Monday, April 26, 2010

Seige: Loki (One Shot)

In some ways, Loki is the perfect villain. Serving no one but himself, the god of mischief delights in turning allies on each other, twisting knives, exploiting trust and simply causing as much mischief and panic as he can in as little time as possible. From all indications, we're in the middle of witnessing his magnum opus. A master manipulator, he's effectively turned both Doom and Norman Osborn against his adopted home of Asgard, while at the same time maintaining his spot at the right hand of Balder, present ruler of the realm. What does he stand to gain? Well, what's wrong with a little chaos from time to time?

In the issue's first panel, Doom says it all – "You remain Loki, Loki." Really, that's all this issue adds up to. It's just Loki being Loki: toying with people for the fun of it, throwing a wild card into the mix for no reason other than to see who will get screwed, all while wearing that snide, pompous, ineffable sneer. Loki makes for a fantastic instigator, but as the central figure of a story, he's fairly lacking. He's one-dimensional, always scheming and misleading, but mixing his messages just enough to trick everyone he meets into following along. Like a pinch of salt, he's great in small doses but too much spoils the lot.

Kieron Gillen's tie-in to the latest, greatest merry Marvel crossover to end all crossovers can't be chastised for avoiding answers. In fact, this issue solves a number of riddles that had been floating around Siege since it was in the setup stages almost a year ago. The problem is, every last one of those answers boils down to "Loki did it just to mess with someone." Gillen's only real innovation in these twenty-four pages is the casual wheeling and dealing Loki does with Mephisto, a friendly face-off between the publisher's two most conniving personalities. Naturally, their clash utilizes the pen, not the sword, as they each attempt to one-up the other with escape clauses and fine print. It's a fun little competition, if not a particularly long or volatile one.

I didn't care much for Jamie McKelvie's artwork at first glance, but as the issue unfolded it slowly started to grow on me. I'll attribute that to his similarities to Steve Dillon, whose work I also took some time to really appreciate. McKelvie and Dillon both give their subjects a very pedestrian, everyday appearance – uncomplicated but rich in character. That's worked very well for Dillon over the years, since his cast is usually filled out with casually dressed civilians. Seeing Loki, Doom and Mephisto with that kind of a treatment, on the other hand, seems to spotlight just how crazy their get-ups really are. If you can get past that, the quality of McKelvie's facial expressions will treat you well.

Siege: Loki makes for an amusing aside, an elaboration on several questions most readers probably already had a pretty good idea about. It's not required reading, however, as most every important point will be recounted in brief somewhere in the primary series. If you're crazy about Loki, this may result in a pair of wet shorts, but less-fanatical readers won't find anything spectacular inside. An inconsequential side-adventure, it's enjoyable but shallow. Flip through it.

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

Hellcyon #1

Set on a recently colonized planet rife with political struggles, government oppression and civil war, Hellcyon is the brainchild of writer / artist Lucas Marangon. Known for his work on several of Dark Horse's Star Wars themed tie-ins and spinoffs, Marangon borrows a few basic storyline ideas from the Lucasfilm behemoth for his independent debut. Let's see - giant empirical oppressors with a significant military advantage? Check. Flimsy, disorganized resistance movement filled with outlaws and freelancers? That's another check. Haughty gold cyborg with a classically-trained British voice? OK, he's missing that one.

The specifics of the story itself are more original than I'm letting on. Rather than focusing exclusively on the conflict itself, Marangon spends a fair amount of time on the political atmosphere and public opinions that led to such an explosive situation. In this case, Earth is the asshole oppressor, eager to hoard anything of value and make a profit at every opportunity. Halcyon, a small colony on the outskirts of civilization, has become the center of media attention after declaring independence and standing up to overwhelming odds. The success (or lack thereof) of this planet's movement could set a tricky precedent for future uprisings, and for that reason alone the galaxy is keeping a close watch on Earth's reaction.

