Thursday, July 15, 2010

Astonishing X-Men #34

The slowest-moving series in the X-Men family is back for another joyride this month, as Astonishing X-Men finally delivers its thirty-fourth installment. I thought the setup for this issue, detailing Abigail Brand's fall from the cosmos and the appearance of an organic-skinned sentinel in the streets of San Francisco, sounded a bit familiar – turns out that's for good reason. I last covered the series with issue number thirty-two, when it originally shipped... eight months ago. With the mutant landscape changing drastically every minute, that long a delay makes a storyline such as this one feel more like a time capsule and less an account of current events.

At least the issue's contents haven't gone sour during the months of neglect. After diving feet-first into the action in preceding issues, Warren Ellis spends a fair portion of this month sorting out the personal ramifications of what's gone wrong. A nameless villain has hacked into Hank McCoy's research database, using his investigations into reviving the mutant gene against the team on as grand and twisted a scale as one could imagine. It's not exactly a fresh idea, but that doesn't mean it no longer bears fruit. Ellis gives the Beast a sharp set of pages to stand up for himself under scrutiny, and as can be expected when a brainy, intellectual writer sinks his teeth into a brainy, intellectual character, the results are witty, brilliant and entertaining.

Pity the same can't be said for the whole of this month's dialog. It's universally quick-witted, snarky and sarcastic, even if that kind of attitude hadn't previously been in certain characters' playbooks. I can't say the punchlines don't ring true, because many are genuinely funny little self-deprecating jabs, but it gives the entire roster a homogenous, hive-minded aura that doesn't fit well with the team's history of individuality. I'd have no problem with this issue's writing if it involved a lesser-known set of characters, but when you're dealing with a squad of classics like Logan, Storm, Cyclops and Beast, some attention should be paid to their existing personalities. The issue is decently written, but the cast doesn't feel right.

Where Phil Jimenez provided the one really successful element of previous, more action friendly issues, he struggles with a more dialog-heavy chapter this month. In a frantic, chaotic fight scene, Jimenez seems right at home. He shows an eye for precision when the situation calls for detail and a knack for restraint when subtlety would be more successful. When the tone is more downplayed and the focus turns more toward character moments, though, he seems to second-guess his work and lose touch with that sense of timing. This month Jimenez over-renders the cast, particularly Emma Frost, crushing them under the weight of too much linework. His compositions feel heavy and thick, overburdened with an unnecessary amount of shadows. Tasked with illustrating a long conversation, he uses each panel to slowly zoom in on the speaker's face, to the point it starts to feel uncomfortable. In a few select panels, particularly the vast alien landscapes at the end of the issue, Jimenez shows a master's hand. The rest of his effort isn't quite up to par.

Astonishing X-Men has become a series both out of place and out of time. Its sister publications have already moved on to the next big crossover event, lessening the importance of the story's resolution. Ellis himself has even taken part, showing a much tighter grip of the same cast in Xenogenesis than is on display here. Chances are, you've already forgotten the purpose of the story after so much time away from the shelves. I'm here to tell you that, despite a few glimmers, what Ellis and Jimenez deliver this month isn't worth getting reacquainted with. It's become the lost adventure of a squad that's already done more adventuring than anyone could possibly keep up with. Flip through it if you're inclined, but don't take it home.

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

Wonder Woman #600

Wonder Woman #600 isn't an anniversary issue so much as it is a thick, padded-out digest. Placing any continuity-focused storytelling on hold, this commemorative edition instead spends its energy on a fistful of pinups, half a dozen short stories with sometimes-questionable ambitions, a vague, rambling preamble by Lynda Carter and an Action Comics sneak peek that somehow steals the show by shifting the focus to an entirely different cast of characters. It might make a fine coffee table book for more dedicated fans of the amazon princess, but an issue worthy of celebration it surely is not.

The special edition opens with a Gail Simone / George Perez yarn so ridiculously cheeseball it takes the proverbial cake from the Hostess promotional strips that filled out our comics in the bronze age. Seven pages of tiny panels jammed full of peripheral characters, word balloons, terribly puns and incredulous onlookers. It's less a tribute and more an unintentional parody that grows weirder by the panel. The only male presence in the story takes the shape of the United States Congress, brainwashed by an invading force of feminine robots dubbed, you guessed it, the Sirens. By the time Diana's army of lady superheroes had toppled the threat and surrounded her in pursuit of an autograph, I'd already seen enough.

At least Amanda Conner's contribution, concentrating on the aftermath of a throwdown between Chang Tzu (Egg-Fu) and a trio of DC's upper-level lady powerhouses, doesn't take itself too seriously. That may be why it's, hands down, the issue's most successful mini-adventure. Conner doesn't get caught up in the heavy handed "girl power" theme that runs throughout, she just gives us an informal chat between Wondy and Power Girl that's more telling in its mundane nature than any number of super-powered fights against robo-masculinity ever could.

