Monday, October 18, 2010

Deadpool MAX #1

Well, I suppose if there had to be a MAX rendition of Deadpool, the latest character to pass through Marvel’s shovelware-inspired publicity department, they could’ve chosen much worse than David Lapham. As coincidence would have it, I’m right in the midst of re-reading Lapham’s self-published classic, Stray Bullets – first time in ages – so that probably gives me a good frame of reference as to how seriously he’s taking this project. Is this the same guy that blew me away with that charming, bloody series and his recent work on Terror, Inc. or is it a pale impersonation, out for the easy cash grab with one of the publisher’s most over-published modern characters? Let’s find out together!

For some characters, a spinoff MAX series delivers new life, a fresh start, a different perspective. The Punisher was on life support, subsisting on a joke of an ongoing series in the Marvel Knights line under the watch of a carefree Garth Ennis before getting the M-Rated reboot. The change in scenery invigorated both character and author. Without a mass audience tag to hold him back, Ennis returned to form, abandoned the limp-wristed superhero satire he’d been investigating, then put the guns back in Frank’s hands and the scowl back on his face. For others, like Blade or Nick Fury, a MAX run provided little more than just another brief mini-series, a diversion before returning to business as usual.

To his credit, Lapham follows the mould of the former: he isn’t satisfied with telling the latest in a series of wacky Deadpool stories. He’s here to put his own stamp on the well-worn crimson visage of Marvel’s foul-mouthed mercenary ninja, and he aims to do so via a long, intertwining series of myths and legends, keeping Wade Wilson himself out of the spotlight unless absolutely necessary. Whispers and rumors provide testimony to the assassin’s all-world skill level, with his targets’ level of paranoia proving they’re more truth than fiction. It’s a more grounded tale than most of Deadpool’s previous exploits, which admittedly isn’t saying all that much, although it certainly isn’t without a few moments of gratuitous excess itself.

The issue’s visuals, provided by fellow indie writer-artist Kyle Baker, make for an awkward match. Baker’s artwork feels limited and rushed, like a quick set of layouts hammered out on bar napkins over the course of a long, drunken night on the town. His style floats from loosely realistic to grotesquely exaggerated, with the two extremes coming gracelessly face-to-face in more than one panel. As the issue wears on, the quality of Baker’s work degrades further and further, like a descent into madness. One would think that such a style would lend itself nicely to a crazed, chaotic blast of melee action, of which there are several in this tale, but even in that situation Baker disappoints, with a stiff, uncoordinated effort. It’s just a bad visual showing from start to finish.

Despite David Lapham’s early-issue attempts to base the issue in a more vivid, realistic world, around the midway point it transforms into something more on par with a hallucination. It moves quickly and recklessly, lurching from one awkward motif to the next, and never quite finds that sweet spot to curl up and get comfortable in. Is this an espionage story? An action series? A black comedy? Perhaps all of the above? Yes and no – it tries them all on for size, but none makes for a good fit. Maybe this series will find its stride after it’s notched up a few more kills, maybe not. Right now it’s merely taking wild stabs in the dark, desperately searching for an elusive personality and masking its indecision with buckets of bloodshed and the occasional bad joke. A crazed ride, if not a particularly memorable one, and not something I’d count among Lapham’s best efforts. Flip through it.

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

Superman: The Last Family of Krypton #3

In the final chapter of this Elseworlds revival tale, the El family is confronted by the consequences of their crash landing on and eventual adoption of the planet Earth. Departing their doomed homeworld as a family, rather than merely jettisoning their infant son in a tiny experimental rocket, the Els landed in a familiar Kansas cornfield and promptly set about improving the human race. But at what point do good intentions and noble scientific devotion twist into hubris and evolutional obstruction? More pointedly, would the human race have been better off without a single Superman than it is with a whole family of them?

Well, I hope you like text, because Cary Bates has crammed so much of it into this issue, an encyclopedia editor would say “damn.” The book is literally drowning in word balloons, caption boxes, talking heads and hyperbole, explaining the scenery and chatting about character struggles when it would be sufficient to illustrate them. That gives the issue a much more thoughtful pace, which seems appropriate for the kind of far-sighted questions the series seems to determined to ask, but won’t gain it any endorsements as a page-turner.

At their core, the kind of observations and commentary Bates offers in this issue, not just into the origins of superheroes in the DC universe but also to basic human nature, are bitterly poignant. That they’re also so terribly long-winded and awkwardly non-conversational may ultimately hold this series back from being the modern classic it could’ve been. It reads more like a dissertation than a story, with moments of action occurring in the background of each panel simply to further the conversation and rarely to provide any measure of added drama or suspense. That central train of thought is compelling and creative enough to keep the issue moving along nicely, but it’s more like reading a good conceptual sci-fi novel with a loosely related string of illustrations than a traditional comic book.

