Monday, January 25, 2010

Batman #695

In his first non-crossover arc with DC's primary Batman series, writer / artist Tony Daniel has introduced his more dedicated followers to a wide array of mysteries. Why's the Black Mask back in town, and what purpose does his bloody, unpredictable path of destruction serve in the big picture? How does the rest of the criminal underground feel about their involvement (or lack thereof) in his plans? Whose team is Kitrina Falcone playing for? Daniels gives the reader plenty to ruminate over in the pause between issues, and not all of it is explicitly spelled out in the captions and word balloons.

But even as recently as his work on Battle for the Cowl, I'd found Tony's artwork tough to appreciate. For all the potential he showed at times, his lack of restraint and focus proved too high a hurdle to clear and turned me off to him as a whole. Daniel was trying so hard to impress on the big stage that he lost sight of the fundamentals – his cast moved awkwardly, his pacing was jerky and his paneling was complicated, difficult to follow at even the best of times.

What a difference a few months' worth of experience can make. The work Daniel turns in this time is striking, a far cry from those previous efforts. He's still not above the occasional stumble, as evidenced by a chaotic early fight scene between Kitrina and Catwoman, but for the majority of this month's artwork is tight, disciplined and memorable. I loved his spread of Batman silhouetted against the bright flames of a burning house, and the caped crusader's casual rooftop interrogation of a generic crook proves equally impressive.

Daniel's writing, though, hasn't taken as substantial a step forward. While his plots are deep enough to hook casual readers, his execution still leaves a lot to be desired. Tony's heavy-handed dialog weighs down the page and slows the action, elaborating unnecessarily at every opportunity. Almost every conversation could have delivered its point and moved forward in half the time, but instead chooses to linger and ramble on. That space could have been better put to use as a bridge between scenes, establishing a new locale or focal point. Instead, we find ourselves overstaying our welcome and then suddenly snapping to the meat of a completely different scenario, sometimes in the middle of a thought.

Tony Daniel is an artist first and a writer second, so it should come as no surprise that his professional evolution focuses on improving the former before it does the latter. Though he still struggles with consistency on a few occasions, that journey is beginning to yield some serious results. This is, for the most part, a really nice looking issue and a testament to the creator's dedication. It isn't, however, all that well written. Daniel has a few good ideas bouncing around upstairs, but he hasn't developed the capacity to effectively translate them to the page. I can see the potential looming in the background of this series, but it's being restrained by a few glaring flaws. Worth flipping through, but Batman still has a ways to go before it reaches the promised land.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.5

Daytripper #2

After making their mark as collaborative artists on Matt Fraction's Casanova over at Image, twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá have set their goals a bit higher with Daytripper, their new project for Vertigo. Assuming (and sharing) both the written and artistic responsibilities, the pair's first stab at a self-inclusive project is an ambitious affair. Through the eyes of Brás, a foreigner traveling through the less-touristy locales of rural Brazil, and his charismatic companion Jorge, the twin creators take their readers on a tour of both their homeland and the human experience.

Daytripper's timeframe lazily moves forward and backward like the soft waves of the ocean. Last month we saw a flicker of the narrator's future, a foreboding prediction that saw Brás struggling to swallow his last breaths in a pool of his own blood. This month's focus slides backwards by a few years, traveling to a brighter time in his life and evaluating how his past actions and encounters indirectly led him to such a gloomy apparent demise. If you're looking for an up-tempo adventure, this won't suit your needs. Its focus is deeper than that, and although none of the narration explains it outright, the goal is a complete picture of the spirit behind Brás's physical mask. Whether or not the duo actually succeeds is up to the reader, and how much (s)he finds in common with that central figure.

It's the issue's artwork, more than its storytelling, that's Daytripper's most captivating quality. The twins collaborate on each page, their combined efforts bringing out the best in each unique style and producing a unified vision that almost seems like it was created by a separate, third entity. Ever heard a duet that mixes the two singer's voices so expertly, their individual tones combine to produce a distinctly different voice? It's the same kind of effect here. The pair bring a flavor that's faintly reminiscent of David Lapham and Eduardo Risso; simplicity without the sacrifice of identity. The page is clean but detailed, easy to scan but also to get lost inside. They deliver an understanding of the architecture, population and general attitude of Brazil that wouldn't have felt authentic in the hands of another, enhancing the dreamy, otherworldly mood the series seems to strive for.