It's a familiar story with a more modern slant. The parallels to current events aren't especially difficult to spot, either. Don't let those mature undercurrents fool you, though, because Hellcyon can be a wild ride when the time is right. As the first in a four-issue mini series, the story doesn't waste a lot of time on set-up, which isn't to say it's lacking in detail. It gets you up to speed quickly and efficiently, but when the explosions start dropping Hellcyon hastily transitions into a slick, fast-paced action book. It's one of those rare instances where a story can be both intelligent and exciting.

His previous experience with the Star Wars properties is most apparent –and perhaps most rewarding – in Marangon's artwork. His compositions have taken on the same cinematic, breathless quality of that well known megafranchise, especially when setting the scene with an exterior shot of an enormous space station or battleship. By weaving in bits and pieces of his manga influences along the way, Lucas produces an interesting marriage of visual styles and inspirations. His machinery has the daunting, impressive scale made famous by ILM, but also the organic curves and more elegant shape of a Masamune Shirow mech.

Lucas's artwork makes a good allegory for the issue as a whole: although it stumbles from time to time, when it clicks you'll be hooked for the duration. Many of the story's ideas teeter on the edge of plausibility, but they never quite tip over into the brink. Though it does sometimes feel like Marangon is testing waters that might be a bit too deep for his skill level, he's produced a genuinely entertaining first issue in spite of that. The overarching premise isn't quite as profound as Lucas would like to think it is, but it's good enough to stand on its own and the action scenes more than make up for any shortcomings. Borrow it.

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

Monday, April 19, 2010

Marvel Zombies 5 #1

I guess in a world overrun by zombies there's no such thing as a dead horse, so Marvel can feel free to run this concept right into the ground without facing any accusations of beating one. By this point the Marvel Zombies have devoured every living being on their home planet, several parallel dimensions and a good chunk of outer space. They've swallowed Galactus. They've dined with the Marvel Apes. They've even stared down Ash from Army of Darkness. I wish I were kidding. So what could possibly be next? How about undead outlaws with six shooters and cow-print chaps in the dusty confines of the wild west?

I'd presume Fred Van Lente felt he needed to do something to shake things up a bit, since the original idea has already been stretched so thin. And to be fair, this is hardly the first time the scenery and genre have wildly changed course in the Marvel Zombies drama, so it's hardly unprecedented. It's probably not even the most ridiculous direction we've ever been drug in, but that doesn't make it any less idiotic. This series has proudly lumbered around with a black, blood-drenched tongue planted squarely in its cheek from the very beginning, and goofball comedy certainly isn't out of bounds. Most humor usually requires some sort of seed that's genuinely funny, though, and I just can't find it here. It's soulless, coming off as a desperate publisher asking a desperate writer to throw random bland ideas at the wall and hope against hope that one of them sticks.

Having already run out of first and second-tier heroes to slaughter, reanimate and / or chew up, in this fifth installment Van Lente has moved on to the also-rans. Seen enough of Spidey chowing down on Mary Jane's severed left arm? Then you're almost certainly ready for the fury of the zombie Phantom Rider, or the bottled comedy gold of an undead-huntin' Howard the Duck. The well of bad ideas is deep, my friends, and the bodies of the discarded characters stacked in there could stretch for miles.

Kano does a fair enough job in his first shot as artist for the long-running series. He nails a half-dozen panels over the course of this issue, when his work tightens up and most closely resembles John Romita Junior, and the rest of the time his contributions are merely passable. Kano never really takes over the show or brands the issue with a fresh style of his own, and that lack of true enthusiasm carries over to the reader. When the story is plodding so is the artwork, and when the pace picks up the visuals drag their feet.

Like a major network television station, Marvel is almost never going to let a moneymaking series die, even if there's no obvious direction to take the story. Like many similar titles, it's only a matter of time before the former Marvel Zombies furor fades into a whimper and ultimately disappears completely. This issue is only proof that we're planted firmly on the downward slope of that progression. Skip it.

