Monday, August 30, 2010

Ex Machina #50

As seems customary for the final arc of any series, this last romp with Mayor Hundred and his staff has been fairly brutal. Hundred, able to influence and control machinery as though it were subservient, has never fully understood the source of his powers. It also never occurred to him that he might not be alone. Well, there was that odd guy with the similar ability to speak to rats, but by comparison that's a pretty weak power and he was promptly disposed back in the mayor's earlier days as a superhero. Lately, though, a more serious threat has manifested itself in the form of Mitchell's on-again, off-again girlfriend Suzanne. It seems that, along with the sister ability to control human minds, she's developed a case of the crazies and set out for the Mayor's head. After massacring his mother in cold blood, she got the man's attention and last month Suzanne finally got her comeuppance. So what now? Good question.

As the final issue of Brian K. Vaughan's latest epic, Ex Machina #50 is facing a lot of loose ends before it can finally close the lid on the super-powered savior of the South Tower on September 11th. I might as well level with you right out of the gates – there aren't enough pages to answer or even acknowledge most of them. In fact, Ex Machina's final issue is as much a product of the forty-nine episodes that came before as it is a swift, complete bookend. This is a series that's thrived on stalling readers for as long as it can, absorbing itself in comparably mundane distractions when the world's falling down outside the window. It's a tale that keys on Hundred's actions on 9/11, while never actually taking the time to relive them in much detail.

Vaughan's tendency to concentrate on minutiae in the place of linear storytelling is on proud display again this month, as the aftereffects of a citywide riot and an honest-to-god portal to another dimension opened wide on New York streets take a back seat to a quiet conversation at the office and a UN press event. That's not to say there's no closure, because eventually the mood does shift to something more appropriate for final sentiments, but I couldn't help but watch the quickly-dwindling page count as the story meandered along without much concern for its brief remaining timeline. This issue is half-full of payoffs and finality, but also half-full of filler that would've fit every bit as comfortably in a nondescript issue crammed between major storylines. It's a conundrum, and in many ways that's perfectly fitting.

Tony Harris, who's stuck around as artist on this series from the word go, hasn't been without his struggles. Particularly as the story began to wind down, the rush to meet a deadline became painfully obvious as Harris's formerly strict, disciplined style gave way to more rushed, less thoughtful compositions. Fortunately for all, Harris managed to snap himself out of that funk for the book's final chapters, which may or may not have something to do with why they've taken so long to ship. Whatever the reason, the work Harris hands in this month is worth the wait – it's a fine return to form that showcases his versatility and control. Tony's job hasn't been easy over the years, juggling the stale d├ęcor of city hall and a variety of black suits with fever dream landscapes and a colorful supporting cast, but it's an act he's perfected along the way. This issue serves as a terrific swan song, a final chance to show us what he's learned from that experience.

A great two-man partnership is always something I'll celebrate, and Vaughan and Harris have proven they fit the bill. While Ex Machina hasn't been the most consistent title in my pull list over the years, the climactic moments have been grand enough to keep up-to-date for, while the less thrilling chapters did just enough to maintain some momentum. I'll mourn the vacancy in my monthly subscription, but I applaud the decision to step away when the timing is right. It's a suitable, if slightly odd, conclusion to what turned out to be a grand series. Borrow it.

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

Wolverine: Weapon X #16

Nightcrawler, an X-Men mainstay and one of Logan's few close friends, is dead. A fatality of the team's desperate battle with Bastion in Second Coming, Kurt Wagner left his comrades with little more than hope, a fistful of memories and one final wish: that Logan deliver a twenty thousand dollar piano to a remote Venezuelan church. The catch? That congregation is located at the top of a towering mountain, inaccessible via modern means of transportation. Wolverine's going to have to haul the thing up a long slab of rock to fulfill his friend's last request.

