Monday, November 30, 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #612

Ana Kraven, daughter of the infamous hunter of the same surname, has been licking her wounds and preparing her next onslaught for the better part of a year. After her full-on initial assault on Spider-Man resulted in an undesirable outcome, she's taken a more cautious, calculated approach in her follow-up. Laying low, striking unexpectedly at several of Spidey's past acquaintances, Ana's been slowly pooling power and wisdom, not to mention allies. And now, with the imminent return of four of the webhead's more prominent rogues, her patience may be on the verge of paying off. If you can't take out Spider-Man at full strength, why not wait until he's completely drained before having another go?

This is the first installment of the much-ballyhooed "Gauntlet" storyline that's promised to reinvent several of the hero's classic foes, but like the young Kraven, it's not in a big rush to get right to the heart of the matter. Writer Mark Waid sets a pace this month and sticks with it, donating the entire issue to an inspection and reassessment of Max Dillon, better known as Electro.

Waid aims to make the character less of a laughingstock and more of a sympathetic figure, with mixed success. When his introspections are on a personal level, the writer's work is at its strongest. As the tormented loner, desperate to feel another's touch or just go back to the simple life he enjoyed before he became Electro, Dillon seems genuinely relatable, his frantic desperation often misinterpreted by the good guys as simple, selfish villainy. That's the kind of angle that could really work for this kind of a story, but Waid doesn't leave it there. Turning his attention to more topical subjects, he ties Max's present financial struggles in with the rash of investment fraud stories populating the real headlines. Where the new glimpse at the character's mentality was appropriate and effective, the attempt to turn him into a folk hero, ranting against government corruption and corporate greed from the rooftops, is more of a reach. It feels gimmicky and unnecessary, and seems like something we'll be rolling our eyes at once it's republished in trade format.

If you're not familiar with Paul Azaceta's previous work in Captain Marvel or Daredevil, picture a blend of Tim Sale, Jack Kirby and Mike Mignola. Usually I'm wary of this kind of over-simplified artwork when it comes to superheroes, especially ones with a wardrobe as bright as Spider-Man's. Less linework means more space for a glaring, primary-heavy color palette and the accompanying eyesores that always seem to follow. Some artists skirt the issue by bathing the page in deep shadow, but that never really feels like a good fit for the clean-cut Peter Parker. Azaceta manages to sidestep the potential pitfall without resorting to such desperate measures. I'm not sure if it's his knack for dynamic posturing, an effective eye for silhouette or a careful handle on composition, but he comes out of this episode smelling like roses. Colorist Dave Stewart certainly lends a big hand, using soft, suitable secondary colors in the background to offset the bright shades I feared in Spidey and Electro's outfits and ensure the focus remains on the artwork itself rather than the crazy tones adorning its subjects.

As opening volleys go, this was lacking a lot of power. It didn't feel like the first chapter of one of Spider-Man's greatest challenges so much as it did another day at the office, and that's both a good thing and a bad thing. It's less intimidating than the epic, tide-turning crossovers that have dominated Marvel's publishing schedule for the last few years, but it's also missing a sense of permanence. Maybe that will change as things play out. Despite a few weak attempts at social commentary, at its heart this is still an entertaining distraction. Waid shouldn't be hosting his own talk show any time soon, but he can still write a good comic book. Borrow it from a friend.

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

Outsiders #24

Those of us old enough to remember the era when DC's Teen Titans was a genuine rival in popularity for Marvel's mighty X-Men franchise will no doubt recall the story of Terra Markov. The former Titan, who sold out her teammates in a partnership with Deathstroke and ultimately paid for it with her life, has risen from the grave wearing a black ring and sought out her brother, the current Outsider named Geo-Force. So has death's cool embrace calmed her erstwhile spirit, or is she the same traitorous scamp as a zombie?

This is the kind of thing I've always had trouble coming to terms with about DC's classic cast of characters. They've always seemed so quick to forgive, forgetting a lifetime of betrayal when confronted with just a modicum of questionable remorse. But as fate would have it, it seems that such tendencies annoy this issue's writer, Peter J. Tomasi, just as much as they've bugged me. Does Terra meet a completely hostile reception upon her arrival to the Outsiders' HQ? Nope. In fact, her brother goes out of his way to embrace that longstanding stereotype, welcoming her with open arms and immediately taking everything she says at face value. The rest of the squad, however, appears less willing to buy into her grand story of retribution at the moment of reanimation.