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

Spider-Man Fever #1

True confession time: I don't enjoy Doctor Strange stories. I just can't get into the character and the mystical mythos surrounding him only confuses and irritates me. Which means the question indirectly posed in this series by jack-of-all-trades Brendan McCarthy is: can Spider-Man temper my disdain for Strange enough to get us all through a mini-series relatively unscathed?

McCarthy's quirky storytelling might take a bit of getting used to, but it also excuses several of Strange's eccentricities. He belongs in this kind of wide-eyed, whimsical atmosphere, filled with spontaneously exploding books and a hearty helping of magical special effects. The whole issue reads like some kind of tripped-out voyage into the psychedelic sixties, when colors were bright, spirits were ponderous and dialog was only there to explain what the hell was supposed to be going on. Either Strange has a blind invisible friend chilling in the room with him at every moment or he really enjoys muttering the obvious to himself underneath his breath.

Yet for all the little bits and pieces that should have annoyed me to no end, I actually found this issue to be strangely charming, no pun intended. There's a certain innocence and honesty to this brand of fantasy, one that had me often flashing back to the classic, outrageous tales of Amazing Spider-Man's early chapters. That's most apparent during the half-issue that focuses directly on Spidey, of course, but it's there during the Strange narrative too, whenever the Doc manages to shut his mouth long enough for it to surface. Brendan has an interesting spin on the “real” world, for all three pages in which this story resides there, but once the direction takes a turn for the mystical, his style is completely submersive.

It's a good thing McCarthy handles the visuals himself, because I'm not really sure how he'd direct another to bring some of these concepts to life. His pages are something else, with panels bleeding into one another, splash pages telling three or four stories within a single composition and hidden symbology thrown into every empty space. Navigating his visuals is often a cloudy, uncertain experience, like trying to make sense of a dream after a night of heavy drug abuse. It would be utterly frustrating if it didn't fit the fevered tone of the story so very well.

If you're after something with a lot of substance, this isn't your ticket. It's a pleasure cruise through the screwy subconscious of the writer, and while it's often overwhelmingly imaginative, it's also fairly vaporous. Spider-Man Fever won't change your perception of the characters or alter their personalities in the long-term, but it will keep you entertained, dare I say captivated, from start to finish. It's utterly trippy, bending the reader's mind in unexpected ways and sometimes babbling incoherently, but the main narration remains surprisingly lucid. I shouldn't have liked this nearly as much as I did. Borrow it.

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cloak and Dagger (One Shot)

The duo of Cloak and Dagger have long hung around the fringes of the Marvel Universe, often making an appearance but rarely having a major part to play. They've been bit players in Spider-Man, had small roles in both House of M and Secret Invasion, but their own self-contained adventures have never been all that successful. In Marvel's current big-picture continuity, the pair finds themselves mixed in with the X-Men, thanks to a timely opportunity for redemption presented by Norman Osborn.

In his first adventure with the characters, journeyman writer Stuart Moore reveals a surprising understanding of what makes them tick. While Osborn had recruited the duo for covert actions with the Dark X-Men, it didn't take long for Emma Frost to invite them on-board with the real squad. One thing's strange about that setup, though – Cloak and Dagger aren't mutants. And while the rest of the team is more than accepting of that fact, it's something that nags particularly at Dagger. An uncertain character at heart, she's struggled with the news that she's certifiably non-mutant. Dagger wants more than anything to find acceptance somewhere, anywhere, and despite the other X-Men's assurances, she just can't see that happening within Xavier's legacy if their powers come from different sources.

Moore's story is at its best in dealing with that kind of emotional stress, when he can speak volumes without a lot of dialog. In dealing with a character that wants to be counted among the persecuted just to fit in, he's turning the mutant dynamic on its ear. Later in the issue, when the focus moves away from that, the tone becomes more generic and the issue loses its hook. If this was a testing of the waters to see if the headlining duo could support their own monthly series again, well, that was their chance.

