Monday, December 27, 2010

Jonah Hex #62

What can you say about Jonah Hex? He’s a wild west bounty hunter with an ugly mug and a knack for disaster; a walking, talking tankard of trouble with a mean streak longer than the scar on his cheek. This month, rather than chasing bounties on the lam, Hex is pulling a more legitimate paycheck: escorting a mysterious, silent package through the lawless countryside with a small group of hired guns to watch his back. Only, as fate would have it, that quiet package isn’t nearly as innocent as one might think, and it brings along its own set of criminally-minded, gun-toting admirers.

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti spin this unconventional yarn, part Fistful of Dollars and part Freaks, into an offbeat, fast paced one-off storyline. Having no experience with Hex myself, the ability to jump right into this tale and understand what’s going on without half an issue’s worth of back story was a genuine blessing, and one that’s become far too difficult to find in modern comics. If you’ve seen a western and appreciate a nice slice of suspense, you’ve already got all the tools you’ll need to comprehend and appreciate Jonah Hex #62.

Of course, working within the framework of a self-contained story carries certain restraints and limitations of its own, especially when 95% of the cast is comprised of fresh faces. It’s no easy task to establish a character, make your audience care one way or another for him and tell his story, all as the subtext to a greater saga, within such a short page count. Having said that, Gray and Palmiotti manage to do exactly that… a dozen different times. It helps that the story is largely character-driven, with the single plot point of a risky escort job providing all the loose framework that main narrative really needs. Still, our dual writers deliver on their promises and manage to establish a strong, versatile cast, share enough about them to make the audience care about their grand fate, and then ultimately get them what they’ve got coming by the time we reach that final panel.

The latest in a series of guest artists to make a stop on Hex, Eduardo Risso doesn’t take long to get comfortable with the cast or the setting. Risso has his share of supporters and haters, and though I consider myself to be planted firmly in the former camp, I have a hard time picturing anyone in the latter finding anything to complain about here. On a stone-cold serious book like 100 Bullets or Logan, Risso’s wild, untamed transgressions between the serious and the nutty could come across as aloof and out of place. Here, directing a troupe of misfits, circus freaks and outcasts on their bizarre adventures in the old west, those dual personalities feel right at home. Master of the establishing shot, Risso has a field day with the gorgeous scenery of America’s untamed territories before turning his eye to the grizzled, unmistakable visage of the protagonist and his cohorts. When the story slows down to catch its breath around the middle of this issue, Risso is right there to keep the ball rolling and give his readers something to appreciate. He turns in fantastic work this month, and it’s regretful that his stay with the character is destined to be such a short one.

It may not be the most refined work, nor the most intellectually challenging, but the present state of Jonah Hex is still worthy of a closer look. Gray and Palmiotti are clearly enjoying themselves, taking liberties with the lead and with his supporting cast, going nowhere in particular but still getting into adventures. The short-term addition of Eduardo Risso really puts them over the top this month, but this is a series worth keeping an eye on even after he’s out of the picture. Buy it.

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

Action Comics Annual #13

If it’s as odd for you to consider the prospect of an Action Comics without the Last Son of Krypon as it is for me, this Annual edition should throw you for a bit of a loop. Granted, the series wasn’t always so intently focused on Superman, and given the retro movement that seems to be sweeping through the industry, perhaps a change of focus isn’t completely out of left field. While Annuals have never been particularly renowned for their continuation of the monthly’s ongoing storylines anyway, this year’s installment takes that concept a step further. Rather than a single, double-sized story, Action Annual #13 has opted to go the anthology route, with two feature-length stories and an extra-brief backup tale featuring a few of DC’s non-leading men.

In “Father Box,” Paul Cornell and Marco Rudy explore an undocumented meeting between an ancient intergalactic menace, Darkseid, and Metropolis’s own locally budding mad genius, a young Lex Luthor. It’s an unusual tale, one that moves in leaps and bounds, jerking readers away from their expectations just as soon as they’ve been developed. One moment we’re enjoying a charismatic baby-faced Lex, clawing his way up from the streets in a cash-strapped, crime-soaked younger Metropolis, the next a glowing pink door materializes in his office and we’re jolted off, literally, to another dimension. It’s an enjoyable little romp, matching laid-back, adventurous storytelling with free form, unusually composed visuals, though I couldn’t help but notice the unanswered questions that kept tugging at the back of my mind. Why does Darkseid come off less like a power-hungry evil tyrant and more like the Mad Hatter? What era are we in, when Luthor and Perry White are still bright eyed and bushy tailed, but civilians stroll around with smart phones in their hands? It’s a bouncy, energetic action / adventure playground, but not one that grants more than a fleeting glance to the structures of continuity. For better or for worse.

Cornell again spotlights young Luthor in the issue’s second tale, “A Father’s Box,” this time with artist Ed Benes at his side and Ra’s al Ghul teaching Lex a few lessons. Told almost exclusively in prose, this anecdote works as a deliberate, casually paced counterpart to the first. Here, the writer’s take on the well-examined central figures is more honest and recognizable. It’s not the joyride that Lex’s encounter with Darkseid was, and as such it pales in direct, immediate comparison. On the whole, though, it’s a more complete, enjoyable story.

Though neither tale (nor the five-page Batman Beyond backup yarn) seek to further any current narratives, they do provide a certain degree of added depth to each character enjoying the spotlight. Naturally, there’s that lingering question of where these adventures belong in the grand scheme of things, if at all, brought on by the strange disconnects and missteps I’ve mentioned above. But, assuming they are legitimately in-continuity, both stories add a certain degree of depth and lore to three of the publisher’s most highly regarded demons. This isn’t required reading, but it’s worthy of a borrow.

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Osborn #1

Norman Osborn has stagnated fairly significantly over the past year. Not that one could blame him, being confined to just ten square feet of cell space in one of the back corners of the Raft, floating home to Marvel’s criminally insane and maniacally dangerous. The ex-Green Goblin hasn’t been without his share of visitors since the Avengers forcibly removed him from power in Siege, but for the most part he’s been left to spend some time with his own thoughts. As it turns out, that might be all the company he needs, what with the pair of strong-willed personalities crammed in there, each vying for control of his mind and body.

I can get that considering his static locale and lack of company, Norman himself isn’t the most likely candidate for a starring role in his own limited series right now. No matter how fascinating his psyche may be, readers aren’t going to stream through the doors to follow the adventures of the firmly incarcerated man and his active imagination. As a means to keep this series from becoming a single-perspective series of internal monologues, writer Kelly Sue Deconnick has sent us off to a small handful of locations around the globe with at least one thing in common: a subject of conversation. If you imagined that topic as Norman himself, I’ll be around to deliver a cookie shortly. Although his finger is no longer on the button, it seems the Goblin is still a popular subject of debate in various military, press and religious circles, and for at least one day we get to play flies on the wall.

Bearing that in mind, it still feels quite odd to read a book titled Osborn in which Norman himself has only a few very brief appearances. Understandably, it’s the first issue of the series and Deconnick spends most of her time setting up the pins so forthcoming issues have something to bowl over, but at the end of the day it’s still the villain who has the most intriguing persona of the lot and his regular presence is sorely missed.

Deconnick’s temporary partner, artist Emma Rios, left me something more to be desired. Her work dances a fine line between frantic and over-composed, neglecting detail in certain circumstances and pouring it on in others. Her take on the story’s few recognizable characters (namely Peter Parker, Ben Urich and Norman himself) are foreign and unfamiliar, a trend that continues when she moves to take on the issue’s new faces. There’s no sense of adventure or excitement in her work, not that the word-heavy situations she’s illustrating have much call for that, but that gives her art a bland, drawn-out personality. Rios seems like a fill-in artist who’s missing her opportunity to turn a few heads as a regular. Her page layouts are easy to follow and clean enough, but the artwork itself is stale, faceless and dry.

I once thought that Osborn himself was the key to any issue’s success. With such a deep, rich, charismatic character already defined beforehand, I was certain that any story could find new life by merely including him. And for some time, that little theory of mine held up. Different writers and different titles all tried Norman on for size, and with very little exception, each came out smelling like roses. Odd, then, that it’s the Goblin’s own self-titled mini-series that kills it for me. Despite its promise and the character’s long string of success stories, this story just isn’t a winner. It’s slow moving, witless and predictable, three traits I never thought I’d assign to anything involving the former head of the New Avengers. Skip it.

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

Spider-Girl #1

Spider-Girl may look like a familiar marquee to Marvel regulars, but I think I can safely assure you that the new series is anything but. Casting aside the costume, numbering, identity and timeline of the under-loved previous series that had so frequently flirted with cancellation, this new number one seems to share only a masthead and a willingness to fight crime with its long-lived predecessor. Set in the present day, Spider-Girl #1 features the debut of former Young Ally Araña in her new getup, swinging through the city on artificial webs during the intermission between classes at Milton Summers High School.

Clayton Henry’s artwork is a good way to get a new series off on the right foot. His style is sleeker, smoother and more vividly realistic than the exaggerated, overly stylized work of both Ron Frenz (on Mayday, the previous Spider-Girl) and Mark Brooks (earlier iterations of this character). The shift in artistic discipline is a nice touch, one that reinforces the differences between the new focal point and those two preceding faces. Araña has grown up a bit since the first time we met her, evidenced by her recent appearances in Amazing Spider-Man’s “Grim Hunt” and the short-lived Young Allies series. Henry does a fine job of reflecting that in the character’s physique, demeanor and body language, resulting in a lead that almost feels too mature to still be in high school.