In Weapon X #16, the limited series' final issue, author Jason Aaron doesn't celebrate with a traditional hokey epilogue. Instead, he cuts the central character to his core, investigating an under-explored human side to Wolverine that's often lost in the red mist of another violent black ops mission. Splitting time between a piano-laden present and a confrontational series of flashbacks, the issue dissects Logan and Kurt's long friendship over the years and slowly reveals how it changed each of them. In their own way, these two were the mutant version of the odd couple: one a slim, agile man of faith and introspection, the other a thick, powerful brawler who'd rather rely on his beer-drenched senses than his mind. And while death may be every bit as fleeting as life is in the world of comic books, the realization that half of that duo is gone still tugs at the heart strings thanks to a simple, clever premise and some slick, emotion-soaked writing.

A great deal of this issue is spent examining Logan and Kurt's arguments over faith, religion and the afterlife, with one playing the dedicated man of devotion and the other the incendiary skeptic, neither able to budge the other's position, both leaving the discussion frustrated. Logan may have the final word on that matter in terms of physical presence, but in reality Kurt's taken the right for himself, giving his friend a mission of solitude, a chance to dwell on the heart of their lifelong argument for lack of any other stimulation. Aaron doesn't pass on the opportunity to elaborate, and while the line he draws at the end of the issue may not be entirely true to the character, it does make for a stunning final page and an appropriate conclusion to the relationship.

Alongside such deep, existential commentary, artist Davide Gianfelice's loose, curvy, energetic style doesn't always feel appropriate. Particularly during the flashbacks, when Wolverine and Nightcrawler appear in full costume, Gianfelice's artwork is completely out of place – exaggerated to the point of distraction, regularly bright and cheery when the subject is about as dark as it gets. While his take on Kurt feels just about right, Davide's renditions of Logan are inconsistent and unfamiliar. Both characters appear thin, lanky and European, as if he's only comfortable with one body type, and the only differences between the two come by way of skin color, hair and wardrobe. Gianfelice has his merits, particularly in his compositions and backgrounds, but his rambunctious technique was a poor match for this kind of story.

There's no question that too many Wolverine books are still flooding the market, so I can't mourn the loss of this title (especially considering it's being immediately replaced with another) but it is a bit disappointing that we're losing this series just as it's beginning to reveal new facets of the character's personality. This self-contained story is well written and easy to appreciate, and while the artwork is mismatched, it's also not bad. Borrow it.

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Incredible Hulk #611

It's been years since the original green-skinned, purple-pantsed, Banner-bayed Incredible Hulk was free. Yet even before his sabbatical from the mortal plane, Hulky's unavoidable face-off with the son he'd abandoned on an alien world had been simmering on the backburner, growing more pent-up and furious by the minute. If the one true King Hulk is now finally back, ready to claim his throne, Skaar wants to be the first in line to offer a proper greeting. Though this issue technically acts as the blowoff to the recent World War Hulks storyline, in reality it's just as much the final act of the four-year-old World War Hulk crossover that gave Skaar a mission, sent the Hulk off on his greatest rampage and started the ball rolling on everything that's been going on in this family of books ever since.

Adept at putting off the inevitable – and nearly breaking his readers' wills along the way – regular Hulk scribe Greg Pak proves equally proficient at finally delivering that long-awaited grand payoff in this month's edition. It's actually surprising how little time Pak wastes on setup considering his concentration on that in the past, but the shift is neither unwelcome nor inappropriate. Skaar and the Hulk spend just a single page on the requisite staredown before the first strike is thrown and from that point it's all melee, nearly all the time. On the few instances the two combatants take a moment to blink, Pak smoothly works in fitting flashbacks to several of The Hulk and Bruce Banner's most emotional moments. Brief glimpses into his life with Caiera refresh the present story, then flashbacks to childhood violence at the hands of his own father reinforce the parallels between his tale and that of his offspring. It's an obvious line to draw, and a part of Banner's upbringing that comes up more often than not in such major moments, but that doesn't make it any less powerful here, especially when the battle draws to a close in the issue's final pages.