Mark Brooks's artwork gives the issue a strong personality, albeit one that's a bit more effective in pin-ups and splash pages than more mundane, story-driven layouts. His style is heavily influenced by animation: simplistic and minimal in general but sharply detailed where it needs to be. Brooks nails Dagger's pensive confusion in her facials and body language, then brings to life her presently awkward, uncertain relationship with Dagger. His prior familiarity with the X-Men is a huge benefit, since the mutants are involved so closely with the plot, but the new characters he's asked to introduce aren't nearly as exciting as the established ones he's already spent some time with.

I was enjoying the direction this one-shot seemed to be headed when it suddenly zagged off at a more common angle. That resulted in a story that's certainly more digestible to the mainstream, but also much less involved and unique as a standalone. It's tricky because Marvel's interested in printing books that make money. You've got to expect a certain quota of explosions, collapsing walls, sailing automobiles and fisticuffs. But in moving to meet those expectations and produce what will probably be a better-selling one shot, the issue lost track of the very specific elements that were working to set it apart. Flip through it but don't expect to be clamoring for a new series when you reach the last page.

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

Justice League of America #43

James Robinson continues his inaugural run with DC's biggest and brightest this month in Justice League, and if you haven't kept up with the first two issues I'll save the elaboration: skip it. Frankly, I can't imagine this issue entertaining anyone who does manage to make sense of it, but the vast majority of readers who haven't memorized the official DC Comics Encyclopedia (2010 edition) will find JLA #43 an impossible riddle to comprehend.

A disjointed, confusing fight scene right out of the gates doesn't exactly set a pleasant opening tone. Over the course of six splash pages, we're expected to keep up with four competing internal narrations, some of which don't even contain a single finished thought, terribly generic spoken dialog, a leap or two through time, a kaleidoscope of brightly colored special effects and a mashup of compositions and characters so busy they'd make George Perez throw away his toolbox and curse the industry. Robinson's idea is to show anarchy, a squad in the heat of the battle with no interest in fighting together as a single unit. It works too well, not just spoiling the team's chemistry but the narration too. Those six pages may as well have been blank.

From there, the story embarks on a streak of unprovoked, unexpected leaps through time and space without so much as a nod of the head or a complete sentence to prepare its readers. More than once, a central character is right in the middle of explaining a crucial plot point when the story, like a reckless drunken driver with a death wish, yanks the wheel in a different direction and we race off to another gaudy, overwritten dead end of a plot device. A telepath would have a tough time figuring out what Robinson was thinking here.

Mark Bagley's artwork doesn't do much to ease the pain. Perhaps feeling the pressure to deliver on such a large stage, Bagley overdoes it in every single panel. There's too much detail, too many moving pieces, too many panels to convey too large of an idea. Even in the aforementioned splash pages that launch the issue, there's just too much going on to get a clear idea of what's actually happening. Granted, a large part of that is due to Robinson's compulsion to include as many characters on a single page as possible, (and the wealth of narration boxes don't make things any easier) but it's not the writer's job to simplify and organize a layout. The best artists can abridge precisely this kind of a complicated scenario into easy-to-digest scenery, but Bagley somehow manages to make it even worse. He's just as much to blame for this issue being a mess as Robinson is… maybe more so.

Considering the experience and notoriety of the creators involved with this story, Bagley and Robinson's run with JLA can be considered nothing less than a monumental disaster. It's so concerned with playing by the rules, including every single character remotely involved and precisely defining its spot in present continuity that it completely forgets to tell a story that's moderately interesting. This is impossible to comprehend, frustrating to attempt and, overall, a terribly maddening experience from cover to cover. It's total crap. Skip it and set fire to anyone you see leaving the store with a copy under their arm. They'll thank you for it later.

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

X-Force #25

This is going to get a bit complicated, so stay with me here. Remember Bastion? Little pink cyborg from the future, hates mutants? He's developed and unleashed a special virus with the interesting perk of reanimating the X-Men's dead enemies. Having noticed this recent twist, a psychic vampire named Selene has borrowed that same virus and used it to revive the entire population of the obliterated mutant island Genosha. Her ultimate goal is to devour the spirits of the zombie nation, using the gathered power to then ultimately become a goddess. X-Force, naturally, is against that idea.

