Monday, May 24, 2010

New Avengers Finale (One Shot)

Those who lost track of the latest Marvel super-event, Siege, may be surprised to see the much-ballyhooed New Avengers series drawing to a close after just over five years of publication. Truth is, even those who closely followed the series have a good reason to feel surprised, since the book never really seemed to reach solid footing. This unusual pairing of solo heroes, borrowed members from other squads and forgotten faces was always changing bases of operation, dodging proponents of the Registration Act or cleaning up after the latest crossover event. The team rarely enjoyed self-contained adventures of its own, although the promise of that kind of establishment seemed to be constantly looming just over the horizon.

Well now the Act is in doubt, Norman Osborn has been removed from power and it's a new day for both the Marvel Universe and the Avengers themselves. So, naturally, that occasion needs to be commemorated with a new #1 and New Avengers was one of the lucky titles marked for cancellation. I guess those halcyon days we were all looking forward to will never arrive, at least not under this banner.

Seems like the whole purpose of this little epilogue is to mop up some lingering bits of plot grime, tie up (or snip off) a few lingering loose ends and generally just chill with the old team one last time. If that sounds pretty close to the status quo, well, it is… but writer Brian Michael Bendis has scattered enough little tidbits around the issue to make the whole deal feel much more like a transition and less like a continuation. Take Luke Cage's speech to the exhausted squad of confused Avengers, for example. Out of context it just sounds like another chance for Bendis to work in a bit of his trademarked realistic dialog. Bear in mind the talk of Cage heading a new team of Avengers, however, and you'll take notice of both the mobilizing effect that speech has on his teammates and the knowing grin smeared across Captain America's face.

There's also about twenty pages of pure, balls-out action. Over the course of this series, I don't think there's been a single occasion where the team met up with someone who could stand up to the sheer force of their combined powers, let alone one who could take it without disintegrating into a million tiny pieces. In their final hours together, just such an opponent falls right into their lap and the team is all too happy to take that opportunity and have some fun.

The superstar art team of Bryan Hitch and Stuart Immonen is in charge of amplifying and electrifying this rather unconventional ride into the sunset. In the past both guys have shown off the innate ability to make relatively small moments feel like really, really big deals, a trait which is exploited to its fullest during the aforementioned brawl. Hitch and Immonen thoroughly enrich the issue with their usual cinematic touch, although a dark, murky color palette often confuses many of the finer points of their efforts. Standing amidst the dust of Siege's final arena, I can understand the need for a dark, cloudy look. Dancing amid exploding walls and constant gunfire in the heat of battle, however, there's a bit less of an excuse. Great colorists need to know when and how to pull back and let the artists reach their audience, and in this case the palette is constantly standing directly in between the two.

This issue marks the end of a long, emotional chapter for the Marvel U. It's the culmination and conclusion of everything that was set into motion way back in Avengers: Disassembled. And, for all the confusion and aggravation inspired by that story and the half-dozen crossovers that followed, in the end it's all come together into a single, perhaps too-neatly wrapped, little package. The ride wasn't perfect, but really, what is? Buy it.

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

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #10

Aunt May's home has turned into a boarding house for homeless superheroes in hiding. After taking in Johnny Storm and introducing him to Peter's high school as a distant cousin, the family's turned the exact same trick again, this time with Iceman Bobby Drake. Sounds a bit conspicuous, right? Well, don't forget to factor in the rising public distrust of mutants, Kitty Pryde's public life as just such an individual, and the arrival of a large group of federal agents who would like to share a few words with her. Suddenly a pair of vaguely familiar new students with dyed hair doesn't seem like such a big deal.

Make no question about it: this series has changed decidedly since Ultimatum. Not just in terms of its cast, which has shifted noticeably from a solo book with irregular guest spots into a full-fledged monthly team-up series. Not just in subject, flip flopping from a superhero book with a side of relationship drama into an after-school special with a dash of superheroics thrown in for flavor. It's also completely changed its tone. What used to be a genuinely exciting series with a good sense of humor, tight drama and great action, appropriate and enjoyable for all ages, now feels more like a girl's manga digest. Brian Michael Bendis still shows flashes of what made him one of my favorite writers when this series was running under its original title, but he pairs that with the willingness to linger and lost maturity that's turned me off to him lately. This is a series that I used to identify with, one that I think universally connected with anyone who had trouble communicating with their peers in high school. Lately, it's only served to remind me why I don't hang out with kids that age today.