Naturally, any issue that relies so heavily on a major league slugfest is going to depend heavily on the work of its artist, and Hulk #611 is fortunate to have Paul Pelletier on board in that department. Pelletier crams the issue to the breaking point with brutality, harsh detail and brash, wanton violence. Through careful framing and an occasional break from the action, Pelletier takes situations that sound completely idiotic in theory (sailing through the stratosphere after an uppercut, Skaar actually catches fire from re-entry before taking a spinebuster into the ocean) and deliver them in a way that one can't help but appreciate the excess of the moment. He's singularly responsible for most of the issue's most successful moments, ultimately making a name for himself under a big spotlight.

Ultimately, your appreciation of this issue will likely depend on your feelings about the Hulk family to begin with. Longtime followers and fans of the series will be enthralled by this installment, a climax they've waited half a decade to experience. Less-enraptured readers, though, might find Pak's cutaways a bit clunky and redundant, with Pelletier's artwork affected negatively by its stiff coloring. Neither side can deny that the action is loaded up and entertaining, and as a result the story just breezes right by. As someone in between those two camps, I enjoyed it in spite of a few weaknesses. Borrow it and make the final call for yourself.

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

Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #2

Since literally his very first moments among the elite, Steve Rogers has been on a quest to discover and conceal the secrets of his origin. Though Nazis may have gunned down the scientist behind his super soldier serum sixty years ago, the hunt for its successor still rages today. While it may not have always been at the forefront of his actions, that ongoing desire to find and protect the very compound that created him has always been at the core of Steve's character. Now freed of his responsibilities as Captain America, Rogers is hot on that trail once again, and not a moment too soon, in Steve Rogers: Super Soldier.

It doesn't take long for Ed Brubaker to prove he's barely scratched the surface with this character. At its root, this is just a book about Steve's continuing quest for the next iteration of the serum, but under the covers there's so much more. Habitually, the author has skinned this tale under layers upon layers of secrets, swerves and suspicions, but he's kept the actual storytelling amazingly streamlined and restrained. That results in an issue that's extremely simple to browse but unmistakably difficult to predict.

Brubaker's take on Rogers is a classic, too: one part action hero, one part super sleuth, one part international spy, one hundred percent business. It's difficult for some authors to manage one of the above, let alone all four, but Bru boils each down to its basest flavor, then mixes the whole lot together so precisely it resembles something entirely different. His rendition of Steve Rogers is the rendition of Steve Rogers, at least in the modern setting, and it's tough to imagine a tighter pairing between writer and character.

Dale Eaglesham's artwork is a different look than I'm used to seeing alongside Brubaker's writing, but it's a welcome change of pace. Where the writer's previous collaborators on Captain America and Daredevil have employed a gritty, harsh noir quality, Eaglesham delivers a bright, lively, energetic mood that's grounded in reality but still fantastic to behold. Like John Cassaday and Bryan Hitch, his work has a certain trustworthy believability, but Eaglesham leans less to strict detail, employing slightly more artistic liberty and subtle, effective exaggeration than his more celebrated peers. He grants Super Soldier #2 a distinct, memorable personality right from the first panel and while his contributions aren't without a few moments of weakness, (in particular the wild fluctuations in the size of Steve's hands) for the most part this is a very solid showing.

Super Soldier is a fine example of a classic story set against a modern backdrop. It's got all the elements of a modern masterpiece: great artwork, simple but imaginative storytelling, a wild cliffhanger of a last page and an important central figure with deep ties to the entire Marvel universe. The only pity is that this mini-series is only scheduled for two more issues, but that might just be a blessing in disguise. Nothing this good can possibly last forever. Buy it.