Speaking of which, Renato Arlem’s artwork is similarly unspectacular on the surface and rich beneath. Arlem’s work appears drab at first glance, literal and pedestrian without much cause for excitement, even in moments fueled by adrenaline. As the story progresses, though, the depth of his vision for this slightly skewed rendition of our world becomes clear, as does his intimate understanding of the El family and the complex emotions they work through as one hard question leads into another. His style isn’t flashy, it doesn’t make for good pin-ups, but it’s refined, sharp and intelligent. His unsuspecting, grounded artwork walks hand-in-hand with the concept-focused nature of the story itself.

It’s great to see the old Elseworlds imprint alive and well with such an intelligent story at its fore. While The Last Family of Krypton may not be the most enthralling Superman tale ever spun, it’s right up there with his most thought-provoking. It has its weaknesses, and I’m not sure why Cary Bates didn’t trust his artist to convey some of the ideas he refused to remove from the dialog, but it’s successful in spite of all that. This series won’t hold the attention of the action audience for long, but those in search of mental nourishment will find plenty of food for thought. Borrow it.

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

Machete #0

As the introductory chapter to a full ongoing series, coming your way this December, Machete #0 opens the door to a crazed adventure on par with the character’s crimson-drenched feature film debut. With both tales taking their hints from a paper-thin joke of a trailer in 2007’s Grindhouse, there’s plenty of room for elaboration here – but also no shortage of opportunity for gratuitous, mindless, mesmerizing violence. A rarity in the landscape of movie tie-ins, director Robert Rodriguez himself has taken on the comic’s writing duties (with an assist from Aaron Kaufman), which in theory should ensure an unusually close relationship between the two properties.

To a degree, that’s true. The story rips along like a Harley from hell, distributing punch-outs, dead hookers, drug cartels and bad cops around every turn. Like the film, there’s no question of the issue’s commitment to telling a serious story: it’s about as genuine as a 3AM wedding in Vegas. Rodriguez and Kaufman play with stereotypes at every opportunity, which sometimes works as genuine parody and others feels like wanton excess for their own amusement. Particularly noteworthy are the Mexican pedestrians who alternate between Spanish exclamation and English conversation, often more than once in a single sentence. Does anybody really speak like that, or is it just a joint invention by Hollywood and the Marvel bullpen to minimize their investment in subtitling? I’m not sure if this issue is embracing that cliché or calling it out

Sadly, though, the comic just isn’t as much fun as the initial trailer or the eventual feature film. The action is just as careless, the plot just as transparent, but somewhere along the way we lost track of the charm and machismo that fueled Machete’s celluloid romp. Bold visuals and wild creativity can gloss over a lot in the theater, but with both elements removed in this print version, the plot’s shortcomings are stripped bare. There’s a fine line between playful parody and just plain bad storytelling, and Machete #0 takes several big steps in the wrong direction.

Stuart Sayger’s rough, grizzled artwork flirts with both relevance and rebellion on every page. In some panels, Sayger’s thick ink splatters and quick, imprecise renderings provide a perfect counterpart for the story’s reckless, misdirected aggression. In others, it feels like the only guy in the room who doesn’t get the joke. On a few occasions, Jay Fotos’s brazen, invasive colors bail out a particularly bad page, but just as many others are irreparably spoiled by a bland color choice or strange composition. It’s the very definition of hit-or-miss, but at least Sayger’s renditions of Danny Trejo’s unmistakably grizzled mug are easily identifiable.

The comic adaptation of this year’s most stylishly awful movie theater action hit is a perfect match in some regards and a total miss in others. It’s got the large supply of gunfire, knife fights and ladies that helped to power the film, but when push comes to shove it’s nowhere near as wild a ride. The lines of dialog that would’ve had me cracking up in the theater just came off as hackneyed and stupid in print, which had to be concern number one going into this project. It’s not there yet. Give it a skip.

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

The Terminator: 1984 #1

Up until now, the mentality of Dark Horse’s Terminator tie-ins have almost exclusively focused on expanding the universe with new characters, new situations and new settings. They’ve added layers to the franchise, but the disconnect between those elaborations and the events of the movies themselves has been tough to move past. Fleeting appearances from John Connor, infrequent references to the films’ timelines and entirely original casts of characters have distanced the comic book continuity from the primary plot that’s at the wheel of the movie franchise, which has likely turned off many potential casual readers. With Terminator 1984, the publisher tries a new strategy: broaden and enrich the events of the catalyzing first film in the series with the story of several concurrent, intertwining threads.

Terminator fans are often afforded a unique perspective of the film’s events. We know Sarah Connor’s not out of her mind in the second film, for example, when doctors in the mental hospital patronize her for believing so passionately in the idea of a time-skipping robot assassin. We hold our breath, waiting for the moment those pompous docs come face to face with the real thing, never considering the standpoint of the few elite officials further behind the scenes, chilled by the similarities between her statements and the project they just green lit in R&D. That’s an angle we’re finally allowed to enjoy in the opening issue of this mini-series, as a roomful of decorated military men fret over the captive testimony of Kyle Reese, the man John Connor sent back to protect his mother in the first movie. The moment is rewarding – finally, somebody in charge is using their brain – and opens a broad range of intriguing new questions. How do they react to this revelation? How does it affect or alter their plans? How much of a self-fulfilling prophecy is this horrible, machine-dominated future?