David Lafuente's artwork is horribly frustrating to cope with, particularly after Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen's long, sustained preceding runs. Lafuente's layouts, far and away his greatest strength, improve every month. He tells a fantastic story in between the panels and shows top-notch pacing throughout this issue. It's incredibly easy to read, and a quick scan tells the whole story without sacrificing any emotion. His actual renderings, on the other hand, have faded just as quickly as his storytelling has improved. As Lafuente streamlines and simplifies his already-bare pencils, the artwork itself begins to feel incomplete and terribly, excruciatingly rushed. His grip on the characters, which was extremely loose to begin with, has all but come undone at this point. After ten issues, you'd think he'd have a pretty good idea of who the cast is and what they look like, but I still found myself citing the word balloons to see which face in the crowd belonged to Peter Parker. Lafuente's foundation is solid, but his execution gets worse with each issue.

It's a shame what this series has become. Where previously it stood apart from the pack, an example of what made comics great in their heyday, today it merely reinforces some of the most glaring flaws about the modern mainstream. It's meekly written and amateurly illustrated, but it absolutely meets its deadline every single month. Skip it. Apart from a brief flashback moment provided by the school principal, of all people, this series is going nowhere I'm interested in visiting.

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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Superman: War of the Supermen #1

For a first issue, this opening shot of the War of the Supermen crossover takes a whole lot for granted. Wasting no time on setup or back story, today's installment throws Kal and family right into the fray, firing the gun to begin the race before some readers will have even reached their starting blocks. That gave me the impression that I was always playing catch-up, often a page or two behind the story's fast pace, and it's a situation that writers Sterling Gates and James Robinson take full advantage of on several occasions.

I've never been a dedicated reader of the Superman family of titles, so a lot of the finer points of this issue were probably lost on me, but I could still glean enough scraps of information from the scenery to get a pretty good picture of what's going on. Clearly Gates and Robinson didn't compose this story with irregular readers such as myself in mind, as they've been building to it since the beginning of their respective runs with the characters nearly two years ago. Despite missing some of its finer points, though, the broader picture of this issue (and the impact of its big surprise around the halfway point) was never in question. The two writers do spend an awful lot of time and effort on long, dry collections of word balloons – so much that I was gearing up to bear another issue-wide storm of such material – but in this case that worked to a greater good. The excess of dialog elsewhere in the book only heightens the shock and awe inspired by the handful of wordless reaction pages surrounding the big reveal.

Jamal Igle's artwork fares particularly well on such pages. His more straight-laced, Gary Frank-inspired style does endure a few ups and downs throughout the story, but it enjoys a well-timed peak during the pages in which it's most desperately needed. In Igle's hands, Superman himself doesn't quite feel larger than life, which is both a blessing and a curse. We're missing that one iconic panel to take our breath away and command our respect, but the lack thereof makes Big Blue a more approachable character. That's vital when a certain climactic event results in a more human look from the story's centerpiece than we usually get to enjoy. On a few occasions, Igle oversteps his bounds and overcomplicates a scene with extra details, but when he keeps restraint in mind, his work is a natural fit.

As I mentioned above, a good deal of the lead-in work for this series had already been done before the arrival of this issue. That doesn't make it any less of an introductory chapter. No, it's actually quite the opposite: without so many minor details in its way, War of the Supermen #1 can cut to the quick and concentrate on introducing the impetus behind the three issues soon to follow. Some of the preliminary work may have already been done, but this is still very much an opening volley. And it's a very good one if not a great one. Borrow it. The stage is set for big things down the road in this series, but I wish I had more confidence that it's going to realize that potential.

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

Thor and the Warriors Four #2

It's not like the Power Pack to stand idly by when faced with adversity, whether it's super-powered or natural in origin. And so it should come as no surprise that, when their grandmother's health takes a turn for the worse, they don't stand idly by and well up with tears. Instead, they take the second most natural course of action: to seek out Thor in his mythical abode up in the sky. The kids are after an enternal life-giving golden apple, one which only grows in the kingdom of Asgard.