Writer Paul Tobin makes an effort to counterbalance that, interspersing a running set of internal monologues throughout the issue in the form of tweets and IMs. That’s not exactly a new trick, but despite a few snags (as in, how is she carrying on a chat at the same time she’s putting the boots to a generic villain in the issue’s opening pages?) and a dangerous proximity to the realm of full-on gimmicks, it does serve a purpose. These little pseudo-interactive thought bubbles are a quick, informal way to introduce new readers to who this new lead character is, what she’s concerned about, and where she’s coming from. Presumably so the story can waste little time in diving right into the thick of its first juicy story arc.

Only the drama doesn’t start up immediately, or even imminently. Having efficiently established most of the cast within the first six pages, Anya then spends the next dozen on a carefree stroll through the city, shooting the breeze with Susan Richards. When an unspecified threat to the city forces Sue to cut their lunch date a bit short, our lead does finally dive into the action, although it’s of the generic variety. Stopping purse snatchers, halting a carjacking, that sort of thing, with hints and dashes of tweets and IMs still dropped in at appropriate intervals. It’s a casually paced introduction to the character that slowly builds to ensure something bigger next month.

The new Spider-Girl has lots of promise, although it’s still playing with its ultimate intentions held close to the vest. This opening volley is unusually carefree in tone, moving through the story with the same sense of urgency most folks show window-shopping at the mall on a Sunday afternoon. The artwork is gorgeous, thanks in no small part to Chris Sotomayor’s brilliant colors, and the story has spent enough time laying the groundwork for a major shake-up to really have a profound effect. The big question is, will next month’s story stand up and take advantage? As it stands, this debut is decidedly middle-of-the-road. Borrow it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6

Monday, November 22, 2010

Batgirl #15

With Bruce Wayne back at the head of the table in Batman, it looks like it’s finally time for the whole slew of related titles to move on with their lives and get back to business as usual. Of course, that’s not entirely a new course for Batgirl, which has already been dancing to its own tune for a few months. While Dick, Tim, Alfred and company were off searching for Bruce and trying their damnedest to fill his shoes, Stephanie has been gaining experience, both in her pointy-eared nightware and her civvies. Now that the extended family around her is finally nearing some form of solidarity, she’s in a great position to really reap the benefits of that relationship. Of course, she’s something of a work in progress.

Bryan Q. Miller is still setting up shop on Batgirl, establishing characters, settings and dilemmas with every new issue, but the groundwork he’s laid thus far has the book set on a firm, whimsical course with a solid, well-rounded lead at the center of it all. As a protagonist, Stephanie is far from the typical caped crusader. Where the rest of her comrades are products of the cookie-cutter school of the slick, the quick and the grim, Steph is more vocal and aloof. The grit teeth, clenched fists and spooky shadows that have become the trademarks of the Wayne family are never far from sight, but they’re often balanced with a low-key character moment over the dinner table or an off-the-cuff remark that reminds us of that missing mental toughness. Where Bruce and company are all-business, all the time, Stephanie’s still an occasionally flaky, almost-average girl feeling her way through one extraordinary situation after another.

Issue fifteen marks the debut of new ongoing artist Dustin Nguyen, a name which should carry some weight among dedicated Dark Knight fanatics. In between twin stints on The Authority, Nguyen has spent time on Batman, Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham, with each run remembered fondly by the die-hards. His work here is a direct continuation of those preceding stops, slightly skewed to match the more upbeat, playful tone of this series. Though this is his first visit with Stephanie’s crew, his work with the lot is so solid and consistent it’s already like he’s known them for years. Nguyen’s artwork is nicely framed and impressively complete; he never skimps on a background or trivial detail, and the simple, crisp style he employs focuses on efficiently moving the story along to its next stop. He’s a fine addition to the series, with the kind of name recognition to attract new readers and the quality of work to keep them around for a while.

If you’re looking for a good time to jump on-board with your first Bat-title, Batgirl #15 is an excellent opportunity. Not only are the first three pages dedicated to a quick, easy-to-skim summary of the entirety of Batman’s history, but the lack of deep continuity and more open, approachable nature of the primary character makes this issue excessively easy to slide right into and start enjoying right away. It’s not quite as deep as its stable-mates, but that’s responsible for 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

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6

As it turns out, Bruce Wayne was never really dead. Though his body appeared limp, drained and devoid of life after taking a point-blank blast from Darkseid’s Omega Beams in Final Crisis, in actuality Bruce’s spirit had been blasted out of more than just his skin. Awakening at the dawn of humanity with no memory of the battle, Wayne had also been blown through time and space in some sort of ridiculously convoluted master plan to gather cosmic energy and destroy every modicum of life as we know it.

I’m sure Darkseid imagined it as a sort of insult-to-injury kind of situation: the JLA rescues one of their founding members who had been lost in various states of prehistory, they all enjoy a good laugh and a series of pats on the back, and then Wayne goes kablooey at the after-party and destroys all consciousness on the planet. At any rate, Bruce (being the galactic-level detective that he is) figured out the big plan and this issue represents his final efforts to thwart it and make the bad guy feel all pouty and defeated off in the corner somewhere.

It’s been my experience that Grant Morrison is an exceptionally hit-and-miss writer. When he’s in “hit” mode, he not only knocks the ball out of the park, he sends the sucker off into another arena altogether. We3, New X-Men and All-Star Superman are all fine examples of the very best the medium can deliver, all-world material through and through. When he steers his train of thought off the path of the conventional, though, it can be a bona fide disaster. The man has a knack for getting caught up in high concepts, jagged dialog and lengthy, elaborate explanations that only serve to confuse. Some consider this style of work to be among his very best, ripe with hidden meanings, thoughtful undercurrents and weighty theories. Personally, I see them as an infuriatingly inefficient means to conveying his ideas. Either way, The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 has dashes of both. The primary narrative of the Justice League, arriving at the restaurant at the end of the universe to rescue their lost comrade, is married at the hip to a series of wacky, verbose statements and observations about the whole of recorded history, the role of a set of simple minded robotic record-keepers and the futility of changing one’s fate from the precipice of time itself. In short, it’s both literally and figuratively all over the place.

That means the issue’s artists, Lee Garbett and Pere Perez, had their work cut out for them. Dodging word balloons at every corner, working with increasingly abstract concepts and visual demands as the issue wears on, the duo still manages a mostly competent contribution. Their take on a cold-faced hybrid Wayne-cyborg at the story’s peak is appropriately chilling and disturbing, and the two deal with an obscenely large cast of characters without losing sight of who each and every one of them are. Illustrating this issue could not have been an easy task, and while their artwork isn’t on the same level as, say, Frank Quitely, they manage to tell Morrison’s story admirably without sacrificing their own identities to the sea of ideas.

While The Return of Bruce Wayne won’t be going down on my list of favorites, I have to admit I appreciate Morrison’s effort and ingenuity. Tackling the root of what makes Batman who he is, then emerging from the other side with not just a clear-cut ending in sight but a genuine revelation, well, that’s one hell of a tall order. My complaint lies more with the author’s means of arriving at that natural, appropriate finale than the conclusion itself. Working through this issue was like walking through a thick patch of swampland weeds: difficult, maddening and painfully slow-moving. It’s a relief to come out the other side, but I’m still not really sure it needed to be such a struggle to get there. It's worthy of a flip through, at any rate.

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

Kick-Ass 2 #1

What could there possibly be to dislike about a series that invites us to passionately "taste the awesome" right there on the front cover? Yes, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. are back in the saddle, resuming the saga of the miniscule home grown superhero wannabe, Kick-Ass, in their own inimitable way.

This new series picks up an indiscriminately short time after the conclusion of the first. The basic premise is still the same: nerdy kid wants to become a superhero, buys a jumpsuit and nunchucks online, rushes out to the streets and quickly discovers that he’s in over his head. Minus the few casualties of the first series, the cast is also virtually unchanged. Dave, the title character, is still a comic-obsessed geek-by-day and a punishment-absorbing random crime fighter in the evenings. Mindy (aka Hit-Girl), the potty-mouthed scene-stealer from the second act of the original series, has become a part of police detective Marcus Williams’s family and secretly begun training Kick-Ass as her sidekick. The rest of the supporting cast is still along for the ride, too: Dave’s arch-nemesis the Red Mist, his geeky high school running buddies, the longtime object of his lust, Katie… it’s as close to a return to normalcy as the series could ever really achieve.

In practice, that quest for a reassuring starting point actually works against the book’s identity. A lot of the charm of that first run was in the unusually quick pace it managed to keep up from the very first issue. There was a constant flavor of wonder mixed with adrenaline, a real sense that the cast was walking along a tightrope on every page. That’s missing from this issue, where the theme of the day seems to be illustrating just how commonplace a back-alley brawl has already become for these guys. Millar grants us a few genuinely amusing moments in the dialog, generally any time Dave’s fanboy civilian pals are on the page, but on the large this issue is strictly business – cleaning up the lingering mess, setting the pins back up and giving us a peek at what’s barreling down the alley to knock them all down again.