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

Friday, August 6, 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #638

Well, I'm sure you've seen the promotions for this one. Finally, after years of dragging their feet and avoiding the answers, the Marvel crew is ready to come to terms with what actually happened on Peter and Mary Jane's wedding day. Well… perhaps the word "actually" isn't entirely appropriate in this instance. We know what "actually" happened the first time around, but ever since One More Day rewrote the character's history, it's become obvious that the couple's big day was the specific moment when Spider-Man's original timeline and the one he currently occupies made their big split. If we've learned anything from this lingering fart of a storyline, it's that no historical event is too big to be tampered with, so perhaps using a word with such finality isn't entirely appropriate. After all, who knows how long it'll be before these new revelations are being tweaked and reworked themselves.

Written by the EIC himself, Joe Quesada – who also provides a few pages of artwork – One Moment in Time aims to answer all the questions Spidey fans were supposed to ask themselves after that poorly received storyline hit shelves almost three years ago. That's a problem, not just because most of the audience has been anxious to leave the controversial tale behind them, but also because Quesada himself is anything but a quality writer.

Beyond my obvious reservations about any story that tinkers around with the past, the timing, pace and general structure of this issue hit me like a succession of flat notes. The book's focus leaps unannounced from present to past to revisionist history and back again, slipping pages from 1987's Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 in between awkward breaks in the Peter and MJ's strangely emotionless conversation in the present. In the midst of those flashbacks, certain pages of the original story are omitted and a series of new panels exploring a lame side storyline are crammed in. The idea was to match the look and feel of the originals, both in terms of look and storytelling, but it fails in both respects. Jim Shooter and David Michelinie's original pages, despite their age, feature both a more personable set of characters and a more poignant, introspective narration. The new variations Quesada and company try to slide in are ham-fisted imposters; rather than enhancing the new revelations with a sense of authenticity, the inclusion of these old panels only serves to spotlight how far from the book's core the new direction is carrying us.

The issue's artwork is all over the place, from Paolo Rivera's unsuccessful Paul Ryan impression to Quesada's thick, over-dynamic compositions. Rivera's work is probably the best of the lot, making the most of a tough assignment with a limited but effective approach. His actual pencils aren't far off from the dated style he's asked to mimic, but the work is betrayed by an extremely muted, flavorless coloring effort that leads it to stick out where it's meant to be fading in. Paul Ryan's efforts, a product of a time when colors were blunt and artwork more literal, stands the test of time fairly well. His style may not be the modern flavor, but it's clear even in retrospect that he was trying out new ideas in storytelling and composition at the time of the story's original publication. Quesada's artwork, usually the centerpiece of his involvement in a series, is totally out of place here, a true rotten egg. Inactivity has spoiled his consistency and too much willingness to push the visual envelope results in artwork that constantly thinks it should be doing more than is ever really necessary.

From cover to cover, the first chapter of One Moment in Time is a great disappointment, soiling a strong story from the publisher's vaults in the hunt for another big event. It's very much the spiritual successor to One More Day, and I don't mean that as any kind of a positive. The issue is ill-conceived, confusing and convoluted, the ramifications are painful and plentiful, and the message is clear and simple: Marvel isn't above sullying their own history for the sake of a few extra sales. It's an awful story that sets a terrible precedent for the future direction of this series. Skip it.

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

X-Factor #207

Now well past the corner of its bicentennial, X-Factor presses onward with off-and-on series mainstay Peter David behind the wheel and a roster so overstuffed it nearly takes the entire recap paragraph to run through their names. With plot threads sprayed out to every corner of the X-Men universe and membership pulled from every team to ever include the letter X somewhere in their moniker, at this point X-Factor's readership appears to run the risk of becoming an exclusive club. If you can get past all that, though, David's pulled together a ragtag cast of some of the family's most interesting, yet overlooked, secondary characters and given them a few continuity-heavy tasks with which to occupy themselves in between snide one-liners and not-quite-heroic poses.

Peter David's writing is every bit as professionally clever as it's always been, at least in terms of narration and dialog. His cast is never short on zingers or witty comebacks and the team's membership is a charmingly odd assortment of personalities and demeanors. Although their lines don't always match up with their historical personalities (I can't remember Longshot being quite so brainless in the past) the team's membership provides, and exploits, countless opportunities for colorful character interactions and bouncy back-and-forths.