Louise Simonson and Eduardo Pansica chime in with a terribly stereotypical account of Diana's team-up with Superman, as the two face off with the generic threats of Nikos Aegeus. Armed with Zeus's lightning, among other mythological weaponry, he's chosen to use his arsenal as a terrorist threat, demanding a hundred million dollars in exchange for a promise to quit wrecking Washington's more popular modes of public transit. Spoiler: the super-duo solve the problem via knockout punch. Every single line of this bit, both written and illustrated, is excruciatingly generic. I've read this story a thousand times before and I've never enjoyed it.

Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins provide the lightest chapter of the issue, six pages that read like one and a half. Their tale, which takes the shape of a dream, effortlessly leaping from past to present and back again, appears to be little more than a showcase for Kolins's digitally painted artwork. It has its moments, albeit more in terms of color than composition.

Finally, J. Michael Straczynski and Don Kramer polish off the issue with a proposed glimpse into the character's future with a prologue to their upcoming "Odyssey" storyline. Much to the chagrin of hardcore fans, the pair is pushing forward with a generic new outfit for the iconic figure, and if this slice of the pie is any indication, they're also giving her a grittier underground attitude. Neither makes for a good fit. Straczynski's promises to give Wonder Woman a concrete direction and a new big picture are betrayed by his immediate failures to make either click in this short preview.

This really isn't a must-have issue, particularly as milestone commemorative editions are concerned. Where most books try to build a major event to coincide with such issues, Wonder Woman #600 represents the pause in between major arcs. It's not the traditional path, but that isn't the problem here – it's the quality of work they chose to take its place. Of the cluster of short tales DC has gathered, only the Amanda Conner chapter has any sort of redeeming value, and even that would be better suited as a backup story. This anniversary is a disappointing one for the first lady of comics, and if the peek we've been granted into Straczynski's plan is any indication, her future may be even rockier. Skip it.

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

Brightest Day #4

When you've spent a full year sorting out the changes and challenges presented by Blackest Night, in which the publisher's dead heroes and villains were suddenly returned to life as evil husks, the obvious next step is to leap right into another year-long crossover to work through the aftermath. That's just second nature. So, if you weren't already aware (or if the title alone didn't make it patently obvious), Brightest Day is precisely that follow-up. Concentrating on Deadman - now wearing a white power ring - along with eleven other supporting characters resurrected during the events of Blackest Night, the series stretches to cram as many different plot threads and character-driven events into each issue as possible.

When they can keep their ADD in check, the writing team of Geoff Johns and Peter J. Tomasi are good for a few interesting twists and turns, but it's tough to shake that pervasive feeling that they're trying to do way, way too much for a single series to handle. This could've very easily been a set of one shots or limited runs, spotlighting the same characters under their own mastheads and skipping the confusion altogether. That much is made clear just from the opening volley. Literally beginning the issue mid-sentence, Hawkman and Hawkgirl spend one page reminding the readers what they're doing and another making up their minds before wandering through a portal to the vast unknown and bidding their audience farewell for another issue. From there, the story recklessly leaps from one narrative to the next, often abandoning a new direction just as things start to get interesting. It's a literary junkie, constantly on the prowl for its next cliffhanger fix.

Johns and Tomasi may bring a glut of fresh plot ideas to the table, but the particulars of their writing leaves a lot to be desired. Often formulaic and predictable, I found their dialog dull and the character interactions excruciatingly one-dimensional. When Deadman suddenly appears in Dove's bedroom in the middle of the night, for instance, I immediately figured we'd see a few pages of hero-versus-hero when Hawk burst into the room. Sure enough, two pages later the two were at each other's throats with Dove playing the mediator. Afterward, an unheralded new threat emerges from the ocean with a single vocal outburst: "Kill them all!" Who, exactly? Well, I guess that mystery will wait for the next installment. The entire issue is this hackneyed, bowing to stereotypical convention at every opportunity, and that makes it difficult to step back and enjoy the big picture.

Ivan Reis is the issue's primary artist, with an assist from a full brigade of DC's resident talent. Fortunately, each progressive style compliments the next and, unlike its writing, Brightest Day #4 enjoys a stable, cohesive visual showing from cover to cover. Not that it enjoys a lot of opportunity to stretch its legs and show off. As you can imagine, the storyline's penchant for leaping from one complicated situation to the next necessitates an awful lot of panelwork and doesn't provide much room for visual effects. Even in the issue's pair of full-page spreads, there's so much forced into the picture that it felt like the artists were more concerned with the chore of fitting everything in than they were with the liberty of cutting loose and delivering something eye-popping.

This issue is a convoluted, confusing, irritating mess. It's all over the place, both in focus and in pace. The story leaps from full-speed onslaught to slow, deliberate conversation and back again more times than I think anyone's ready for. If Brightest Day #4 were a sports car, Johns and Tomasi would have thrown the transmission by now. The story's tough to follow and stale, while the artwork never gets a chance to plant its feet and fight back. It just isn't worth your time. Skip it.

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