Moving forward with this series minus co-creator John Romita Jr. would have been a mistake. His distinctive artwork had just as much to do with establishing these characters and their world as the way they were written, so it’s great to see him back at the reigns for the follow-up. Bearing that in mind, Romita’s customary attention to detail and sharp, polished compositions aren’t up to his usual level in this issue. JRJr’s still got a firm grasp on Kick-Ass himself, a rail-thin kid stuffed into a jumpsuit that’s still somehow too small for him, but there’s something off about the rest of the issue’s occupants. Many of them seem over-simplified and unusually proportioned, a flaw that’s particularly noticeable when Mindy appears to sprout a giant Barbie doll head late in the issue. It’s unquestionably Romita, so take that for what it’s worth, but it’s also not the most complete effort I’ve ever seen him deliver.

The first issue of Dave Lizewski’s second adventure is a relatively passive one. It’s nice to check in with so many of the characters that provided gasoline for the fire of the first series, but it feels odd to see so many of them relegated to mere business as usual. Every great adventure begins with a single step, as they say, but let’s hope the next chapter speeds us up to a healthy jog. Borrow it.

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

Turf #3

As far as the basic premise goes, you’ll have to look far and wide to find another series even remotely like Turf. Mixing equal dashes of period piece, crime lifestyle, horror, monster movie cliches, aliens and science fiction, the series bridges several genres for the very first time, perhaps, anywhere. That it can maintain each and every one of them while still managing to deliver a somewhat decipherable narration is nothing short of miraculous.

Writer Jonathan Ross seems to know exactly what he’s after, though, and that certainty and determined conviction allows the series itself to become something entirely distinct, even forgetting the broad range of influences and directions it embodies. It is, unapologetically, its own beast, and for that reason alone it’ll turn off some readers. Even followers with a more open-minded perspective of multi-genre concepts may have some difficulty dealing with Ross’s frequent leaps from one scenario to the next. We’re introduced to new characters with every turn of the page, with changes of scenery occurring every bit as regularly. It’s a tale that might just be too large for its own good, but with such a vast collection of characters, situations and conflicts also comes considerable depth and the promise that, no matter their preference, there’s a story for everyone here.

With a strict, realistic style in the same vein as Alex Maleev and Sean Phillips, Tommy Lee Edwards works the majority of his magic in the incredibly detailed backgrounds and deep black swaths of shadow that envelope most of the book’s panels. He’s a perfect fit when the storyline leans in a more horrific direction, slightly less so when the subject veers towards science fiction. Victorian candles, cultists wearing dark gowns, filthy gumshoes and mysterious well-dressed men are right at home in his artwork – bright exoskeletons and laser blasts, not quite so much. Fortunately enough, the vast majority of this issue takes place in prohibition-era New York, with only fleeting glances beyond the stratosphere. In that dated domestic setting, Edwards’s artwork absolutely sings.

On the surface, this just seems like an anthology of unrelated side-stories set in the same bizarre world, but dig deep enough and you’ll find a sense of connection that holds the entire issue together. It’s not a particularly energetic read, nor is it something that comes quickly into focus, but once it clicks, you’ll realize just how complex and sharp Turf’s story really is. That breadth of scale is both a blessing and a curse, though, for as much as it adds in the long run, it takes away on the short term. The multitude of layers, themes, new faces and conflicting directions make the task of deciphering and enjoying this issue a daunting one, but also incredibly rewarding given a dedicated investment on the reader’s part. Gorgeous artwork, challenging writing and an ambitious subject make this one worth buying.

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Deadpool MAX #1

Well, I suppose if there had to be a MAX rendition of Deadpool, the latest character to pass through Marvel’s shovelware-inspired publicity department, they could’ve chosen much worse than David Lapham. As coincidence would have it, I’m right in the midst of re-reading Lapham’s self-published classic, Stray Bullets – first time in ages – so that probably gives me a good frame of reference as to how seriously he’s taking this project. Is this the same guy that blew me away with that charming, bloody series and his recent work on Terror, Inc. or is it a pale impersonation, out for the easy cash grab with one of the publisher’s most over-published modern characters? Let’s find out together!

For some characters, a spinoff MAX series delivers new life, a fresh start, a different perspective. The Punisher was on life support, subsisting on a joke of an ongoing series in the Marvel Knights line under the watch of a carefree Garth Ennis before getting the M-Rated reboot. The change in scenery invigorated both character and author. Without a mass audience tag to hold him back, Ennis returned to form, abandoned the limp-wristed superhero satire he’d been investigating, then put the guns back in Frank’s hands and the scowl back on his face. For others, like Blade or Nick Fury, a MAX run provided little more than just another brief mini-series, a diversion before returning to business as usual.

To his credit, Lapham follows the mould of the former: he isn’t satisfied with telling the latest in a series of wacky Deadpool stories. He’s here to put his own stamp on the well-worn crimson visage of Marvel’s foul-mouthed mercenary ninja, and he aims to do so via a long, intertwining series of myths and legends, keeping Wade Wilson himself out of the spotlight unless absolutely necessary. Whispers and rumors provide testimony to the assassin’s all-world skill level, with his targets’ level of paranoia proving they’re more truth than fiction. It’s a more grounded tale than most of Deadpool’s previous exploits, which admittedly isn’t saying all that much, although it certainly isn’t without a few moments of gratuitous excess itself.

The issue’s visuals, provided by fellow indie writer-artist Kyle Baker, make for an awkward match. Baker’s artwork feels limited and rushed, like a quick set of layouts hammered out on bar napkins over the course of a long, drunken night on the town. His style floats from loosely realistic to grotesquely exaggerated, with the two extremes coming gracelessly face-to-face in more than one panel. As the issue wears on, the quality of Baker’s work degrades further and further, like a descent into madness. One would think that such a style would lend itself nicely to a crazed, chaotic blast of melee action, of which there are several in this tale, but even in that situation Baker disappoints, with a stiff, uncoordinated effort. It’s just a bad visual showing from start to finish.

Despite David Lapham’s early-issue attempts to base the issue in a more vivid, realistic world, around the midway point it transforms into something more on par with a hallucination. It moves quickly and recklessly, lurching from one awkward motif to the next, and never quite finds that sweet spot to curl up and get comfortable in. Is this an espionage story? An action series? A black comedy? Perhaps all of the above? Yes and no – it tries them all on for size, but none makes for a good fit. Maybe this series will find its stride after it’s notched up a few more kills, maybe not. Right now it’s merely taking wild stabs in the dark, desperately searching for an elusive personality and masking its indecision with buckets of bloodshed and the occasional bad joke. A crazed ride, if not a particularly memorable one, and not something I’d count among Lapham’s best efforts. Flip through it.

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

Superman: The Last Family of Krypton #3

In the final chapter of this Elseworlds revival tale, the El family is confronted by the consequences of their crash landing on and eventual adoption of the planet Earth. Departing their doomed homeworld as a family, rather than merely jettisoning their infant son in a tiny experimental rocket, the Els landed in a familiar Kansas cornfield and promptly set about improving the human race. But at what point do good intentions and noble scientific devotion twist into hubris and evolutional obstruction? More pointedly, would the human race have been better off without a single Superman than it is with a whole family of them?

Well, I hope you like text, because Cary Bates has crammed so much of it into this issue, an encyclopedia editor would say “damn.” The book is literally drowning in word balloons, caption boxes, talking heads and hyperbole, explaining the scenery and chatting about character struggles when it would be sufficient to illustrate them. That gives the issue a much more thoughtful pace, which seems appropriate for the kind of far-sighted questions the series seems to determined to ask, but won’t gain it any endorsements as a page-turner.

At their core, the kind of observations and commentary Bates offers in this issue, not just into the origins of superheroes in the DC universe but also to basic human nature, are bitterly poignant. That they’re also so terribly long-winded and awkwardly non-conversational may ultimately hold this series back from being the modern classic it could’ve been. It reads more like a dissertation than a story, with moments of action occurring in the background of each panel simply to further the conversation and rarely to provide any measure of added drama or suspense. That central train of thought is compelling and creative enough to keep the issue moving along nicely, but it’s more like reading a good conceptual sci-fi novel with a loosely related string of illustrations than a traditional comic book.

Speaking of which, Renato Arlem’s artwork is similarly unspectacular on the surface and rich beneath. Arlem’s work appears drab at first glance, literal and pedestrian without much cause for excitement, even in moments fueled by adrenaline. As the story progresses, though, the depth of his vision for this slightly skewed rendition of our world becomes clear, as does his intimate understanding of the El family and the complex emotions they work through as one hard question leads into another. His style isn’t flashy, it doesn’t make for good pin-ups, but it’s refined, sharp and intelligent. His unsuspecting, grounded artwork walks hand-in-hand with the concept-focused nature of the story itself.

It’s great to see the old Elseworlds imprint alive and well with such an intelligent story at its fore. While The Last Family of Krypton may not be the most enthralling Superman tale ever spun, it’s right up there with his most thought-provoking. It has its weaknesses, and I’m not sure why Cary Bates didn’t trust his artist to convey some of the ideas he refused to remove from the dialog, but it’s successful in spite of all that. This series won’t hold the attention of the action audience for long, but those in search of mental nourishment will find plenty of food for thought. Borrow it.

