Monday, March 22, 2010

Astro City: The Dark Age – Book Four #2

Kurt Busiek's scrutiny of the superhero genre, and its various transformations over the years, is still going strong in Astro City. Having already covered the more na├»ve, innocent era of the '50s and '60s, the gaudy bravado of the '90s and the grounded, stern reality of today, The Dark Age is a closer look at the grim, gritty style that swept the scene in the '70s and '80s. If all that seems a bit dry, don't worry – the series doesn't read like an encyclopedia or anything. Busiek and his collaborators, Brent E. Anderson and Alex Ross, hide their introspections behind a slew of well-rounded characters and a strong series of intertwining plot threads. It's a history lesson buried inside the heart of a really sharp, engaging cover story.

More than most of its predecessors, The Dark Age takes a look at the close relationship between the mood and social climate of the outside world and the direction of the comics that were published at the time. The 1980s weren't just a dark time for the superhero population, they were a decade of widespread distrust, of secret wars. The "peace, love and understanding" mood of twenty years earlier had slowly crumbled into a dark, hopeless era of commercialism and political helplessness. Busiek nails down that recollection early in the issue via a series of narration boxes that we'll later learn belong to Charles and Royal Williams, the focal points of this maxi-series.

Noting the rise of a darker, more violent style of hero, the displaced brothers see these signs of the times as a personal call to arms. Stewing for years over the murder of their parents, the pair have decided to join the dark movement, donning matching costumes and hunting down the man they hold responsible. Having missed the preceding thirteen issues, I figured this might be a tricky spot to just drop right into the action. And while there were a few moments where I felt overwhelmed, the basic ideas were easy to grasp and the action itself wasn't so fully invested in what had come before that I couldn't figure it out for myself. Busiek does like to lather the page with a good amount of text, but his concepts are never too high and his writing moves quickly enough that it's never more than a faint distraction.

Brent Anderson, an old pro who's been on-board Astro City since the start, brings along a visual style that's starting to look a bit dated but is still something to appreciate. His old school sensibilities are most appropriate in this arc, which is set right around the same time he enjoyed his first mainstream success in the real world with Ka-Zar and The X-Men. Anderson's style isn't especially flashy or energetic, but he makes up for it with strong, legible compositions and a master's knowledge of effective facial expression and body language. It probably isn't something you'll enjoy right out of the gates, but after a few issues I found myself really starting to appreciate his technique.

As something of a blowoff issue, I found this to be mildly lacking – everything seems to fall into place a bit too easily – but Busiek and company still have two issues to add some emphasis to the situation. As always with Astro City, this is something that would probably be better enjoyed in a trade paperback, but as a standalone issue it's nowhere near as intimidating as I'd expected. Very good but lacking a few key elements that would've made it great. Borrow it.

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

Mighty Avengers #34

Mighty Avengers has been stuck in the past lately, and I mean that in more ways than one. No, the team hasn't boarded a DeLorean and cruised through the time stream towards parts unknown. What I'm referring to is the squad itself, its current membership, and the style of storytelling that's been employed by its current scribe, Dan Slott. Robbed of most of its big names, this looks more like a West Coast Avengers team from twenty years ago than the star-studded squads that have dominated the series over the last decade. Longtime fans may see a team helmed by Hercules, Quicksilver, The Vision and The Wasp and instantly burst into a fit of gleeful clapping and tiny leaps of joy, but speaking personally I never saw the D-Team aspect of the book's past as being all that appealing.

Another thing that doesn't exactly rub me in the right spot is Dan Slott's throwback style of writing, a direct descendent of the silver age and all its heavy-handedness. Don't misunderstand, there's plenty to appreciate about that era and Slott has effectively captured some of it here, but he's also drug along many of the age's attributes that were left in the past for a distinct set of reasons. When this series first launched, for example, Brian Bendis reintroduced the thought bubble in an attempt to modernize the concept. It worked for a few issues, but ultimately became more of a distraction than a benefit and slowly disappeared near the end of his run. If that attempt to re-imagine the device failed because it couldn't shake the ghosts of its past, why would a more loyal try be any more successful? But Slott gives it a go, complete with verbiage so corny I'm surprised it didn't include a "golly," and meets a predictable fate.

The anything-goes mentality gives our writer plenty of chances to flex his creativity, with some efforts more fruitful than others. The Infinite Avengers Mansion for example, which allows Jarvis to gather ingredients for the team's breakfast from all corners of the world, is a fun (if inconsequential) little touch that's probably a bit too silly for the other Avenger books to devote any time to. More serious subject matter, though, like Loki's impersonation of the Scarlet Witch, doesn't work nearly as well.

Filling in for the book's regular artist, Khoi Pham, Neil Edwards doesn't manage to turn Slott's ramblings into anything worthy of enthusiasm. I won't lie and claim the Avengers have never looked this stiff, awkward and dorky, but it's been a long time since that was so much the case. Edwards endures an epic ongoing struggle with the two-headed beast of perspective and proportion, one he ultimately loses, and fills the issue with dull, pointless background renderings. He has almost no feel for the personalities of each member, his fight scenes lack any measure of excitement and the team's facial expressions rarely stray from the requisite clinched teeth and squinted eyes. Not a good showing.

Despite a few glimmers of trivial originality, on the large Mighty Avengers genuinely reeks. It means nothing to the big picture, struggles to prove it's even relevant to the small picture and ultimately resolves nothing. If the combination of a shoddy squad of also-rans, crappy pseudo-retro dialog, a confusing, pointless plot and sincerely hideous artwork is what you're looking for, well, there's plenty to go around. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend you just skip it.