Not that Terra doesn't make a convincing argument. She tugs away at sensitive heart strings, begs her brother to save his lost sister's soul, to the point that even the most unforgiving reader might find a hint of promise in her words. But despite her knack for saying the right things, Terra doesn't find a lot of compassion in Owlman. He's the much-needed voice of reason, saying what most readers are probably thinking and doing his best to keep the squad from following their emotions into a potentially dire situation. The conversation that surrounds Terra's return is a tough one, without an immediate revelation about which side of the argument is in the right. It does a lot to establish the team as a group of distinct personalities, not to mention fight back the age-old label of DC's heroes as overly sympathetic fools.

Fernando Pasarin's artwork does its job admirably enough. He doesn't get a lot of exciting material to embrace in the majority of this issue, as it's largely dedicated to character moments, flashbacks and heated discussion, but Pasarin still manages to keep its pages interesting. His style is very technical, perhaps a bit lacking in vigor, but it's got character and his obsession with minute detail is a healthy one. On his one chance to impress with a super sized two-page spread near the book's conclusion, he makes sure the wait was worthwhile.

As has been the case with both major publishers' major events of late, I'm really starting to get tired of the lengthy setup stage of "Blackest Night." It seems like second gear is becoming increasingly difficult to find in these massive, imprint-spanning epics, and Outsiders #24 is just another symptom of that disease. It doesn't do anything wrong; in fact, it's done everything that's been asked of it and still managed to come out with a solid standalone story with strong personal ties to the team. But at some point, enough is enough and it's time to shit or get off the pot. This isn't essential reading whether you're following the crossover or not, but that doesn't mean it's without virtue. Borrow it but don't expect to get too involved.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Astonishing X-Men #32

Never ones to turn a blind side to a friend in need, the X-Men were quick to aid Abigail Brand, the green-haired, green-goggled, green lip gloss lovin’ SWORD employee you may remember from a few key issues of Secret Invasion. As long as you’ve got your color code in order, I guess, you needn’t look far for an assist in the Marvel U. It should go without saying, then, that when the dashing Miss Brand crash-lands aboard a disintegrating spaceship, she probably won’t be alone. And, sure enough, no sooner does the team get her back on terra firma than they’re assaulted by the latest revision to the Sentinel line. This round, the towering robots have stretched a patch of human skin over their surface, and its original owner isn’t exactly unknown to the team.

Writer Warren Ellis doesn’t draw the line there. What’s worse than a Sentinel all decked out in flesh and bone, Terminator-style? How about one that can fire Brood monsters out of its fingertips? If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for an extended fight scene to you, it should, because that’s exactly what’s on the menu for this issue. Faced with the new peril, half the team dedicates themselves to tackling the big, fleshy robot while the others concentrate on wiping out the sharp-fanged alien beasties it’s fired into the crowd of onlookers. How to deal with a public nuisance? Let’s start with closed fists and work our way up from there. Not exactly the brainiest thing he’s ever written.

It’s also not the most captivating. Ellis seems to think more of the fight’s importance than carries over to the printed page, spending full spreads on the movements and slow fall of the defeated Sentinel (whoops, spoiler, they defeat the Sentinel) and the regurgitated battle with its Brood offspring. It’s a nice effect, one that draws his readers’ attention to a few climactic moments and broadcasts them in slow motion for added impact, but the watering-down effect it has on the story itself is profound. The Day After Tomorrow used the same tricks in place of good storytelling, but I expect that of Roland Emmerich. I hope for more from Warren Ellis.

Of course, the seeds of success for any good fight scene are really planted by its artist, and Ellis lucks out in this respect. His partner, industry regular Phil Jimenez, delivers a great showing that realizes every intricacy of the script. While his compositions and storytelling are undeniably solid, it was Jimenez’s concentration on the little atmospheric touches that really made me stand back and take notice in this issue. The cluster of gulls he suspends in the air, providing the magnitude of the attacking Sentinel a point of reference, also grants us a constant reminder of the story’s seaside locale. The effects of Storm’s lightning onslaught on the Brood, still seen in the distance as the scene shifts to her teammates’ struggles with the giant robot across town, establishes the sheer size of the battlefield. Jimenez’s work is beautiful on the surface, but its real power is hidden in the details.