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

Machete #0

As the introductory chapter to a full ongoing series, coming your way this December, Machete #0 opens the door to a crazed adventure on par with the character’s crimson-drenched feature film debut. With both tales taking their hints from a paper-thin joke of a trailer in 2007’s Grindhouse, there’s plenty of room for elaboration here – but also no shortage of opportunity for gratuitous, mindless, mesmerizing violence. A rarity in the landscape of movie tie-ins, director Robert Rodriguez himself has taken on the comic’s writing duties (with an assist from Aaron Kaufman), which in theory should ensure an unusually close relationship between the two properties.

To a degree, that’s true. The story rips along like a Harley from hell, distributing punch-outs, dead hookers, drug cartels and bad cops around every turn. Like the film, there’s no question of the issue’s commitment to telling a serious story: it’s about as genuine as a 3AM wedding in Vegas. Rodriguez and Kaufman play with stereotypes at every opportunity, which sometimes works as genuine parody and others feels like wanton excess for their own amusement. Particularly noteworthy are the Mexican pedestrians who alternate between Spanish exclamation and English conversation, often more than once in a single sentence. Does anybody really speak like that, or is it just a joint invention by Hollywood and the Marvel bullpen to minimize their investment in subtitling? I’m not sure if this issue is embracing that cliché or calling it out

Sadly, though, the comic just isn’t as much fun as the initial trailer or the eventual feature film. The action is just as careless, the plot just as transparent, but somewhere along the way we lost track of the charm and machismo that fueled Machete’s celluloid romp. Bold visuals and wild creativity can gloss over a lot in the theater, but with both elements removed in this print version, the plot’s shortcomings are stripped bare. There’s a fine line between playful parody and just plain bad storytelling, and Machete #0 takes several big steps in the wrong direction.

Stuart Sayger’s rough, grizzled artwork flirts with both relevance and rebellion on every page. In some panels, Sayger’s thick ink splatters and quick, imprecise renderings provide a perfect counterpart for the story’s reckless, misdirected aggression. In others, it feels like the only guy in the room who doesn’t get the joke. On a few occasions, Jay Fotos’s brazen, invasive colors bail out a particularly bad page, but just as many others are irreparably spoiled by a bland color choice or strange composition. It’s the very definition of hit-or-miss, but at least Sayger’s renditions of Danny Trejo’s unmistakably grizzled mug are easily identifiable.

The comic adaptation of this year’s most stylishly awful movie theater action hit is a perfect match in some regards and a total miss in others. It’s got the large supply of gunfire, knife fights and ladies that helped to power the film, but when push comes to shove it’s nowhere near as wild a ride. The lines of dialog that would’ve had me cracking up in the theater just came off as hackneyed and stupid in print, which had to be concern number one going into this project. It’s not there yet. Give it a skip.

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

The Terminator: 1984 #1

Up until now, the mentality of Dark Horse’s Terminator tie-ins have almost exclusively focused on expanding the universe with new characters, new situations and new settings. They’ve added layers to the franchise, but the disconnect between those elaborations and the events of the movies themselves has been tough to move past. Fleeting appearances from John Connor, infrequent references to the films’ timelines and entirely original casts of characters have distanced the comic book continuity from the primary plot that’s at the wheel of the movie franchise, which has likely turned off many potential casual readers. With Terminator 1984, the publisher tries a new strategy: broaden and enrich the events of the catalyzing first film in the series with the story of several concurrent, intertwining threads.

Terminator fans are often afforded a unique perspective of the film’s events. We know Sarah Connor’s not out of her mind in the second film, for example, when doctors in the mental hospital patronize her for believing so passionately in the idea of a time-skipping robot assassin. We hold our breath, waiting for the moment those pompous docs come face to face with the real thing, never considering the standpoint of the few elite officials further behind the scenes, chilled by the similarities between her statements and the project they just green lit in R&D. That’s an angle we’re finally allowed to enjoy in the opening issue of this mini-series, as a roomful of decorated military men fret over the captive testimony of Kyle Reese, the man John Connor sent back to protect his mother in the first movie. The moment is rewarding – finally, somebody in charge is using their brain – and opens a broad range of intriguing new questions. How do they react to this revelation? How does it affect or alter their plans? How much of a self-fulfilling prophecy is this horrible, machine-dominated future?

Balancing those familiar moments is an original side story, following another soldier from the future who’s leapt back in time to intercept Kyle and subtly alter his historic path. Interestingly enough, it’s this unknown face who adds the most depth to the story, as he absorbs the mundanities of everyday life through unfamiliar eyes. His childlike reaction to the abundance of food and the crowds of people in broad daylight gives the dark future he calls home an even more sinister shade. It’s great storytelling with a noticeable, appropriate shortage of dialog.

Andy Macdonald’s artwork is similarly reader-friendly. His work is weighty and solid, grounded and restrained but spectacular when it needs to be. He paces himself, giving the majority of the issue an unconcerned, almost casual appearance, before ramping up the electricity on the few panels of wild, chaotic action. The story plays out beautifully across his expertly timed panelwork, and while none of the cast is a perfect duplicate of their on-screen counterpart, they remain perfectly recognizable. Besides, this is a story that depends more on reenacted plot points to familiarize its readers than perfect visual accuracy.

Dark Horse’s latest take on the Terminator franchise gives every indication it’ll also be their finest. Tying the narrative to a specific, familiar period of time in the saga’s mythos was a fine touch that freed the original storyline to focus more on the details and less on establishing itself in-continuity. It’s a finely imagined addition to fondly remembered territory that both emboldens and respectfully enhances the original. Buy it.

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Avengers Academy #4

Among his many misdeeds during Norman Osborn’s brief reign atop the global superhuman community, perhaps the most far-sighted was his constant recruitment of young heroes to mold and misshape. Osborn would use his political clout to discover and enlist these undiscovered prospects, then his charisma to convince them to see the world from his own warped perspective. Though he’s been removed from power and quarantined aboard The Raft, Norman’s recruits are still a point of concern for the reunited Avengers. Quicksilver, Tigra and Henry Pym have taken a personal interest in the reeducation of a select few: the six adolescents who make up the Avengers Academy.

This month’s continued crossover with the Thunderbolts, and several team members’ eventual reunion with their disgraced former leader on board The Raft, leads to several revealing character moments. Osborn’s such a perfect corruptor, a politician with a background in bright spandex, that his mere presence forces both hero and reader to second-guess the line they’ve been fed from the new establishment. Christos Gage is the latest in a long list of writers to take advantage of the character’s inherently conniving, convincing nature, with nearly each chapter adding a fresh layer to the scale of the man’s mystique. The way he not only turns away a small squad dead-set on his murder but actually takes on the role of their beloved mentor, without throwing the reading audience for an eyeball-rolling loop, is all the proof you’ll need of his value as an instigator. This level of brainwashing used to require some sort of fantastic crutch, like telepathy or a mind-control wand. The modern Osborn merely needs a few words and the smallest shred of doubt to do his work.

Unfortunately, Osborn is really the cornerstone of this story and once he’s out of the picture things get awfully generic in a hurry. Though Gage has a firm grasp of the megalomaniac’s bold personality, the rest of the cast feels whitewashed and redundant by comparison. Even Mettle, who gets a sympathetic mini-origin right inside the front cover, is just one of the gang without a unique angle by the time we reach the last page. Avengers Academy has set the stage for some serious questions, but hasn’t given me enough faith in its players to think they’ll ever have the balls to ask them.

Joining Gage is artist Mike McKone, whose clean, organized pencils keep the page easy to navigate, if not terribly explosive. He lends the primary cast exactly the kind of wide-eyed, uncertain expressions one would expect a story’s younger contingent to be wearing. His two-panel rendition of the Man-Thing is sufficiently haunting, too, but I’m afraid the positives end there: the rest of Avengers Academy’s cast and crew generally comes off as bland, generic and flavorless. McKone’s most disappointing work appears in the one big splash page he’s given to really showcase his skills. It’s a disorganized mess: confusing and static, like a roomful of mannequins were stiffly postured and tossed haphazardly into zero gravity. It’s all composition, a poor one at that, and no emotion.

This new ongoing series has some very deep roots, but at the moment they’re only being glanced at, not properly explored. The few moments we get to enjoy between Osborn and his former pages are enough to convince me there’s something substantive here, but the weak follow-through has me questioning if the Academy will ever recognize it. Keep an eye on it this space, but for the time being it’s not worth more than a brisk flip through.

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

Superman / Batman #76

This may not come as a surprise to you, but Bruce Wayne has died. In fact, he’s actually been that way for more than a year and recently made an entirely unsurprising return from the grave. Try to forget that last part, though, because the out-of-place continuity of Superman / Batman is just now beginning to deal with the fallout from Wayne’s doom.