Along the way they get a lot of help from colorist Dave Stewart, whose richly textured watercolors take the book's visuals to another level. Stewart stays out of the spotlight when the story's meant to steal the focus, but on the few instances its goal is to awe the reader with a spectacular glimpse into the local scenery, he jumps right to the forefront. Moon and Bá's compositions would do just fine on their own, but it's really Stewart's colors that make the sunset on the second page, or the underwater scene around the halfway point, so genuinely spectacular.

This issue ends just as abruptly as the first, shocking us with another dead end road that leaves an array of questions unanswered, but in so doing ensures it'll stay alive in the audience's minds much longer than if it had been upfront with its resolutions. It's an absorbing adventure in personality, motivation and decision, not to mention a brief, authentic look at what sets Brazil apart from the rest of the world. The gorgeous artwork is the first thing you'll notice, but the story's haunting echoes will stay with you for the long run. Buy it.

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In Brief - Fourth Quarter 2009

A quick glimpse at what else I was reading at the end of the year...

Dark Avengers #10 - I'm confused. Didn't the Sentry wind up with the proverbial bullet in his brain last month? It's not like I expected this issue to open with a weeping squad of Dark Avengers mourning his loss over an open casket, but maybe something as subtle as an acknowledgment of those events is in order? No? Fair enough. Continuity hiccups aside, I'm really not sure where this book is going any more. Bendis can't decide if he wants the team to be a sincere threat or a band of bored miscreants that would fit right in on The Real World, and it really can't be both. He's spreading around bits and pieces of character development, but it's so trivial and the cast is still so distant and empty that it's not having much of an effect. Moonstone's a slut. Venom's going mental. Osborn's overworking himself. Got it. When are we planning to get the audience emotionally involved? A few personality flaws and a mysterious new superhuman threat do not a compelling narrative make. And hey, would you look at that, the Sentry's "died" again this month. How have things slid so far so fast?

Batman and Robin #5 - This issue would kill to be considered middle of the road. Grant Morrison better have something incredible under his sleeve, because this muscle car's sitting in neutral and the fumes are starting to go to my head. Was that really the big "Red Hood" reveal? Is that where you're planning to leave the storyline? Is the new baddie who rolled into town on the last page any different from the last two? Do I have a reason to care? I miss Frank Quitely. It's become quite clear how much of this book's charm was his doing.

Daredevil #501 - So it's back to the original numbering for good now, I guess. It's far too early to be writing off the new creative team, but I worry that the top of the mountain is behind us in this series. Brubaker and friends left a lot of potential on the plate when they stepped away, but I didn't see anything here to convince me that Diggle and De la Torre are capable of picking up on it. I liked what I saw of their grasp of the supporting cast, but it was too soon to see Matt again and I can't imagine anyone is buying him as the dark, despicable slayer they're trying to paint him up as. I can't fault the team for doing something drastic to make their mark right away, but I don't see the potential benefits outweighing the sacrifices they're making. There's still plenty of time to salvage this, but it's stumbling out of the gates.