As idiotic as this premise may sound, it took me all of four pages to become completely engrossed. There's something about the innocence and honesty of these four siblings that's both appealing and unusual. How many times have we seen a Marvel character traverse the rainbow road to Asgard without questioning its feasibility? Better still, why did it take a twelve-year-old to ask such an obviously natural question? Alex Zalben does a fantastic job of establishing the Power Pack as an instinctively inquisitive bunch of youngsters without rendering them wide-eyed and brainless along the way. These kids certainly aren't as mature as your average Marvel superhero – therein lies a lot of the fun of watching them, actually – but that doesn't mean they have to babble like idiots.

Zalben could never be accused of overwriting this issue, either. It's light fare by design, which is right in line with the simple, matter-of-fact tone embraced by both the plot and its key players. Reading this issue was akin to watching a Miyazaki movie: friendly and exciting enough to hook a younger audience, but attractive and intelligent enough to also appeal to their parents or older siblings. It's a great example of what many fantasy stories strive to be, allowing the wild concepts and engrossing adventures to take center stage without a lot of competition from dialog bubbles or elaboration.

Almost synonymous with the Power Pack by now, artist Gurihiru has been associated with the kids for the vast majority of their return from hiatus. His sleek, excessively simple style bears a strong manga influence, but also manages to work in a nice set of traits borrowed from modern western cartoons. That results in a flavor that's perfectly matched for the innocent, happy-go-lucky tone of most of the team's adventures, including this one. His take on Thor isn't the best I've ever seen, as I don't usually think of the God of Thunder smiling broadly on every page like He-Man in a winged helmet, but that's a fairly minor complaint. During the frequent action scenes, Guri's work is explosive and entertaining. In quieter, more storyline-focused panels, he keeps things light and playful with a few well-timed background gags. He and the four children at the epicenter of this series were made for each other.

Thor and the Warriors Four is the rare example of a book that's exactly where it wants to be. It doesn't strive to be more, instead it's perfectly happy just getting better and better at being what it is. Most readers will see this cover, read the title and move on, which is fair. It's not for everybody, but it's probably a much better fit than most readers would suspect. Give it a chance, I'll guarantee it's far better than you think it is. Buy it.

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Brave and the Bold #33

Since its relaunch a couple of years back, Brave and the Bold has gone through a series of subtle shifts in concept. Always a team-up book at heart, the permanence, length and importance of each story have changed shape somewhat routinely with the introduction of each successive writer. In its latest incarnation, the book serves as an addendum, expanding upon and rounding out characters and relationships that don't get a lot of time under the spotlight in DC's regular ongoing books. While the tone is generally playful and light, sometimes it will surprise us with an unexpected dash of emotion, revisiting chapters in certain characters' lives that aren't entirely rosy.

As you've probably gathered, this would be one of those issues. The majority of the tale is optimistic enough, a rare night on the town for the intimidating trio of Wonder Woman, Zatanna and Barbara Gordon while the latter was still donning a cape and cowl for routine evening patrols of the city. The three hit the clubs and enjoy a little personal interaction, nothing too weighty or profound at first glance. In fact, as the page count began to swell, I wondered if this chapter would offer anything of consequence or if it was just here to provide a month's worth of filler. As with many of my own late nights out, though, around 3AM in a booth at Waffle House the conversation suddenly takes a turn for the serious.

J. Michael Straczynski doesn't quite spell it out for you right away, but when Diana starts talking about the inevitability of fate and the power of overcoming its challenges, the ultimate direction of this month's story quickly becomes obvious. It transforms a formerly fluffy tale without much weight into something that's a little bit deeper, more insightful and meaningful.

Cliff Chiang isn't the permanent artist for Brave and the Bold (regular penciler Jesus Saiz still provides the cover) but he makes a good enough showing that I don't think it'll be long before DC fits him into an ongoing gig somewhere. His restrained style, a mix of the Kubert brothers and Frank Cho, was a good choice for an issue that's focused on three strong female leads. Chiang gives them each a willful, confident air without neglecting their looks. The trio may be gorgeous, but they're also not ditzy or meek – which is something that's often much easier said than done in this industry. My one main complaint was in how difficult it was to tell Zatanna from Diana in their civvies, but that's a mystery that's fairly easily solved once they open up with a little dialog. Chiang's work is smooth, efficient and appropriate, a great fit for Straczynski's plans.