Judd Winick may as well have dedicated this issue a memorial, because the story he’s delivered is basically a behind-closed-doors look at the Justice League’s intimate reactions to the (at the time) finality of Bruce’s heroic death in Final Crisis. In certain cases, it makes for a nice addendum, geared to more invasive-minded readers. We’re along for the ride as Superman delivers the news to Alfred, Tim and Dick. We see Doctor Mid-Nite examine the body, compare dental records and historic bone breaks, and determine it couldn’t be anyone else. We see the entire league struggle with the realization of such a loss, each member handling the grief in his or her own way. And, ultimately, we’re left with the sense that this would’ve made for a fine capitalization on the shock readers were certainly feeling themselves… nineteen months ago, when the event was still fresh in their minds.

The issue’s still somewhat worthwhile, if just for the historic perspective and the sometimes unexpected ways Bruce’s closest friends deal with his death. Nightwing’s initial disbelief takes the same shape as many readers: he won’t believe it until he sees the body. Wonder Woman hangs quietly around the fringes, afraid to say the wrong thing. Superman’s reaction is the most surprising. His quiet, spaced-out initial reaction to Bruce’s death is followed by a sharp turn into hostility toward Dick Grayson, of all people, none of which seems to be in-character for one of the DCU’s most balanced, rational personalities. Grief can have strange effects on a personality, and it’s somewhat humanizing to see Supes in this light. It doesn’t feel entirely right, but I’m not sure what would.

Artist Marco Rudy is difficult to get a handle on. In some pages, he bears more than a passing similarity to Tim Sale, himself a veteran with both characters in Superman: For All Seasons and Batman: The Long Halloween. Rudy’s style bears a bit more detail than his contemporary on these occasions, but his ultra-simplistic lighting effects and unusual panel structures had me thinking of Sale with some regularity. On other pages, though, Rudy’s work moves in the opposite direction, overloading the scene with jagged details and dozens of clunky, oddly shaped overlapping panels. Typically I’d credit this to the influence of two different inkers, taking turns with the artwork on every other page. These shifts in style are so fundamental, though, that I can’t imagine that’s the culprit. Rudy’s simply changing styles from page to page like a Tour De France rider shifts gears from incline to straightaway.

This “Batman’s dead” issue of Superman / Batman is a confusing creation. It’s mistimed, completely missing the caped crusader’s prolonged absence. It jumps all over the place, sailing from Clark’s outraged reaction to Dick’s decision to don the cape and cowl to his acceptance of the necessity within just a couple panels. It tries really hard to be a touching, tear-jerking remembrance, but ultimately feels hollow, insincere and borderline exploitative. It’s the wrong story at the wrong time, a chapter in both characters’ lives that doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. The tragically curious-minded will find something to dig into, but the rest of us would be better off giving it a flip through and walking away.

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Heroic Age: 1 Month 2 Live #1

The city streets of Marvel's major metropolitan areas are getting a bit crowded. Particularly in New York City where the vast majority of the publisher's superhero population has set up shop, it's seriously out of hand. I suspect the superheroes must outnumber the regular Joes by now, so it's hardly surprising that more stories aren't told from the common man's perspective. Usually Marvel is good for one or two a year, though, and 1 Month 2 Live fits that mold.

We've got our designated everyman in Dennis Sykes, a banker who hates his job but lacks the gumption to do anything about it. After a delivering a particularly tough loan rejection, the impetus to change his life finds Sykes instead. Playing the good Samaritan, he interrupts a heist only to take a beating and swallow a force-fed mouthful of bio waste. In keeping with the "hero on every corner" motif, Ben Grimm happens to be close enough to save our man from a more fatal situation, but the worst damage had already been done. Sykes has developed a mutated form of cancer that's going to finish the job within a month. But there is some good news: he's been blessed with a few super powers to enjoy during those last days on Earth.

The story's not a perfect fit for the throwback to more innocent storytelling that is Heroic Age's MO, although its basic premise is a direct product of that concept. Rick Remender's tale of the little man who's finally taken too much crap and goes over the brink is straightforward and matter-of-fact, even when the plot is completely outlandish and ridiculous. The lead's origin is right in line with radioactive spiders, out-of-control dump trucks filled with toxic waste and waves of gamma radiation, which is to say it's utterly insane upon close inspection. Where those excesses were easy to swallow in the Silver Age, when gaudy outfits and a tendency to state the obvious made a fine match for the lunacy of each hero's origin, 1 Month 2 Live's story seems even crazier paired with a quiet, pedestrian home life and a cabinet full of bottled frustrations. It's a story of halves: half passerby and half center of attention, half hero and half villain, half cheeseball origin and half downtrodden realism.

Andrea Mutti provides serviceable, if not spectacular, visuals for this chapter. His somewhat grounded style is out of place on the few pages featuring big-name cameos (his rendition of Grimm, in particular, is genuinely terrible) but it's much more fitting in the issue's subdued civilian scenes. Sykes never dons a spandex wardrobe – not in the first issue, anyway – and pairing that with Mutti's nondescript, everyday style makes for a good fit with the mood and message of this story. I wouldn't expect to see him working on Spider-Man any time soon, but maybe the next edition of Front Line isn't totally out of the question.

Sometimes looks can be deceiving, but other times they're right on the money. This is a pretty good representation of the latter. What seems like a fairly nondescript mini-series with fleeting ties to the rest of the Marvel U on the cover is, in action, pretty much precisely that. Its heart is in the right place and it asks a few pressing questions about morality and the very slight differences between a man and a monster, but at the end of the day it's not exactly forging new territory. A solid enough read, but not something I'll be back to pore over in the future. Flip through it.

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

Scarlet #2

As evidence of one of Marvel's most prolific ongoing partnerships, the release of a new project from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev is quickly becoming something of an event. With a landmark run on Daredevil and subsequent pairings on Spider-Woman, Mighty Avengers and Halo: Uprising already on their joint resumé, the duo have recently branched out with a fully creator-owned series, Scarlet.

This series marks a noticeable departure from the relatively comfortable terrain of the duo's previous partnerships. Casting aside the security blanket offered by superheroics, no matter far from the norm their take may have been, with Scarlet these two are investigating terrain that's much more in line with some of Bendis's earlier works: Goldfish, Fire and Jinx. It's filthy and grimy, street-level justice achieved by asking guilty people the questions they don't want to hear and discerning the truth from the meat of their lies. Rather than painting the enemy as a dark-souled oppressor that can be punched, thwarted or intimidated, Scarlet's outlook is much more bleak: everyone's responsible and you don't know the first thing about getting even.

Bendis catches a lot of flack for his dialog, particularly in his mainstream work. Without a pressing directive at the front of his mind, he'll often opt for character-building small talk that's whimsical if not always pertinent. Admittedly, he does frequently overdo it in that regard: it's just not as exciting to watch the Avengers stand around their HQ and talk about their pet peeves as it is to join them in staring down Doctor Doom. When he's going somewhere significant with it, however, there's really nobody in the industry who can script dialog like him. A decade's worth of disregard hasn't dulled that axe one bit: diving into a seedy underworld like the one at the center of Scarlet, Bendis slips back into his old form like a comfortable sweater, rescued from the closet on the first cold day of winter. Which isn't to say this is packed with wall-to-wall ward balloons: in fact, it's actually a remarkable show of restraint. The words are thick and character-soaked when applicable, but completely absent when they aren't essential. It's an astoundingly mature work, leaping from a lengthy monologue to page after page of stark, tense silence. Bendis has struck a careful balance in that respect, and the results are magnificently successful. It's a far cry from Ultimate Spider-Man, and the change is entirely welcome.

But while Bendis's storytelling is a departure from his recent work, it's really Maleev who displays the biggest change in character. Free from the restraints of a sharp deadline and a set of rules and guidelines dictating what is and isn't acceptable in a mainstream comic, Alex's artwork is an explosion of creativity, experimentation and personal exploration. He ventures from David Mack-influenced sketchbook watercolors to richly layered noir-inspired shadow paintings to full-on pop art, all while maintaining a deep, rewarding connection to the central narrative. Despite these dalliances into uncharted territory, Maleev never loses sight of himself. Each panel might be trying something different, reaching and stretching in unexpected new ways, but at its heart there's never any question who's behind the pencil. He maintains his identity without question through every transformation. If this is a sign of what's on the horizon, Maleev may be on the cusp of something gigantic. It's breathtaking.

Listen, this series is not for everyone. I get that. If you don't have a soft spot for grime and grit, for revenge drenched with blood, this will not be your cup of tea. It's not for grandparents, nor for your children. It's also too bold for Marvel's main line, which makes its relationship with their creator-owned subsidiary, Icon Comics, a sensible one. But if you're looking for a smart series, spoiled characters making bad decisions in stressful environments and dealing with the repercussions when (and if) they should arise, if you're after amazing artwork, tremendous dialog and a twisting, turning plot… well, then by all means buy it. You won't be alone.

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

Thor: First Thunder #1

As if the title didn't make it patently obvious, First Thunder is, simply enough, a retelling of the origins of the mighty Thor. With a plot pulled nearly action-for-action from the character's original appearance in 1962's Journey Into Mystery #83, dedicated fans shouldn't expect many surprises in this mini-series, just a few modernizations and minor alterations.