As far as Warren Ellis contributions go, Astonishing X-Men #32 is very light reading. It’s quite a bit more mainstream than any of his other works, even his run with a more family-friendly team in Ultimate Fantastic Four, which is a disappointment. It’s more off-center than the rest of the mutant family, admittedly, though not by that much. I would’ve liked a briefer skirmish, a few more unexpected developments and a different flavor than what I got. It’s not a terribly bad showing, particularly on the artistic front, but it also didn’t leave me very hungry for the next issue. Flip through it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.5

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love #1

When it comes to the supernatural land of Fabletown, the less the modern world knows about it, the better. In fact, the sheer existence of the settlement depends on it. So what to do when bits and pieces of contraband and supernatural artifacts begin appearing outside the city walls? Why, look no further than Cinderella herself; shoe salesman by day, secret agent by night.

In case you’re still in the dark, the entire Fables, er, fable is based on the modernization and revitalization of the tired old residents of fairy tales you grew up with as a child. Cinderella herself is a perfect example. While the idea of the bashful former younger stepsister as an international agent of espionage may not sound particularly fitting in theory, it shines in print. Who better to do your secret dirty work than the girl everyone in town sees as the shallow, empty-headed ditz with more time for fashion than friends? And, surprisingly enough, Cindy (as her close acquaintances know her) actually makes for a convincing, effective field agent. Chris Roberson, the writer of this particular spin-off, wastes no time in establishing that. He opens the issue in the midst of a particularly short scuffle atop Big Ben that doesn’t turn out so well for the bad guy.

If you’re a stranger to Fables, you’ll likely miss out on a few specific details but the major points of emphasis are laid out in the open for the uninitiated. Cindy handles most of those explanations internally, with a handful of thought bubbles spilled across each page, but they’re sparse enough to leave the majority of the layout open for moving the primary plotline forward. It reads smoothly and easily, even if it does get a bit cutesy from time to time. Needless to say, if talking animals aren’t your thing you may want to look somewhere else.

Shawn McManus fits this series like a glass slipper. His simple style is right at home with the characters Disney reinvented a generation ago, but his tremendous knack for scene-stealing perspective and strong grasp of the characters’ multifaceted personalities are his most important tools. McManus grabbed my attention with the issue’s first big panel, the aforementioned fracas at the tip of London’s best-known timepiece, and kept hold until the midway point, when that sharp eye for detail began to wane. By the time Cindy lands in Dubai, the first stop on her search for the men behind this naughty smuggling operation, it’s like a different artist has climbed into the driver’s seat. He’s still working the simple, cartoonish overall style with various degrees of success, but the heart stopping scenery that initially caught my eye has faded away into something more mundane.

Those same flaws can be applied to this issue as a whole. Everything starts out well enough: a good, original premise, a solid set of initial cast members, a fine series of opening panoramas. But then, upon closer inspection, the magic begins to wear off and we’re left with something a bit less spectacular and a bit more everyday. It’s less than it could have been, a few missed opportunities from a must-read. The concept and strong introduction is enough to make it worth borrowing this month, but things are going to have to pick up in a hurry to keep it at that level the next time around.

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ambush Bug: Year None #7

Around since the early ‘80s as little more than chaotic comic relief, Ambush Bug is to the DC universe what Deadpool is to the Marvel landscape – just without so many guns, a regular ongoing series, or a body ravaged by cancer. He's a geek who happened to stumble upon the last surviving trace of an alien species (a wardrobe) and not-so-gradually lost his mind shortly thereafter. But the Bug is more a vehicle to satirize the industry as a whole than a legitimate character, a chance for his creators to loosen their belt buckles and go wild. Even if it's just a coincidence, the circumstances surrounding this issue continue that pattern. It's been almost a year since Ambush Bug #5 shipped, leaving fans of the character hungry for the final installment of this six-part mini-series. Instead, after eleven months' wait, DC has shipped an unexpected seventh issue instead, using the majority of its page count to wonder aloud about the fate of issue number six. I remember when Spawn did something like that about eighty issues back.

If you're curious, Keith Giffen can still be funny. Sometimes he tries too hard and the jokes fall flat, but he's still a genuinely entertaining writer and everybody has their hits and misses. Reunited with Bug co-creator Robert Loren Fleming, Giffen uses his old partner's presence as an inspiration to steer the storyline directly off the tracks, only a few inches outside the station. Like I said, it's funny – sometimes absurdly so – but I kept expecting something to pull everything together in a neat little package and that never happened. It's just Giffen and Fleming musing about whatever springs to mind, whether that's the status of their storied sixth issue, the dawn of modern civilization, Jurassic versions of each of DC's major characters or the publisher's ongoing love affair with large-scale, epic crossovers.