This isn't an issue that's going to radically alter anyone's perceptions of the characters; who they are and what they've been through. At best it's a companion piece, and a fleeting one at that. Its connection to one of DC's most shocking moments is sparse, but I think I prefer it that way. Straczynski isn't meddling with a story we already admire, he's just showing it from another angle. It's not essential reading by any means, but fans of any of these characters will want to give it a long look. A bite-sized success, short but sweet. Borrow it.

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

Firestar (One Shot)

It's been some time since Firestar enjoyed a taste of the limelight. Whether she's been running with the Hellfire Club, the New Warriors, Spider-Man and Iceman or the Avengers, it seems like she's always been an extra: seen but not heard. That's something of a shame, because her personal story is surprisingly deep and fleshed out.

Under writer Sean McKeever's hand, Firestar's tough luck takes center stage, shifting her from an also-ran that most readers remember as one of Spidey's Amazing Friends into a sympathetic figure who stares down terrible personal adversity every day. Like most heroes with a secret identity, she juggles an active private life with regular costumed patrols – but her powers, for all the good they're doing, are also slowly killing her. Having never developed immunity to the microwaves that drive her abilities, she's developed a cancer that saps her strength and willpower each day. It's a tragic turn for a character that's usually so cheery and upbeat.

Despite being handed such a complicated, multifaceted situation, McKeever never takes it anywhere. Cassie's struggles with her identity and the effect it's having on her health are the focal point of the story, but she finds no solutions or personal breakthroughs this month. Really, we're just watching her deal with the situation day-to-day and eavesdropping on her depressing social life. She feels uncertain about her place in the world, and despite the assurances of her friends and family the readers don't get any reason to believe she's wrong for doubting herself. Is it worth literally killing yourself to stop a couple joyriding teens or pull a few cats out of trees for old ladies? Most one-shots don't waste a lot of time in getting right to the meat of the subject, but Firestar seems content standing perfectly still and mumbling to itself.

Artist Emma Rios brings an extremely minimal style to the table, one that had me immediately comparing her work to that of the Luna Brothers. Each renders their characters with smooth, uninterrupted lines and very little elaboration. The method isn't without its fans, but I can't say I'm among them. It feels awkward, like there's a certain invariable that's been stripped away, crucial to finalizing a good composition. There's no texture to be found in Rios's ultra sleek, simple-to-a-fault artwork, and depth of any kind is a realm that's left to the colorist to explore. That results in a page that feels very unbalanced and faint, like it's constantly in danger of floating off into space.

This may be the least consequential single-issue story ever. It goes absolutely nowhere, and accomplishes little more than establishing who the lead is and what her present situation looks like, all of which had already been covered by the static blurb inside its front cover. It's a somber story by design, but not one that left me feeling any closer to its cast when I finally polished it off. This could've been a real gem, given the unheralded trials its lead has gone through of late, but instead it's maddeningly futile. Skip it.

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

New Avengers #64

Seems like it's been quite a while since Luke Cage's New Avengers were proactive about something, doesn't it? Truth is, they've been in a purely reactive mindset since the end of the Civil War, due in no small part to their official label as an unlawful tribe of state enemies. The team's activities in Siege don't appear to buck that trend: they're getting tired of being pushed around, they've welcomed Steve Rogers back into the fold, but they're still just following the action instead of instigating it.

Let's be straight about this: Norman Osborn in power has never worked quite as well without Brian Michael Bendis there to put the words in his mouth. Bendis has a knack with this guy, the rare ability to deliver a truly convincing con artist. As a reader, you're never quite sure if you admire him or despise him, an uncertainty that's reflected on the faces and actions of those he meets on the page itself. Watching Norman wheel and deal effortlessly with some of the biggest badasses in the Marvel U during his stint in power has been a real pleasure, like seeing an artisan in his prime. And of course, it wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without the constant threat of his doublespeak finally coming around to bite him in the ass. It's taken for granted that eventually Osborn is going to talk himself into the hole that will ultimately unravel him, and that lingering chance that this con could be his last makes every conversation an interesting one. That is, with Bendis around to put the right words into his mouth.