Artist Tan Eng Huat is the first thing you'll notice – his inspired work fills the issue with richly detailed environments and strangely proportioned characters, an unusual blend of Leinil Yu and Aeon Flux's Peter Chung. First Thunder's small cast universally exhibits bulging cheeks, bent bones and awkward poses, but they do so against a sharp backdrop and smart, well-timed storyboards. Though his work does seem too cartoonish and exaggerated during the scenes featuring Thor himself, Huat feels right at home with the god of thunder's human host, Donald Blake. An early chase scene between Blake and an unidentified monstrous pursuer, in fact, serves as immediate proof that Huat knows what he's doing. His clever storytelling does such a good job of leading us through the action that the numerous accompanying narration boxes quickly start to feel like overkill.

And that's where the issue's charm wears off. Bryan J.L. Glass's writing never even approaches the level of its paired artwork. Not a single page is left to speak for itself without the invasion of a hackneyed narrative box or bland thought bubble. Blake's ongoing internal monologues dwell too long on the presence of unseen gods and their effect on his situation. When he falls into a lake in the darkness, it's because the gods put it there. Swimming in a random direction, he finds land because the gods have shown mercy upon him. I'd assume the idea is to present him as a spiritual man, perhaps an expert in Norse mythology or general theological studies, but instead it just gives the impression that he's mentally unstable. Fred Phelps doesn't think about god's personal agenda this often.

When he isn't rambling on about the almighty, Blake is obsessing over his daddy issues, which seem to be a vital ingredient in something like 85% of all superheroes' origin tales. As it turns out, it's this fixation that unites doctor and thunder god, ensuring that no matter which consciousness is at the head of the issue's action, they're almost certainly going to be whining about something. When Blake makes his first transformation into Thor, the action immediately picks up and the dialog goes straight off the deep end. Not just from Thor himself, whose long-winded, lore-steeped monologues remain as frequent as ever, but from his enemies and their civilian observers. In true throwback fashion, everyone on the page suddenly becomes obsessed with explaining their thoughts and actions aloud.

While I'm sure the original feels out of touch and dated, the decision to retell this story in a modern setting is a curious one. It brings very little to the table in the way of fresh ideas or new revelations, and actually serves to make the characters less interesting and appreciable than they were before. The writing is heavy handed and clumsy, and while the artwork has some real moments of power, it's not without its own shortcomings. Big fans will want to skim over this, but the rest of us can skip it.

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

Thunderbolts #148

As it turns out, Luke Cage is good buddies with Daredevil. So, naturally, when the blind attorney ninja finds himself at the center of his publisher's latest event, Shadowland, every series touched by that character or any of his supporting cast is immediately sucked in, like so much driftwood along the outer edges of a short-lived whirlpool. Such is the predicament with Thunderbolts this month, as Cage realizes that he can use his squad of convicts and ragamuffins to confront his old friend in a brazen show of force.

Writer Jeff Parker does manage to preserve a lot of the book's individuality, though, which is key to maintaining the interest of his regular readers in spite of the diversion. While it's technically a tie-in to the big crossover that's looming above Daredevil at the moment, this issue is primarily a story about the Thunderbolts and how the action in Hell's Kitchen is affecting both the team and their leader. The story splits its focus between Luke's street-level view of Daredevil's dark kingdom and the rest of the team's exploits in prison, biding time while they wait for the squad's designated leader to return with a new mission. Both provide plenty of opportunities for character development, and Parker doesn't disappoint. It's no easy task to turn such a vile cluster of villains into a team worth rooting for, but he manages via playful, entertaining back-and-forths and a few not-so-subtle outbursts in the prison mess hall. The spirit of this team remains unlike that of their squeaky clean counterparts, and that's responsible for a great deal of its allure.

On the visual side, I loved what I saw from Declan Shalvey this month. His quick, concise artwork cuts to the core of each character, telling more with less, and isn't above trying a few new techniques here and there. Shalvey's limited linework results in a page that's easy to navigate, but still crams in plenty of atmosphere, perspective and individuality. He's not unlike a young Chris Bachalo, still trying to find precisely where his niche actually is, but definitely on the scent of something big. He gives the issue a light tone that's in sync with the witty, casual banter of the team on a mission, with both flashing hints of a more sinister true character.

Too often an issue like this one tries to stretch itself in two different directions, directly continuing the story of the main crossover while introducing the unique perspective of its own series. It almost never works. Followers of the big event skip out on it as an inessential chapter, while dedicated followers of the series itself feel betrayed by the sudden unannounced change in focus. Where other writers often feel compelled to please everyone, though, Jeff Parker isn't afraid to make a choice and stick with it: this might be listed in the checklist of Shadowland tie-ins, but it's not just another chapter. Regular Thunderbolts readers shouldn't feel like their series has been taken captive. Those less familiar with the team but interested in the event will find enough forward momentum to make it worth a purchase, along with more than one reason to keep up with the series after its involvement with Daredevil comes to a close. It's a rarity. Buy it.

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Curse of the Mutants: Blade (one shot)

After a few months out of the limelight, Marvel's resident vampire hunter, Blade, is back in the game, this time playing a supporting role in the latest X-Men crossover. With the recent appearance of daywalking vampires and the assassination of bloodsucking kingpin Dracula, it's been a time of sudden revelation for this sword-wielding half-breed. Hunting vamps has suddenly become twice as dangerous and unpredictable, with a recent rash of dead hunters only serving to reinforce that fact.

With a setup like that one and a looming tie-in to one of the publisher's premiere titles, the stage would seem to be set for some serious fireworks in this one-shot. Or rather, one might think it would be. In practice, this issue serves little purpose beyond reintroducing the audience to the rules of Blade's world, sharing a few graphic slayings and giving the lead a reason to take his show to San Francisco in search of Scott Summers and friends. Even as someone who's never been all that familiar with this character's adventures, I noticed several moments where it felt like the information I was getting was more than a little redundant.

Duane Swierczynski's writing is a strange concoction, blending a grizzled noir detective's narration with a hardass action hero's behavior. The idea was to give Blade some extra depth, to prove there's more to him than stakes, bad hair and machismo, but in practice it just feels like the narrative is spoken from another player's perspective. Blade pulls the trigger, postures and fires off terse one-liners, then Humphrey Bogart comes in for a scene-shifting voiceover or to describe a new character. As the page count begins to add up, Swierczynski tries to cover for his issue's deliberate pace with a few gory pages of action and brutality, but it doesn't work particularly well. When the dust clears, the plot has gone almost nowhere and the dead are relegated to the handful of disposable no-names we'd met just a few pages earlier.

Tim Green's loose, light artistic touch is an awkward match for the mood Swierczynski is trying to set in the plot – while the story's trying to provide a tense, horror-tinted atmosphere, the artwork never feels entirely serious. Green's visuals are quirky and energetic from start to finish, and they do show some signs of rush in the final pages. I actually enjoyed the majority of his compositions, but it's a terrible choice for this kind of story, which would have been better suited for the deep, dark, somewhat dated style provided by Dave Wilkins on the cover. It's like Darrick Robertson teaming up with Neil Gaiman, though neither Blade contributor deserves that comparison: two creators headed in such precisely opposite directions that they directly cancel each other out. A mismatch at best, a disaster at worst.

Blade's edition of Curse of the Mutants spends more time treading water than it does in the thick of things, avoiding the meat of the subject so that the bigger books have more to chew on when they finally get around to it. It's far from essential reading, especially considering the entire thing is summed up in a few word balloons when Blade finally arrives in San Francisco within X-Men #2. Skip it.

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

Superman: Secret Origin #6

Coming into this final chapter of the Man of Steel's latest origin respin, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank have a whole fistload of plot threads left to wrangle. First and foremost, Superman is still an unknown variable to the common man, a curiosity with great power but uncertain motives. General Lane and Lex Luthor have already seen enough to make up their minds about him, though, and have set out to incapacitate the man in blue at all costs – even if they have to tear Metropolis down around them in the process. With Lane's troops sweeping into the Daily Planet bullpen and Luthor's Kryptonite-powered Metallo suit crashing down on Superman's back, all signs point to this being an action-packed climax. It doesn't waste any time.

While I'm still not sold on the necessity of this series, there's no denying the kind of care Geoff Johns has delivered between its covers. This is more than just a retelling, it's an homage to the core of the character, however naïve and dated it might seem in the present setting. It's also an apt reminder of what comics used to be all about. Underneath the modernizations, the gaudy wardrobe, the convoluted master plans, there's a genuine sweetness, a passion to do the right thing despite the high cost of doing so. It's straightforward, innocent, perhaps a sign of the times in which this basic story was first told, but it's still there and it's still pertinent.

Of course, you have to dig pretty deep to find that, because on the surface this is more than a little bland. Though he may be dealing primarily with the enormous issue of basic human nature, (and all the ignorance, xenophobia, disbelief and outrage that it encompasses) Johns's insights fall well short of revelation. In fact, many such lessons, which seem obvious at first glance, are hammered home so bluntly, so repeatedly, that they lose any power they might have carried in the first place. Johns is capable of subtlety – I've seen him flex that muscle repeatedly in his other works – but it's a skill he brazenly neglects in Secret Origin #6.

The issue's fight scenes are a strong point, as Johns invents no shortage of giant-sized splash pages for Gary Frank to knock out of the park, but even these aren't free from the writer's dalliances. At one point, Superman pauses right in the middle of his tank-crunching brawl with Metallo to share a full page of redundant conversation with Lois. What was the enemy doing while that was going on? Chatting up a few nearby troops. I guess they called a twenty second time-out or something.