This issue is all over the place. I can't overstate that. I know a lot of the appeal of this character comes from his disconnection with the scenery and the complete lack of respect for the fourth wall, but sometimes that kind of liberty only encourages these guys to push the envelope further than it needs to go. I was enjoying the chaos until the midway point, when Ambush Bug himself finally makes an appearance and the storyline plummets off a ledge into the land of utter incomprehension. Once our writers find the courage to slam their editors in print, then realize they can play it off as madcap storytelling and get away with it, there's no looking back.

There's crazy, there's criminally insane, and then there's Ambush Bug #7. On the few occasions it comes out of the haze and tries to make some jokes, it's quality work. Giffen and Fleming's sense of humor can't be second guessed, but this is so self-indulgent and nonsensical, I'd given up on it just a few panels after the title character said his first line. Good thing, too, because that's right about the point this whole mess becomes completely unbearable. There aren't enough drugs in the world to make this feel right. Skip it.

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

Secret Warriors #9

Norman Osborn and his Dark Avengers have been ramping up their efforts to hunt down and eradicate Nick Fury's ragtag gang of Secret Warriors. This month, the excrement finally strikes the rotary cooling apparatus. Osborn's pet operatives with HAMMER have caught up with the Warriors at last, locating their base of operations before the stealthy sneaks can leave it behind, and Norman is ready to strike. With Ares and Bullseye in tow, the Iron Patriot is strapped in, geared up and ready for war, and with Nick Fury out of the house on a top secret mission, the bad guys' timing could not have been much better. Assuming, of course, that this wasn't all a part of the Warriors' plan?

The very first thing you're going to notice in this issue is the artwork of Alessandro Vitti, which I instantly fell in love with. His unconventional style and focus on individuality gives this team the identity they've sorely lacked since their first appearance in Mighty Avengers #13. I've always seen these guys as a vanilla cluster of also-rans – bland, flavorless and utterly forgettable – but it only took a few panels for Vitti to inject them with a compelling, much needed dose of energy. The stories he tells with each character's expressions, clothing and body language would take an eternity to spell out with words, which frees up his writer to concentrate on other aspects of the story.

Vitti also delivers one hell of a fight scene. He gets his chance to flex that particular muscle fairly frequently this month, with amazing results. It's been a long time since I've been this happy to see a set of two-page spreads crammed so closely together. Alessandro skimps on no detail when the Dark Avengers and Secret Warriors come to blows, and writer Jonathan Hickman wisely wastes little time getting us there. The artist's work in this kind of situation is bursting with vigor and overflowing with expressive details, while remaining easy to navigate and expertly composed. I must've spent ten minutes devouring the layout he's spread between pages nine and ten. It's genuinely fantastic work.

Jonathan Hickman's writing is equally refreshing. Spending most of the issue out of the limelight, Hickman uses his word balloons so sparingly, I began to wonder if he were working with a strict letter count. This issue cuts straight to the chase, which is a true change of pace in a landscape overpopulated by large, sweeping story arcs and constant dramatic pauses. Whether he's documenting a fistfight or a political maneuver, Hickman gets to the point without hesitation, and that's something I can really get behind.

I was prepared to hate this issue from the moment I laid eyes on it, but it quickly and cleanly worked to completely overcome that initial bias. It's a real surprise, an action book that doesn't shy away from its identity with a dash of spy work thrown in to spice things up. Hickman and Vitti have done magnificent work in taking one of Brian Michael Bendis's less interesting ideas and elevating it into something that's approachable, invigorating and explosive. This isn't what I thought it was, and chances are it's better than you're giving it credit for, as well. Buy it for the artwork alone, the solid storytelling is just icing on the cake.

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

Brave and the Bold #28

No good can come of The Flash playing around with an alteration to the speed of light. Seriously, outside of silencing a profound burst of scientific curiosity, what purpose can such a pursuit really serve? You just know there's going to be an evil super genius or a time warp or something hiding back there, and then Barry's going to have his whole afternoon spelled out for him. But experiment he must, and wrong everything oh so naturally goes. Turns out there really was a time warp waiting for him, and now today's Flash is sprinting around in the era of World War II, interacting with the Blackhawks and trying to explain his outfit, his identity, and how he's different from Jay Garrick, the silver-helmed Flash of the day.

J. Michael Straczynski's plot would feel right at home back in the Silver Age, when science didn't really need to have a distinct purpose and writers could smudge the details as much as they wanted. In a way, that kind of innocence is genuine and adorable. For instance, I couldn't help but smile when I saw the little yard markers Barry's scientist buddy had set up on the grassy knoll he'd chosen for testing their experiments. Either he's laid down somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of those things or a man sprinting at the speed of light will lose sight of them after his first step. But when we're talking about a guy who can run quickly enough to teleport himself sixty-odd years backwards in time, those details are more of a flamboyant accent and less of a point of concern.

