speaks in a single dull, unified voice, without a single relatable character in the mix. And, despite delivering a small handful of surprisingly great single panels, the vast majority of Stjephan Sejic's artwork is similarly faceless and unfocused. Even if you have a long relationship with the series, this issue probably won't entertain you despite the meager plot twist at its conclusion. It makes plenty of noise, but in the end this is hauntingly shallow. Skip it.

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