His plots aren't faring quite as well, though. The story leaps all over the place, from one locale to the next in a desperate, rapid-fire attempt to keep up with the squad's scattered membership. David doesn't seem to have much trouble keeping tabs on each character's current whereabouts and directive, but he just might be the only one. With so many faces on so many different paths and just over twenty pages to keep track of them all, this is beginning to feel like a slightly more involved rendition of the old Marvel Comics Presents anthology. X-Factor might be one team in theory, but it's five teams in action and their connections to one another aren't presently at the top of David's list of things to explore.

Artist Sebastian Fiumara generally delivers a solid showing, with a few minor hiccups. Perhaps the most pronounced is right there on the issue's opening page, when a mysteriously exotic new supporting character strolls in Madrox and Longshot's front door. While the narration describes her as "80% legs," it seems Fiumara misunderstood that metaphor and adorned the character with a set of limbs around 80% the length of a normal human being's. Which, I'm sure you'd agree, sort of kills off the power of her entrance. His work throughout the rest of the issue is more adequate, especially when the scene shifts to a darker, grimier setting. Brightly lit, his style leans more toward exaggeration, like a more generic Frank Cho. Against a dimly-lit background, Fiumara's work changes shape and shifts tone, adopting a stricter, more grounded look that I found more original and interesting.

The current shape of X-Factor is tough to classify. It's literally bursting at the seams with character, wit and good humor, which is both a blessing and a curse. The team's half-dozen simultaneous adventures make for good entertainment, but the all-at-once presentation means each chapter takes an eternity to reach any sort of resolution. It's enough material for at least three different books, most of which would be worth regularly reading on their own. Stuff the whole lot into one monthly title, however, and they all suffer. Borrow it.

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

Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom #1

One of comics' more enduring characters, Solar has been around the block with far more publishers than any of his contemporaries, without undergoing so much as a single wardrobe revision. Bouncing from Gold Key to Valiant Comics, along for the ride when the latter transformed into Acclaim Comics, the character is back in the limelight with yet another new first issue under the Dark Horse banner. Likewise, the career of the new title's author, Jim Shooter, has enjoyed similar leaps and bounds across company lines. The big question, though, is whether an author who made his name in the mid-1970s still has what it takes to rejuvenate a character that didn't exactly connect with modern audiences in his last outing. The short answer? No. No, he certainly does not.

A brief monologue early in this issue provides a good example of what's wrong with Shooter's dated style of writing. Realizing that his creations are literally leaping off the page and coming to life, a struggling comic book writer embarks on a lengthy diatribe from his lonely home office. Problem is, there's nobody else in the room for him to talk to. He's literally emptying his brain to the reader, which wouldn't be completely terrible if he weren't taking so long to explain something that was fairly obvious from the first panel. Evidently subtlety and restraint aren't utensils that Jim Shooter has seen fit to carry in his toolbox this year. After all, why leave your readers to think for themselves when you can spell everything out in three dull pages of excessive dialog? Later, Solar himself goes into the same kind of word-heavy trance when outlying his far-fetched origins. Shooter overloads the scene with irrelevant details and still somehow forgets to make it even remotely interesting. It's like reading a textbook with bad illustrations.

Oh, right. The illustrations. Dennis Calero handles the entirety of Solar's art duties, from pencil and ink to digital color, but it quickly becomes clear that his contributions aren't worth any kind of celebration. The issue's visuals are stiff and awkward, lost in a futile attempt to follow in Jae Lee's somewhat minimal recent footsteps. While he successfully matches Lee's unusual habits in terms of shading and rendering, Calero's compositions are missing the attention to detail and impressive framing that's persistent in the Dark Tower alum's work. Solar's backdrops are also nowhere near as textured, so they feel sparse and empty without a valid reason. Calero tries to erase this shortcoming by way of a few digital coloring shortcuts, but they're really more of a cheap last-second bandage than a viable alternative to the issue's visual missteps. It's hollow, uncomfortable, third-rate work that would've single handedly kept this issue from being considered a serious work if the writing weren't also so dim.