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

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hellblazer #264

Trouble just seems to hang around certain people. This month's adventure with John Constantine is a great example. Skipping out on England to avoid a jail sentence, John's arrived in India on something of a crazy personal errand. All he's after is a taste of purity and a resurrected love, but somewhere along the way he stumbled on a murder mystery, an old enemy and an angry local demonic presence. Just a magnet for drama, this guy…

As the conclusion to writer Peter Milligan's latest arc with Hellblazer, the storyline doesn't take too many risks. It's a rather continuity-free saga, so you won't need to carry an armload of knowledge about the series into a reading. Lapsed readers will have no trouble catching up without the aid of a summary page, while new followers should be able to slide into the proceedings with similar ease

The plot's finer points might seem familiar to those older readers I just mentioned: a mysterious supernatural entity, long held in check by local mystics, has broken free and cut a swath of carnage through the heart of Mumbai. If you guessed the name of the only man in the world who can help, you get a gold star. It's familiar territory for old John, who actually dealt with something very similar in his very first story arc some two hundred sixty issues back. Milligan does enough differently this time around to grant the story the fresh modern edge it needs, but this isn't exactly fresh ground. It's written well enough, with perhaps fewer appearances from the headliner than I'd like, but it's nothing groundbreaking, won't promise to turn the character on his head or anything like that. It's good, but it's very safe.

Giuseppe Camuncoli delivers another nice showing with this issue's visuals. If you're a cross-publisher reader, you might remember Camuncoli's recent work from Dark Wolverine or Incredible Hulk, which is where he made an impression on me. Camuncoli is no stranger to the Vertigo concept, though, nor is he a rookie on Hellblazer. With more than a dozen Constantine-centric issues to his credit, this actually represents something of a homecoming for the Italian artist, and he really makes it shine.

Camuncoli's nationality may not match the Indian setting of the story itself, but the faintly exotic, unconventional style of his artwork does provide a nice partner for the story's international scenery. He peppers the issue's crowded backdrops with adaptations of Bollywood movie posters, filthy strip mall marquees and pushcart vendors, but the artwork, strangely enough, never gets overcrowded. Giuseppe primarily deals with sharp restraint and subtlety, but his illustrations are trembling with life and rich with atmosphere. There's no uncertainty in his work, just like there's no question he's got a bright future ahead of him. Vertigo is probably a better home for his technique than a mainstream Marvel superhero book, but he can pull off either style when necessary.

I lost interest in this series when it embraced weirdness for weirdness' sake and lost sight of any sort of underlying plot threads or historical significance. That was about six years ago, and I think it's had plenty of time for a fresh start. Despite a somewhat light touch, the current iteration is a big improvement from where I'd left it. It's well written, with knowledge and respect for the source material, and the artwork is gorgeous. Hellblazer isn't about to make a return appearance on my pull list, but it's on the right track. Borrow it.

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

Psylocke #4

Amongst a squad rife with strange origins and unusual life stories, Betsy Braddock – the X-Men's Psylocke – may own the weirdest. Already a purple haired mutant with world-class psychic abilities, Betsy's consciousness was unwillingly transferred into the body of a supermodel ninja with no understanding of the difference between a ribbon and a full-on wardrobe. But that was a long time ago, the wounds have scabbed over and Betsy's ready to move on with her life, to put the whole thing to rest. Too bad fate and a number of forces beyond her control have other ideas.

One of those forces, as I'm sure you might suspect from the cover, is Wolverine. Strangely, this issue is more concerned about Logan's well-publicized history and personal demons than it is about Psylocke's. A weird choice, considering Braddock barely gets more than a nod in the regular X-Men series, while doctor adamantium-claws seems to have his fingers in no less than twenty ongoing titles. It seems tacked on and cheap, like the bigwigs felt the story wouldn't sell on its own and the solution was to throw in a long fight scene with their most marketable character. It's more than that, though. Logan's tied into the single driving purpose behind this mini-series, but despite the constant flashbacks to memorable scenes in his past, it doesn't seem like everything fits together. I realize that impossible coincidence and dumb luck are the cornerstones of modern superheroics, but I think this issue stands as proof that there is such a thing as too much of both. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a lot longer than most, but this was enough for even me to step back and think "ok, enough."

Plot issues aside, Chris Yost's writing isn't particularly good. The aforementioned fight scene doesn't even serve its purpose as a visceral escape, constantly interrupted by jerky internal monologues and inconsequential high spots that don't seem to affect the combatants a few panels later. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the story is that its conclusion is framed nicely and works. But what's the point in a good finale without a relevant lead-in? It's like Yost figured out what he wanted the issue's waning pages to look like, tried writing backwards to get us there, and lost patience somewhere along the way.

Yost's teammate on this adventure, artist Harvey Tolibao, is like a poor man's Joe Quesada… which isn't intended as a slight, really. Tolibao does decent enough work, but the natural comparisons to Marvel's current EIC and fleeting similarities to Bart Sears don't do him many favors. Under Harvey's watch, the occupants of this story pop off the page. Heaping bags of muscle, their tendons pulse and squirm under a paper-thin layer of skin. They circle and stalk one another like tense, furious anatomical models. He doesn't bring anything new to Psylocke, though, and many of the characters look like they were separated at birth, differentiated only by the color of their jackets and the stylistic decisions of their hairdressers. Tolibao has some work to do; although he's far from the worst Marvel has to offer.

If it looks and reads like filler material it probably is filler material, and Psylocke looks and reads like filler material. It's a tale that was probably supposed to expand Betsy's personality, but in the end only reinforces the idea that there isn't all that much to her. Despite the wild origin story, she's always been treated as eye candy without much to add to the team in terms of personality. That hasn't changed with this mini. It doesn't stink, but it doesn't sing either. If you aren't an X-Men completist, you'll be safe skipping it.

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