That's an awful lot to expect your readers to keep track of, and it's only the tip of the iceberg. X-Force writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost have been building to this moment, seemingly, from issue number one and that kind of depth just can't be summarized in two, three or thirty "previously in" paragraphs nestled inside the front cover. As an irregular reader, a lot of the events and characters in this issue skimmed right over my head, but they also didn't seem to lose a lot of weight in the process. A mid-issue throwdown between two characters I'd never heard of still felt like a big deal, even if I wasn't quite sure who I was rooting for or why. Kyle and Yost know how to effectively frame and pace a big story, although some of the accompanying dialog can get pretty cheesy.

Their partner, Clayton Crain, enjoys many of the benefits provided by fully painted artwork, but despite fourteen preceding issues with which to hone his craft, he also still falls into several of that medium's traps. On the positive side, his work is twice as rich and vivid as that found in more traditionally illustrated books. Crain's responsibility for both the layouts and the colors ensures that what we're getting is an exact replication of his vision, uncompromised by the competing ideas of an inker or colorist. At the same time, he's also without the guiding hand of a direct editor to reign in his more elaborate concepts or cut him off when he stretches too far.

That's often been my main complaint with painted sequential art: the creator feels so obligated to show off what he can do that he often forgets to ask himself whether or not he should. Crain's a talented artist, but he occasionally uses his digital paintbrush as a crutch, covering up a lacking composition with an unwelcome extra special effect or detail. Having said all that, however, he gives this series a look unlike any other. He is its personality, and when his work is hitting the right notes (which it is frequently this month) it's breathtaking.

If you've kept up with this series from the start, issue twenty-five should provide a fair sense of closure, at least as much as possible in an ongoing series. For the most part, though, it's just a slightly longer, more permanent continuation of what had come before. Excessively dark artwork, a shadowy, moody tint to the storytelling and a set of characters who don't really seem to understand the concept of real emotion – that's the current iteration of X-Force in a nutshell. It's not in the upper echelon of books on the market today, but it's also a small step above the glut of imitators jammed into the middle of the pack. Flip through it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5.5

Supergod #3

In this bleak portrait of an alternate future, Warren Ellis imagines the integrity of the entire planet's super-powered population as being one of two things: compromised or nonexistent. Against that backdrop, the cold war has been amplified to a terrifying degree. Rather than threatening each other with fistfuls of nuclear weapons and stern words, America and the Soviet Union have waged open war using super-humans in the place of more traditional armaments. Of course, in retrospect those warring nations may have been better off dealing with radioactive fallout. There's no controlling the emotions of these gods among men, who treat collateral damage to some of the planet's greatest treasures with the same degree of sympathy that you or I might grant an anthill.

Though the series isn't told from their perspective, Warren Ellis goes to great lengths to ensure we understand just how different the mentality of these creatures really is. They're more than superior beings physically; the supergods are also in a completely different place mentally. Like Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, the focal points of this series are difficult to relate to, which also makes them tough to predict or understand. They act in a way that might seem completely insane to you or I, but which makes perfect sense to them. India's anointed savior Krishna, for example, deals with his appointment as leader of an entire nation by wiping out 90% of its population. To the planet at large it's genocide, but to Krishna it's merely a reduction of his responsibilities to a more reasonable level.

This is an occasion where Ellis's penchant for lengthy, vocab-heavy monologues actually seems appropriate. Of course, upon close inspection it's just another vehicle for the writer to share his own opinions about humanity's shortcomings (cleverly presented as the thoughts of an Earthbound god) but so long as this isn't your first experience with the work of Mr. Ellis, that shouldn't be entirely unexpected. The high concepts never stop coming in Supergod, for better or for worse. As a direct brain dump of crazy ideas, original concepts and thought-provoking natural reactions, it's fascinating material. As a gripping, cognizant narration? Not so much.