Frank's artwork goes a long way toward smoothing over the story's rough spots, adding more depth and character with his pencils than the narrative could deliver with a thousand captions. Fortunately, that's an observation Johns seems to have made over the course of the series as well. In earlier issues, the artist's compositions were difficult to appreciate beneath the stacks of layered word balloons. In this climactic issue, though, that dialog is much more concise and restrained, allowing the stunning artwork to bear the bulk of the load. It blossoms given the opportunity, a show stealer in every way.

This issue is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, it's a masterful demonstration of who Superman is, who he was and what he stands for. It enjoys tremendous artwork, a stunning fight scene and a firm, appropriate climax. On the other hand, for all its attempts to modernize the setting, the actual story remains incredibly outdated and narrow sighted. Its dialog is clumsy and unnatural, its narration redundant and heavy-handed, and its conclusion boldly unsurprising. It's a paint-by-the-numbers story, and no matter how good a job Johns and Frank may have done with staying inside the lines, it'll never be more than that. Flip through it and enjoy its merits, but don't linger too long for fear of its shortcomings.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ex Machina #50

As seems customary for the final arc of any series, this last romp with Mayor Hundred and his staff has been fairly brutal. Hundred, able to influence and control machinery as though it were subservient, has never fully understood the source of his powers. It also never occurred to him that he might not be alone. Well, there was that odd guy with the similar ability to speak to rats, but by comparison that's a pretty weak power and he was promptly disposed back in the mayor's earlier days as a superhero. Lately, though, a more serious threat has manifested itself in the form of Mitchell's on-again, off-again girlfriend Suzanne. It seems that, along with the sister ability to control human minds, she's developed a case of the crazies and set out for the Mayor's head. After massacring his mother in cold blood, she got the man's attention and last month Suzanne finally got her comeuppance. So what now? Good question.

As the final issue of Brian K. Vaughan's latest epic, Ex Machina #50 is facing a lot of loose ends before it can finally close the lid on the super-powered savior of the South Tower on September 11th. I might as well level with you right out of the gates – there aren't enough pages to answer or even acknowledge most of them. In fact, Ex Machina's final issue is as much a product of the forty-nine episodes that came before as it is a swift, complete bookend. This is a series that's thrived on stalling readers for as long as it can, absorbing itself in comparably mundane distractions when the world's falling down outside the window. It's a tale that keys on Hundred's actions on 9/11, while never actually taking the time to relive them in much detail.

Vaughan's tendency to concentrate on minutiae in the place of linear storytelling is on proud display again this month, as the aftereffects of a citywide riot and an honest-to-god portal to another dimension opened wide on New York streets take a back seat to a quiet conversation at the office and a UN press event. That's not to say there's no closure, because eventually the mood does shift to something more appropriate for final sentiments, but I couldn't help but watch the quickly-dwindling page count as the story meandered along without much concern for its brief remaining timeline. This issue is half-full of payoffs and finality, but also half-full of filler that would've fit every bit as comfortably in a nondescript issue crammed between major storylines. It's a conundrum, and in many ways that's perfectly fitting.

Tony Harris, who's stuck around as artist on this series from the word go, hasn't been without his struggles. Particularly as the story began to wind down, the rush to meet a deadline became painfully obvious as Harris's formerly strict, disciplined style gave way to more rushed, less thoughtful compositions. Fortunately for all, Harris managed to snap himself out of that funk for the book's final chapters, which may or may not have something to do with why they've taken so long to ship. Whatever the reason, the work Harris hands in this month is worth the wait – it's a fine return to form that showcases his versatility and control. Tony's job hasn't been easy over the years, juggling the stale décor of city hall and a variety of black suits with fever dream landscapes and a colorful supporting cast, but it's an act he's perfected along the way. This issue serves as a terrific swan song, a final chance to show us what he's learned from that experience.

A great two-man partnership is always something I'll celebrate, and Vaughan and Harris have proven they fit the bill. While Ex Machina hasn't been the most consistent title in my pull list over the years, the climactic moments have been grand enough to keep up-to-date for, while the less thrilling chapters did just enough to maintain some momentum. I'll mourn the vacancy in my monthly subscription, but I applaud the decision to step away when the timing is right. It's a suitable, if slightly odd, conclusion to what turned out to be a grand series. Borrow it.

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

Wolverine: Weapon X #16

Nightcrawler, an X-Men mainstay and one of Logan's few close friends, is dead. A fatality of the team's desperate battle with Bastion in Second Coming, Kurt Wagner left his comrades with little more than hope, a fistful of memories and one final wish: that Logan deliver a twenty thousand dollar piano to a remote Venezuelan church. The catch? That congregation is located at the top of a towering mountain, inaccessible via modern means of transportation. Wolverine's going to have to haul the thing up a long slab of rock to fulfill his friend's last request.

In Weapon X #16, the limited series' final issue, author Jason Aaron doesn't celebrate with a traditional hokey epilogue. Instead, he cuts the central character to his core, investigating an under-explored human side to Wolverine that's often lost in the red mist of another violent black ops mission. Splitting time between a piano-laden present and a confrontational series of flashbacks, the issue dissects Logan and Kurt's long friendship over the years and slowly reveals how it changed each of them. In their own way, these two were the mutant version of the odd couple: one a slim, agile man of faith and introspection, the other a thick, powerful brawler who'd rather rely on his beer-drenched senses than his mind. And while death may be every bit as fleeting as life is in the world of comic books, the realization that half of that duo is gone still tugs at the heart strings thanks to a simple, clever premise and some slick, emotion-soaked writing.

A great deal of this issue is spent examining Logan and Kurt's arguments over faith, religion and the afterlife, with one playing the dedicated man of devotion and the other the incendiary skeptic, neither able to budge the other's position, both leaving the discussion frustrated. Logan may have the final word on that matter in terms of physical presence, but in reality Kurt's taken the right for himself, giving his friend a mission of solitude, a chance to dwell on the heart of their lifelong argument for lack of any other stimulation. Aaron doesn't pass on the opportunity to elaborate, and while the line he draws at the end of the issue may not be entirely true to the character, it does make for a stunning final page and an appropriate conclusion to the relationship.

Alongside such deep, existential commentary, artist Davide Gianfelice's loose, curvy, energetic style doesn't always feel appropriate. Particularly during the flashbacks, when Wolverine and Nightcrawler appear in full costume, Gianfelice's artwork is completely out of place – exaggerated to the point of distraction, regularly bright and cheery when the subject is about as dark as it gets. While his take on Kurt feels just about right, Davide's renditions of Logan are inconsistent and unfamiliar. Both characters appear thin, lanky and European, as if he's only comfortable with one body type, and the only differences between the two come by way of skin color, hair and wardrobe. Gianfelice has his merits, particularly in his compositions and backgrounds, but his rambunctious technique was a poor match for this kind of story.

There's no question that too many Wolverine books are still flooding the market, so I can't mourn the loss of this title (especially considering it's being immediately replaced with another) but it is a bit disappointing that we're losing this series just as it's beginning to reveal new facets of the character's personality. This self-contained story is well written and easy to appreciate, and while the artwork is mismatched, it's also not bad. Borrow it.

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Incredible Hulk #611

It's been years since the original green-skinned, purple-pantsed, Banner-bayed Incredible Hulk was free. Yet even before his sabbatical from the mortal plane, Hulky's unavoidable face-off with the son he'd abandoned on an alien world had been simmering on the backburner, growing more pent-up and furious by the minute. If the one true King Hulk is now finally back, ready to claim his throne, Skaar wants to be the first in line to offer a proper greeting. Though this issue technically acts as the blowoff to the recent World War Hulks storyline, in reality it's just as much the final act of the four-year-old World War Hulk crossover that gave Skaar a mission, sent the Hulk off on his greatest rampage and started the ball rolling on everything that's been going on in this family of books ever since.

Adept at putting off the inevitable – and nearly breaking his readers' wills along the way – regular Hulk scribe Greg Pak proves equally proficient at finally delivering that long-awaited grand payoff in this month's edition. It's actually surprising how little time Pak wastes on setup considering his concentration on that in the past, but the shift is neither unwelcome nor inappropriate. Skaar and the Hulk spend just a single page on the requisite staredown before the first strike is thrown and from that point it's all melee, nearly all the time. On the few instances the two combatants take a moment to blink, Pak smoothly works in fitting flashbacks to several of The Hulk and Bruce Banner's most emotional moments. Brief glimpses into his life with Caiera refresh the present story, then flashbacks to childhood violence at the hands of his own father reinforce the parallels between his tale and that of his offspring. It's an obvious line to draw, and a part of Banner's upbringing that comes up more often than not in such major moments, but that doesn't make it any less powerful here, especially when the battle draws to a close in the issue's final pages.

Naturally, any issue that relies so heavily on a major league slugfest is going to depend heavily on the work of its artist, and Hulk #611 is fortunate to have Paul Pelletier on board in that department. Pelletier crams the issue to the breaking point with brutality, harsh detail and brash, wanton violence. Through careful framing and an occasional break from the action, Pelletier takes situations that sound completely idiotic in theory (sailing through the stratosphere after an uppercut, Skaar actually catches fire from re-entry before taking a spinebuster into the ocean) and deliver them in a way that one can't help but appreciate the excess of the moment. He's singularly responsible for most of the issue's most successful moments, ultimately making a name for himself under a big spotlight.