The new Solar is about as much fun as a party with Stephen Hawking. If you wait long enough and stretch your brain far enough you might learn something new, but the road to get there is long and dry and you'll need a special encyclopedia and superhuman patience to understand it. It's overwritten but short on concept, accompanied by lazy, shoddy artwork and a wooden cast of characters. Don't waste your life in this way. Skip it.

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

Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age (one shot)

The Marvel Universe has changed shape yet again, and this publisher would certainly be remiss to skip an opportunity for a whole fleet of one shots and mini-series geared to elaborating upon those transformations. In this case, the publisher's taking advantage of a rare bit of down time for one of their premiere families, the X-Men. With Second Coming now in the rear view mirror, the timing is right for the mutants to take a breath and look around at what their peers have sown. While the team was off in San Francisco doing what they do best, the rest of the world didn't quit changing. Maybe, just maybe, that means their spot in it is also ready to shift a little bit.

This extra-sized issue takes the interesting approach of assigning each of its three primary artists to a different focal character, with Whilce Portacio handling Cyclops in the Savage Land, Steve Sanders following the Beast on sabbatical and Jamie McKelvie covering Hope's visit to the Baxter Building. The three employ very different styles, which makes the transitions from one setting to the next seem more like a new chapter and less like a subtle conversion.

Portacio works a slightly cut back version of his action-friendly, ink-heavy technique from the early '90s, a good fit for Scott's moody, brooding adventures in the jungle. He's loosened up a bit since his first run with the X-Men two decades ago, noticeably cutting back on the linework and streamlining his approach, although I'm not quite sure which version I prefer. Steve Sanders couldn't provide much more of a contrast, balancing the issue with an extremely simple, cartoonish approach that's more along the lines of America's Best Comics veterans Zander Cannon and Chris Sprouse. His rendition of the Beast, and his ensuing interactions with Runaways graduate Molly Hayes, may as well have been pulled directly from a fairy tale. Take that for what you will, but there's no question it's an appropriate choice for the playful mentality of the two central characters.

Finally, Jamie McKelvie rounds out the artistic trifecta with an effort that seems to be an awkward marriage of Portacio and Sanders's preceding works. McKelvie's clean lines and vast expanses of negative space give his chapters a simple, straightforward flavor but the lack of exaggeration and more grounded perspective also lends his work a more serious tone. Of the three, his style is the least interesting, although he's also dealing with a pretty dry subject matter, at least visually – Hope passing time during an array of tests, evaluations and body scans by getting to know Franklin Richards.

While the concept of a three-headed narration may lend itself to visions of disjointed narrative leaps and a jerky, confusing pace, Matt Fraction actually manages to handle it with some grace. Remember those old sketch comedy formulas, when one skit would lead into the next with a shared word, action or object, somehow bridging the gap between two totally unrelated stories? It was a staple of Monty Python's Flying Circus and, years later, The State. Fraction spins something similar here, expertly shifting locations, moods and characters without bucking his readers in between pages. It probably helps that each chapter is somewhat laid back, focused more on a calm, casual series of chats on a variety of subjects than an invading alien fleet or the next great Terran threat. Fraction manages this kind of story skillfully, not that he always gets a chance to show it in the fast-paced land of the X-Men, so it's nice to see a different side of both the writer and the characters for a change.

X-Men: The Heroic Age isn't required reading, but that doesn't mean it's without merit. In fact, given the hectic pace of the regular books and the sheer number of faces bouncing around the fringes of the team, this might be your only chance to enjoy some quality character moments without the backdrop of a big ongoing storyline looming over every word. Matt Fraction brings the goods, and though each artistic showing is spotty at times, the whole book comes together nicely when all is said and done. Borrow it, even if you're not a present fan of the X-Men. It's good, intelligent reading.

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