Garrie Gastonny, the artist tasked with translating Ellis's loose musings into something resembling a sequential story, performs adequately. Many times it feels like he's struggling to keep pace with the big theories floating around, others it seems as though he's darted out too far ahead and has to tread water while the words play catch-up. Gastonny's work isn't particularly thrilling, especially when our attention is called to the human narrator behind this tale, but he blossoms when the focus shifts to the supernatural creatures that drive it. It takes a lot just to reign in some of this writer's ideas closely enough to realize them, and while Garrie does manage to do so effectively, he doesn't embellish and enhance that material quite as much as the series needed to be an outright success.

This isn't a mass-market book. It's too cerebral, too caught up in its own deep, detailed imagination to bother worrying about the kind of readers who probably wouldn't give it the time of day to begin with. Like many of this author's best works, the real treasure of Supergod is in its concepts and theories, not in its narrative. It's a dissection of what we believe about the men and women underneath the capes and cowls, a radical alternate proposal of who they might be and what they might do on our own soil. It's truly fascinating stuff, but it's also terribly dry and plodding. If you've enjoyed some of Ellis's trippier material in the past, this was made with you in mind. If you haven't, there's nothing in these pages that's going to change your opinion. Borrow it if you're curious, it shouldn't take long to decide which camp you fall into.

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

Uncanny X-Men #522

Frustrated once again in their efforts to coexist with humanity, the X-Men have stepped out of San Francisco and into isolation. Raising Magneto's former asteroid headquarters from the Pacific Ocean, the team has granted it a new name and a revised purpose: Utopia, a sanctuary for mutants to escape the constant persecution of their bigoted evolutionary forefathers. Of course, an unnamed few of the group's bitter enemies have taken these developments as an invitation to attack. In this instance that means an unleashed pack of Predator X's loose on the island and a mysterious subsequent hunt for those responsible.

Writing this series must be one of the most taxing jobs in all of comics. Think of the long and speckled history of the X-Men, both on the page and behind the scenes. The editorial responsibilities alone are enough to give the most hardcore fan a migraine, with so many of the team's members appearing in other books at roughly the same time. Add to that a lifetime's worth of crazy, crisscrossing continuity and an unusually large roster and you've got a recipe for serious intimidation. Matt Fraction's tackled some challenging titles already during his time at Marvel, but there's really nothing out there even close to what he's facing with Uncanny X-Men.

To his credit, Fraction keeps a healthy percent of the team's membership, both primary and insignificant, accounted for at some point this month. Many of those check-ins don't really add anything to the big picture – really it's Scott, Emma, Kitty and Magneto's story – but they pad out what's otherwise be a fairly slow month in terms of actual storytelling. I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing: everyone wants their favorite mutant to enjoy a little page time, but not at the expense of moving the story forward. By the time its final pages roll around the issue does finally begin to budge, but the question is how many readers will have stuck around to enjoy the payoff. It's a chapter that spends so much effort threatening to go somewhere that by the time it actually does, most of the suspense it depends on has long-since faded away.

A return to familiar territory for Whilce Portacio this month also doesn't quite result in the kind of spark you might expect. Bumping into these characters for the first time in nearly two decades, the Image Comics co-founder hands in a spotty, inconsistent effort that varies between incomplete and overwrought. I'd worried that his style would seem dated after so much time away from the Marvel spotlight, but that's not the problem. Portacio has evolved to include newer inspirations alongside the older sensibilities he was known for in the '90s, but curiously his biggest problems involve two of the basics: proportion and natural posture. The X-Men and their associates, particularly Colossus, appear constantly uneasy in their body language and change shape and size more than once per page. Piotr's constantly scaling hands are a perfect example: in one panel they'll be teeny tiny lady paws, the next they're the size of his head. I was a fan of Portacio's work years ago, but lately he really appears to have regressed.

There's one big event going on this month, and you can pretty much figure it out by taking a quick glance at the cover. The entire issue drags its feet getting to that payoff, and while Fraction delivers an interesting twist in the final pages, it wasn't enough to salvage my expectations. Uncanny X-Men is moving slowly, deliberately and quietly. You'll probably want to flip through it, although that cover really tells you everything you'll need to know.

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