Ultimately, your appreciation of this issue will likely depend on your feelings about the Hulk family to begin with. Longtime followers and fans of the series will be enthralled by this installment, a climax they've waited half a decade to experience. Less-enraptured readers, though, might find Pak's cutaways a bit clunky and redundant, with Pelletier's artwork affected negatively by its stiff coloring. Neither side can deny that the action is loaded up and entertaining, and as a result the story just breezes right by. As someone in between those two camps, I enjoyed it in spite of a few weaknesses. Borrow it and make the final call for yourself.

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

Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #2

Since literally his very first moments among the elite, Steve Rogers has been on a quest to discover and conceal the secrets of his origin. Though Nazis may have gunned down the scientist behind his super soldier serum sixty years ago, the hunt for its successor still rages today. While it may not have always been at the forefront of his actions, that ongoing desire to find and protect the very compound that created him has always been at the core of Steve's character. Now freed of his responsibilities as Captain America, Rogers is hot on that trail once again, and not a moment too soon, in Steve Rogers: Super Soldier.

It doesn't take long for Ed Brubaker to prove he's barely scratched the surface with this character. At its root, this is just a book about Steve's continuing quest for the next iteration of the serum, but under the covers there's so much more. Habitually, the author has skinned this tale under layers upon layers of secrets, swerves and suspicions, but he's kept the actual storytelling amazingly streamlined and restrained. That results in an issue that's extremely simple to browse but unmistakably difficult to predict.

Brubaker's take on Rogers is a classic, too: one part action hero, one part super sleuth, one part international spy, one hundred percent business. It's difficult for some authors to manage one of the above, let alone all four, but Bru boils each down to its basest flavor, then mixes the whole lot together so precisely it resembles something entirely different. His rendition of Steve Rogers is the rendition of Steve Rogers, at least in the modern setting, and it's tough to imagine a tighter pairing between writer and character.

Dale Eaglesham's artwork is a different look than I'm used to seeing alongside Brubaker's writing, but it's a welcome change of pace. Where the writer's previous collaborators on Captain America and Daredevil have employed a gritty, harsh noir quality, Eaglesham delivers a bright, lively, energetic mood that's grounded in reality but still fantastic to behold. Like John Cassaday and Bryan Hitch, his work has a certain trustworthy believability, but Eaglesham leans less to strict detail, employing slightly more artistic liberty and subtle, effective exaggeration than his more celebrated peers. He grants Super Soldier #2 a distinct, memorable personality right from the first panel and while his contributions aren't without a few moments of weakness, (in particular the wild fluctuations in the size of Steve's hands) for the most part this is a very solid showing.

Super Soldier is a fine example of a classic story set against a modern backdrop. It's got all the elements of a modern masterpiece: great artwork, simple but imaginative storytelling, a wild cliffhanger of a last page and an important central figure with deep ties to the entire Marvel universe. The only pity is that this mini-series is only scheduled for two more issues, but that might just be a blessing in disguise. Nothing this good can possibly last forever. Buy it.

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

Friday, August 6, 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #638

Well, I'm sure you've seen the promotions for this one. Finally, after years of dragging their feet and avoiding the answers, the Marvel crew is ready to come to terms with what actually happened on Peter and Mary Jane's wedding day. Well… perhaps the word "actually" isn't entirely appropriate in this instance. We know what "actually" happened the first time around, but ever since One More Day rewrote the character's history, it's become obvious that the couple's big day was the specific moment when Spider-Man's original timeline and the one he currently occupies made their big split. If we've learned anything from this lingering fart of a storyline, it's that no historical event is too big to be tampered with, so perhaps using a word with such finality isn't entirely appropriate. After all, who knows how long it'll be before these new revelations are being tweaked and reworked themselves.

Written by the EIC himself, Joe Quesada – who also provides a few pages of artwork – One Moment in Time aims to answer all the questions Spidey fans were supposed to ask themselves after that poorly received storyline hit shelves almost three years ago. That's a problem, not just because most of the audience has been anxious to leave the controversial tale behind them, but also because Quesada himself is anything but a quality writer.

Beyond my obvious reservations about any story that tinkers around with the past, the timing, pace and general structure of this issue hit me like a succession of flat notes. The book's focus leaps unannounced from present to past to revisionist history and back again, slipping pages from 1987's Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 in between awkward breaks in the Peter and MJ's strangely emotionless conversation in the present. In the midst of those flashbacks, certain pages of the original story are omitted and a series of new panels exploring a lame side storyline are crammed in. The idea was to match the look and feel of the originals, both in terms of look and storytelling, but it fails in both respects. Jim Shooter and David Michelinie's original pages, despite their age, feature both a more personable set of characters and a more poignant, introspective narration. The new variations Quesada and company try to slide in are ham-fisted imposters; rather than enhancing the new revelations with a sense of authenticity, the inclusion of these old panels only serves to spotlight how far from the book's core the new direction is carrying us.

The issue's artwork is all over the place, from Paolo Rivera's unsuccessful Paul Ryan impression to Quesada's thick, over-dynamic compositions. Rivera's work is probably the best of the lot, making the most of a tough assignment with a limited but effective approach. His actual pencils aren't far off from the dated style he's asked to mimic, but the work is betrayed by an extremely muted, flavorless coloring effort that leads it to stick out where it's meant to be fading in. Paul Ryan's efforts, a product of a time when colors were blunt and artwork more literal, stands the test of time fairly well. His style may not be the modern flavor, but it's clear even in retrospect that he was trying out new ideas in storytelling and composition at the time of the story's original publication. Quesada's artwork, usually the centerpiece of his involvement in a series, is totally out of place here, a true rotten egg. Inactivity has spoiled his consistency and too much willingness to push the visual envelope results in artwork that constantly thinks it should be doing more than is ever really necessary.

From cover to cover, the first chapter of One Moment in Time is a great disappointment, soiling a strong story from the publisher's vaults in the hunt for another big event. It's very much the spiritual successor to One More Day, and I don't mean that as any kind of a positive. The issue is ill-conceived, confusing and convoluted, the ramifications are painful and plentiful, and the message is clear and simple: Marvel isn't above sullying their own history for the sake of a few extra sales. It's an awful story that sets a terrible precedent for the future direction of this series. Skip it.

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

X-Factor #207

Now well past the corner of its bicentennial, X-Factor presses onward with off-and-on series mainstay Peter David behind the wheel and a roster so overstuffed it nearly takes the entire recap paragraph to run through their names. With plot threads sprayed out to every corner of the X-Men universe and membership pulled from every team to ever include the letter X somewhere in their moniker, at this point X-Factor's readership appears to run the risk of becoming an exclusive club. If you can get past all that, though, David's pulled together a ragtag cast of some of the family's most interesting, yet overlooked, secondary characters and given them a few continuity-heavy tasks with which to occupy themselves in between snide one-liners and not-quite-heroic poses.

Peter David's writing is every bit as professionally clever as it's always been, at least in terms of narration and dialog. His cast is never short on zingers or witty comebacks and the team's membership is a charmingly odd assortment of personalities and demeanors. Although their lines don't always match up with their historical personalities (I can't remember Longshot being quite so brainless in the past) the team's membership provides, and exploits, countless opportunities for colorful character interactions and bouncy back-and-forths.

His plots aren't faring quite as well, though. The story leaps all over the place, from one locale to the next in a desperate, rapid-fire attempt to keep up with the squad's scattered membership. David doesn't seem to have much trouble keeping tabs on each character's current whereabouts and directive, but he just might be the only one. With so many faces on so many different paths and just over twenty pages to keep track of them all, this is beginning to feel like a slightly more involved rendition of the old Marvel Comics Presents anthology. X-Factor might be one team in theory, but it's five teams in action and their connections to one another aren't presently at the top of David's list of things to explore.

Artist Sebastian Fiumara generally delivers a solid showing, with a few minor hiccups. Perhaps the most pronounced is right there on the issue's opening page, when a mysteriously exotic new supporting character strolls in Madrox and Longshot's front door. While the narration describes her as "80% legs," it seems Fiumara misunderstood that metaphor and adorned the character with a set of limbs around 80% the length of a normal human being's. Which, I'm sure you'd agree, sort of kills off the power of her entrance. His work throughout the rest of the issue is more adequate, especially when the scene shifts to a darker, grimier setting. Brightly lit, his style leans more toward exaggeration, like a more generic Frank Cho. Against a dimly-lit background, Fiumara's work changes shape and shifts tone, adopting a stricter, more grounded look that I found more original and interesting.

The current shape of X-Factor is tough to classify. It's literally bursting at the seams with character, wit and good humor, which is both a blessing and a curse. The team's half-dozen simultaneous adventures make for good entertainment, but the all-at-once presentation means each chapter takes an eternity to reach any sort of resolution. It's enough material for at least three different books, most of which would be worth regularly reading on their own. Stuff the whole lot into one monthly title, however, and they all suffer. Borrow it.

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