Ex Machina #46 - I realize it's been going on for the entire length of this series, but Brian Vaughan's constant non-sequential storytelling is really becoming unwieldy. With each issue we're leaping forwards and backwards over days, months and years, and while that worked nicely when the story's "current" events were taking place in the present day, the real world now has a four year lead on Ex Machina. I feel like I should have been managing a spreadsheet all along to help keep the story's major events in order. As usual, I found myself twice as interested in Mitchell's political career as I was in his extraterrestrial origins, but this series is drawing to a close and I don't imagine the spotlight will be moving too far from those particular threads before we're finished.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #3 - I'm liking the liberties Bendis has taken with Mysterio in this storyline. Sure, he often tries too hard to portray him as a badass cyber-terrorist, but the creative use of his powers, his curious physical manifestation and his solid new threads have worked to transform him from something of a joke into a legitimate menace for the fresh title's first story arc. Spider-Man's character-driven scenes have been getting a little shaky, but the superhero action is still working for it. That said, I'm just about ready to wave goodbye to David Lafuente's artwork.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #4 - There's been a real shift in the tone of this series since the relaunch, and I can't say I'm all that crazy about it. Since the beginning, Bendis has masterfully balanced a primarily teenaged cast with a somewhat older general direction, resulting in a book that wouldn't lose sight of each character's maturity level but also didn't read like an issue of Betty and Veronica. Maybe it's the change in artist, but that hasn't been the case over the last four issues. Peter and MJ in particular seem to have regressed by about five years, both in appearance and in personality, and while I'm happy to see the title's focus moving toward the relationship hell that personified the original series decades ago, this is the wrong way to do it. I was embarrassed to be seen reading a few pages this month. When did USM turn into a girl's manga?

The Walking Dead #66 - I'm usually a bit skeptical of issues crammed full of two-page spreads, but the treatment was understandable - and effective - in this one. A staggering conclusion to the long-running "Fear the Hunters" arc that I was not prepared for, this issue begs a variety of deep moral questions and I don't think there's a right or wrong answer for any of them. Although it moves very quickly, there's a surprising amount of substance crammed into this issue, not to mention a mountain of foreshadowing. Incredible, haunting, genuine horror.

Batman and Robin #6 - What a mess. Basically one extended fight scene, this issue would have once again benefitted from Frank Quitely's artwork, but in Philip Tan's hands it's just a yawner. Grant Morrison has driven this series into a rut that just gets deeper and deeper with every passing issue. B&R swiftly take out the insurmountable threat from last month. They share a panel's worth of witty banter with Alfred. They find a domino. A new threat emerges, promising to be twice as serious as the one the heroes took out this month. The curtain falls. Rinse and repeat. This month's challenger, the Flamingo, is stunningly shallow for someone who takes his fashion cues from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The only redeeming quality about this issue is the closure it grants Scarlet, the Red Hood's former sidekick, and even that's unbelievably anticlimactic. She just walks away, and magically she's cured? Wow. Terrible work.

Daredevil #502 - OK, I may have been a bit quick to judge the new creative team. Andy Diggle is still feeling his way around the cast, particularly Master Izo and Foggy, but he's taking the book (and Matt) to interesting new places. I welcome the return to the scenery of a courtroom, however brief it may have been, and it's nice to see the Kingpin back to his old ways, even if I still don't have a lot of time for his new enforcer, Lady Bullseye. The artwork is going to take some getting used to, though I found more to like this month than I did the last. I'm not entirely thrilled with the "ninjas vs. po-pos" storyline that's looming over the final pages like a dark, rumbling storm cloud, but this time I'll hold off and see where exactly it's going before writing it off. A mildly above-average issue, no more, no less.

Dark Avengers Annual #1 - This was a nice, unexpected little treat. To be frank, I hadn't even noticed Marvel Boy had gone missing in recent issues (no surprise considering how disjointed and difficult to follow they've been) but Bendis catches us up in no time and takes the opportunity to explore and expand his personality. Noh-Varr's perspective on the human race and its self-defeating tendencies is worthwhile, and his impromptu conversation with a random resident of NYC makes for some of the best moments of development the character has enjoyed since joining the team. Of course, those advancements are then immediately handcuffed by one of the worst costume redesigns in recent memory, but I guess you win some battles and lose others. Chris Bachalo's artwork really took this issue over the top. His experiments with traditional paneling in this issue don't always work but they're universally gorgeous and he flat-out owns the action scenes. Get this guy on the main Dark Avengers series right away, please. Deodato's just about overstayed his welcome.