Still, I was hoping for a bit more meat from this story than Straczynski provided. I admire his respect for the format, telling a string of self-contained stories over the course of his run, but this may have been too ambitious of a project for it. We cover so much ground in so few pages that it starts to feel like nothing is carrying any emphasis. There's a solid morality crisis in the middle of the issue, as Barry struggles with his vow to never take another's life while wearing the crimson and gold amidst a Nazi shelling, but it's over and done with after a couple panels. There simply isn't enough time to spread it out any longer.

Jesus Saiz's accompanying artwork has its hits and misses. In some of its stronger panels, his work fits the era nicely; a clean, crisp, down-to-earth style that's half Steve Dillon and half Joe Kubert. In others, Saiz attempts to modernize things just a bit too much. He understands the nuances of good visual storytelling, but that constant flux between an era-appropriate style and something that's undeniably modern kept me persistently off-balance. In the issue's later pages, he manages to marry the two with some success, but by then the bulk of the story's drama has already passed. He does good work, but just took a bit too long to find solid footing.

I can understand that the big draw here is the oddball teaming of a modern superhero with a squad of soldiers from the distant past, so it came as no surprise that the vast majority of this issue was spent on their interactions with each other. But when an entire month's worth of action, the climax of the story, is blown through in a single-page montage, I can't help but feel somewhat shortchanged. This is a fun little stroll through time, nothing to take too seriously, but decent enough entertainment for a lazy half-hour over the weekend. It fits into its single-issue shell, but not without making a few clear sacrifices. Flip through it and move on with your life.

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

Spider-Woman #2

A long-promised labor of love from the former creative team of Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, Spider-Woman has been in development for what seems like ages. And with the timely release of this second issue, it seems that fans of the character, the creators, or both can finally breathe a sigh of relief and sit back to enjoy the ride.

Speaking of wild rides, Jessica Drew herself has been taking one for just about her entire life. A genetic experiment at birth, she's traded allegiances and comrades like the men on Wall Street deal in stocks. She's lived as a superhero, a secret agent, an Avenger, a private eye and much more, capped off by an untimely kidnapping at the hands of the Skrulls. Replaced on Earth by a doppelganger alien queen, Jessica has struggled to reenter a casual super-powered existence back home on Earth since the failed alien invasion. Longtime friends are having trouble looking at her without flashing back to the treacherous actions of her Skrull imposter, and that isn't making it easy to find a lunch mate, let alone a running buddy. Isolated and lonely, she's taken the first job she can find – as a planetary defense agent for SWORD.

If you're wondering where this story fits on a scale of Daredevil to Halo:Uprising, it's fortunately much closer to the former. Jessica isn't nearly as brooding, quiet and angry as Matt Murdock was, but she's still a very personable, interesting lead character that both Bendis and Maleev have a firm grasp of. Unlike the pair's collaboration on the aforementioned Xbox tie-in, this story is direct, quick to action and almost completely enveloping. The focus is rarely shifted from Jessica's side, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Though they're still exploring the potential of this character, telling us who she is, what she does and how she does it, their elaborations don't come across as excessively pedantic. Bits and pieces of her psyche and abilities are revealed as dictated by the narrative itself, not thrust upon us out of the blue. I didn't feel like I was in a classroom taking notes, instead I was watching an old pro shoot from the hip and play it by ear.

Maleev's artwork is every bit as gorgeous as I remembered. His style has shifted subtly to suit the situation, but it remains gritty, vivid and perfectly stylized. He's among the best in the business at conveying emotion through body language and facial expression, best evidenced this month when a speeding vehicle opens fire on a crowd and Drew hits the deck, hands clasped to her ears, screaming at the top of her lungs. Maleev treats a powerful woman as effectively as he did a seedy noir hero; with respect, grace and sharp clarity. What's more, he's carrying an extra load in this series by painting over his own artwork. But unlike most painted books, Spider-Woman's visuals don't get in the way of its writing. They're used as an accent, not an emphasis, the sign of a true master. He didn't need a crutch, and doesn't use the paintbrush as such. What a relief.

This series is still working its way up from the ground floor, but it's already clear that Bendis and Maleev's creative link has never been stronger. The two work styles that compliment each other as well as anybody else in the business, and while this series gives us a different angle on that collaboration, in the end it's no less effective. These guys have still got it. Buy it and enjoy.

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