Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Detective Comics Annual #11

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Mystery: Halloween Annual #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unwritten #6

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

In Brief - September 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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