Powers Volume 3 #1 - Didn't even realize the second "season" had ended, which I guess shows how captivating recent issues have been. It's a shame because this used to be the single most refreshing breath of fresh air on the market, but constant shipping delays, a few weak sequential story arcs and the replacement of Deena with a pale imposter have really served to kill its momentum. I wish Bendis would quit picking at the whole "Walker has been alive forever" bit, because it was tough to believe in the first place and each additional forgotten chapter of his life just pushes the envelope further and further over the line. Even the letters section, formerly my favorite part of every month, has been down in the dumps lately. Time to shape up or ship out, because there's no room on my regular pull list for books that are treading water or moving backwards.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #5 - There's a notable lack of electricity in this series since the relaunch, and I don't mean it needs more Electro. The entire cast is merely going through the motions, like they're reading their lines in a shared, disinterested voice. Almost every single female face has been acting completely out of character, and since the book's most personable, intriguing personalities are the women in Pete's life, that doesn't leave us with much. David LaFuente's artwork is showing signs of slow, sure improvement - he even managed to hand in a decent spread of Parker in full uniform this month - but I don't know if I have the patience to wait for him to figure everything out. It's like he's training on the job. The series seems to be going nowhere, but for the moment at least it remains worth keeping up with. It's surprised me from this kind of position before.

The Walking Dead #67 - The group's road-weary, grumpy, hungry, lost and hopeless, which is no kind of recipe for creating meaningful relationships together. That all boils over this month when one character reveals he isn't what he's claimed to be all along, calling the crew's driving purpose into question in an instant. It's a fascinating look at humanity in general, how something as minor as a small radio can drive even the closest of comrades to each other's throats. Toss in a great little heart-to-heart between Rick and his son, and you've got yet another installment in a series that never seems to take a month off. Walking Dead is in the midst of an unbelievable run.

The Walking Dead #68 - It's amazing to read this issue and then look back at where the group started. In those early days they were so naive, so careless, so... green. Today's unit is like a well-oiled machine: cautious, smart, efficient and effective. Years on the road, burying friends around every corner, have hardened them to the point they're barely recognizable. Which isn't to say they've lost touch with their humanity - they just don't show it to everyone who stumbles along. The offer from just such a wanderer that they consider this month is something the old group would have jumped at in an instant, but the modern tribe is immediately leery, even if the temptation of a stockade of food and a safe place to rest proves to be too much for the majority. Rick's caution translates directly to the readers, who have no choice but to believe that when something looks too good to be true, it usually is. Next month should be interesting.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life - Weighing in at over 800 pages, this autobiographical manga centered on the first decade of Tatsumi's illustrious career is easily the most intimidating volume of work I own. Yet despite its encyclopedic page count, I found it an exceptionally quick, easy read. More than that, it's a tremendously earnest, personal look at the author's work - warts, freckles and all. I found that I had a lot in common with the younger version of our narrator, both in his quiet personal life and his ongoing professional struggles with motivation, uncertainty and less-enthusiastic superiors and peers. Tatsumi's artwork, at a glance extremely simple and elementary, proves to be magnificently versatile and technical as the story bears on, a lesson in effective simplicity with every page. This is an outstanding work that's both overflowing with honesty and infectiously creative. I needed a book like this, not just to temporarily satisfy my fascination with Japanese history and pop culture, but to add a bit of fuel to my own fire.

Daredevil #503 - Not to sound like a skipping LP, but I'm still not sold on the new creative team. Andy Diggle's writing is taking a few appropriate cues from several of the most monumental tales in Daredevil's life, shaking up the status quo for both Murdock and his supporting cast, but there's a big gap between the two that's growing tough to bridge. This may as well be a pair of monthlies, with Matt struggling to come to terms with his new role at the helm of The Hand on one side and Foggy and the firm's legal difficulties on the other. In retrospect it may seem like a lot's gone down but on the printed page many of the big plot points have been lost in the shuffle or simply glossed over as the characters fail to react appropriately. There's still time for everything to come together and resume this book's long run of excellence, but at the moment it's not really working.