If you've enjoyed that kind of material as much as I have, the first half of this issue will be cruising right up your alley. The back-end is geared more toward the fan of gluttonous slugfests and shiny public displays of nondescript super powers. As I'm sure you can tell from my tone, I found that material a bit less interesting. But hey, I guess that's a little taste of something for everybody... assuming they don't demand a lot of Avengers in their New Avengers. While I largely enjoyed the focus on Osborn and the Hood this month, it did feel a bit odd to see Cage, Ronin and the headlining team treated as little more than accessories to fill out the background in a few panels.

On the visual side, Mike McKone covers all the bases fairly well, although he lacks the punching power to take over an important splash page. He doesn't benefit from any comparisons to Stuart Immonen, the preceding regular penciler, but he's also far from the worst artist to offer a take on the series. McKone shows nice versatility this month, shifting from the subtleties of a lengthy, dramatic conversation between Osborn and The Hood to a busy, frenzied action scene in the space between two panels. His characters have depth and stand apart, often showing a strange blend of Tony Harris and Leinil Yu, and although his action scenes are sometimes too busy to comprehend, I think that's more an issue of Bendis forcing too much into a single panel than any fault of McKone's.

New Avengers #64 is primarily here to sweep up a few final lingering plot points from the primary Siege crossover, and on that front it's fairly successful. The next installment in the lead characters' lives, however, it is not. While I enjoyed a good part of this issue, I couldn't help but wonder if it was material better suited to a one-shot or mini-series because it's less an Avengers book and more an installment of The Hood Digest. Flip through it; if you're ready to leave Siege behind, you'll be better off waiting until next month. Otherwise, this should provide a tidy sense of closure.

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

Wonder Woman #43

When a pillaging alien race descends on Washington, anxious to transform the entire human race into little more than rocket fuel, somebody should probably stand up and say something. Thankfully, Wonder Woman is around to serve just that kind of purpose, because I'm not really sure how I'd want to begin such a conversation. Turns out the Amazonian princess has more than just a passing interest in this particular invading fleet, however, seeing as how she's discovered a distant relative at its helm and all.

Gail Simone tells a good story this month, smoothly and effortlessly shifting the plot from past to present, narrator to narrator, without feeling overly reckless or jarring. Jumping in mid-storyline as I did, I can't say there weren't a few moments that had me scratching my head, but Simone generally takes it easy on unfamiliar audiences. The author isn't short on creativity, either, with virtually every new page carrying its own original concept. An army of force field-garbed female alien warriors on this page, a thirty story-long aluminum serpent on the next… no threat is too unbelievable, nor too absurd.

But therein lies my problem with this issue. Despite the wealth of opposing forces, precise attacks and competing problems, I never took any of them as a serious threat. Diana doesn't, either – always wearing that stern, confident disposition, nary a dash of concern or surprise registering on her face. While on the one hand, that kind of poise is what made her one of DC's heaviest hitters, on the other it gives the impression that no threat is particularly serious and the conclusion of this little skirmish has already been determined. Stoicism is important in a strong lead, but a bit of concern and shock shouldn't be out of the picture. Simone spins an elegant plot, sprinkled with a few hints about Diana's lineage, but it serves as little more than a showcase for the writer's imagination. I was looking for something with a bit of permanence, but at the end of the day all I got was a return to the status quo with an ever-so-minor nugget of info about Wondie's extended family.

Nicola Scott and Fernando Dagnino divvy up the visual duties fairly evenly, with a small army of inkers around to provide backup. The two have different enough styles as it is without those added influences giving the impression that we're looking at a quilt spun by a dozen different artists, a handicap that ultimately damages the issue. I can understand the needs of a major publisher, monthly deadlines to meet and all, but is it really worth the sacrifice in quality to meet the requirements of quantity?

Despite the new obstacles distributed with nearly every page, I never shook the opinion that this issue was just treading water. The lack of substance with each new threat gave the impression that Diana was merely assembling a checklist and working her way from top to bottom, and I don't especially care to see her polish that off and chuck it into the nearest wastebasket. It's worth a flip through but not much more.

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