Dark Avengers #11 - Nice to see a little depth granted to Victoria Hand, Osborn's oft-seen but rarely-obeyed right hand (no pun intended) in HAMMER. Up until this point I've always regarded her as a bland Maria Hill clone, so it's cool that she's finally enjoying a bit of development, belated and lightning-quick though it may be. When the spotlight leaves her past, Hand is thrust right into the fire as the Avengers' last hope in a chaotic, confusing battle against the Molecule Man, affirming the trust Osborn has evidently placed in her and establishing her status as an active member of the team itself. The battle scenes with Mr. Molecule are a bit tripped out, climaxing in yet another faux death scene for the Sentry, andmostly come off as half-baked and melodramatic. The constantly shifting artwork just makes things worse. Sometimes when Bendis sits down in his sandbox he produces something fantastic, but lately he's been just as likely to lose control and wet himself. This is a little bit of both. Dark Avengers just isn't the dependable powerhouse it was last spring.

Dark Avengers #12 - If there were an annual quota for Norman Osborn ass shots, we'd have filled it up with this issue alone. After a few pages, Victoria gets in on the act, too, as the Molecule Man's dastardly plan for disarming her involves disintegrating everything she's wearing outside of her underwear. It's kind of bizarre, actually. I don't really get what either had to do with the story, but hey, it's sure to endear ol' BMB to the fanboys. As the big conclusion to the evil Molecule's master offensive, this issue comes off as fairly generic, with the villain's defeat coming suddenly and borderline inexplicably. I get the feeling this was supposed to be a watershed moment for the Sentry, as he comes to a personal epiphany that somewhat explains how he's managed to come back to life four times in the last three months. Thing is, he's been treated as such an oddball lately that I'm not entirely sure if I should take it at face value or just pass it off as the latest mental hurdle he's bound to bowl over in an awkward drunken swagger and forget about. I really enjoyed the breakthrough moment Victoria reaches with Osborn in the book's final pages, but loathed the cheap tie-in to Siege that immediately undermined it. It's like we're running in place.

Ex Machina #47 - Sort of a ho-hum issue without much purpose until the three-quarter mark, when we're slapped in the face with one of the biggest "oh shit" moments of the series. Vaughan's put together a nice, solid lead-in to the series finale, building up Suzanne as a real threat while undermining our faith in Mitchell. No signs of his customary late-issue failings as this series nears the home stretch - in fact, the book's rarely been better, which makes Tony Harris's unusually weak showing even more disappointing. Each time I was ready to be awed by a sweet visual, I was hit with a sudden letdown instead. Let's hope he's just saving his best for last.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Original Sins - It's been a while since I lifted this one off the shelf, and while a lot of the themes have begun to show their age, the basic premise remains rock solid. Jamie Delano never enjoyed the notoriety of many of his Vertigo counterparts, and while I can't argue that he was on the same level as Gaiman, Moore or Morrison, he was just as much at home within the imprint as its more well-known contributors. His writing in this series is a feast for the imagination, modernizing a demonic mythos that had previously been stuck in the middle ages. His Constantine is an enigma, not so wrapped up with magick that he couldn't enjoy a good drink and smoke with some regularity, or so caught up in himself that he couldn't afford to step off a bus at a remote stop in the middle of nowhere on nothing more than a whim and a wild hair. While this trade wraps up with a multi-part story arc that loses some traction, the real meat is in the first few self-contained issues, where Delano takes us on a set of brief, neck-snapping joyrides through hell and its various incarnations on the mortal plain. One chapter he's face-to-face with the selfish spirit of greed itself, the next he's toying with demonic yuppies. The artwork's not always pretty and the colors genuinely stink, but this writing is almost good enough to redeem the both of them. A fascinating glimpse back at frustrations on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid '80s, tinged with the kind of demon-wrangling that's defined Hellblazer ever since.

Siege: The Cabal #1 - With so many sets of brass balls in the same room, it was really only a matter of time before they started to collide. Norman Osborn's secret pact with Namor, Doctor Doom, Loki and the Hood seemed like a bad idea from the start, and here's where we start to find out why. Make no question, there's a lot (no, a LOT) of posturing this month, but that's really what makes it so much fun. Osborn and Doom in particular are such bold, abrasive personalities that Bendis could really just set the two of them loose in a room, let nature take its course and have enough material for a twelve issue maxi-series. And honestly, that's just about all he does here. I'm ashamed to admit I liked it so much, but truth be told this really was a fun little ride.