Balancing those familiar moments is an original side story, following another soldier from the future who’s leapt back in time to intercept Kyle and subtly alter his historic path. Interestingly enough, it’s this unknown face who adds the most depth to the story, as he absorbs the mundanities of everyday life through unfamiliar eyes. His childlike reaction to the abundance of food and the crowds of people in broad daylight gives the dark future he calls home an even more sinister shade. It’s great storytelling with a noticeable, appropriate shortage of dialog.

Andy Macdonald’s artwork is similarly reader-friendly. His work is weighty and solid, grounded and restrained but spectacular when it needs to be. He paces himself, giving the majority of the issue an unconcerned, almost casual appearance, before ramping up the electricity on the few panels of wild, chaotic action. The story plays out beautifully across his expertly timed panelwork, and while none of the cast is a perfect duplicate of their on-screen counterpart, they remain perfectly recognizable. Besides, this is a story that depends more on reenacted plot points to familiarize its readers than perfect visual accuracy.

Dark Horse’s latest take on the Terminator franchise gives every indication it’ll also be their finest. Tying the narrative to a specific, familiar period of time in the saga’s mythos was a fine touch that freed the original storyline to focus more on the details and less on establishing itself in-continuity. It’s a finely imagined addition to fondly remembered territory that both emboldens and respectfully enhances the original. Buy it.

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Avengers Academy #4

Among his many misdeeds during Norman Osborn’s brief reign atop the global superhuman community, perhaps the most far-sighted was his constant recruitment of young heroes to mold and misshape. Osborn would use his political clout to discover and enlist these undiscovered prospects, then his charisma to convince them to see the world from his own warped perspective. Though he’s been removed from power and quarantined aboard The Raft, Norman’s recruits are still a point of concern for the reunited Avengers. Quicksilver, Tigra and Henry Pym have taken a personal interest in the reeducation of a select few: the six adolescents who make up the Avengers Academy.

This month’s continued crossover with the Thunderbolts, and several team members’ eventual reunion with their disgraced former leader on board The Raft, leads to several revealing character moments. Osborn’s such a perfect corruptor, a politician with a background in bright spandex, that his mere presence forces both hero and reader to second-guess the line they’ve been fed from the new establishment. Christos Gage is the latest in a long list of writers to take advantage of the character’s inherently conniving, convincing nature, with nearly each chapter adding a fresh layer to the scale of the man’s mystique. The way he not only turns away a small squad dead-set on his murder but actually takes on the role of their beloved mentor, without throwing the reading audience for an eyeball-rolling loop, is all the proof you’ll need of his value as an instigator. This level of brainwashing used to require some sort of fantastic crutch, like telepathy or a mind-control wand. The modern Osborn merely needs a few words and the smallest shred of doubt to do his work.

Unfortunately, Osborn is really the cornerstone of this story and once he’s out of the picture things get awfully generic in a hurry. Though Gage has a firm grasp of the megalomaniac’s bold personality, the rest of the cast feels whitewashed and redundant by comparison. Even Mettle, who gets a sympathetic mini-origin right inside the front cover, is just one of the gang without a unique angle by the time we reach the last page. Avengers Academy has set the stage for some serious questions, but hasn’t given me enough faith in its players to think they’ll ever have the balls to ask them.

Joining Gage is artist Mike McKone, whose clean, organized pencils keep the page easy to navigate, if not terribly explosive. He lends the primary cast exactly the kind of wide-eyed, uncertain expressions one would expect a story’s younger contingent to be wearing. His two-panel rendition of the Man-Thing is sufficiently haunting, too, but I’m afraid the positives end there: the rest of Avengers Academy’s cast and crew generally comes off as bland, generic and flavorless. McKone’s most disappointing work appears in the one big splash page he’s given to really showcase his skills. It’s a disorganized mess: confusing and static, like a roomful of mannequins were stiffly postured and tossed haphazardly into zero gravity. It’s all composition, a poor one at that, and no emotion.

This new ongoing series has some very deep roots, but at the moment they’re only being glanced at, not properly explored. The few moments we get to enjoy between Osborn and his former pages are enough to convince me there’s something substantive here, but the weak follow-through has me questioning if the Academy will ever recognize it. Keep an eye on it this space, but for the time being it’s not worth more than a brisk flip through.

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

Superman / Batman #76

This may not come as a surprise to you, but Bruce Wayne has died. In fact, he’s actually been that way for more than a year and recently made an entirely unsurprising return from the grave. Try to forget that last part, though, because the out-of-place continuity of Superman / Batman is just now beginning to deal with the fallout from Wayne’s doom.

Judd Winick may as well have dedicated this issue a memorial, because the story he’s delivered is basically a behind-closed-doors look at the Justice League’s intimate reactions to the (at the time) finality of Bruce’s heroic death in Final Crisis. In certain cases, it makes for a nice addendum, geared to more invasive-minded readers. We’re along for the ride as Superman delivers the news to Alfred, Tim and Dick. We see Doctor Mid-Nite examine the body, compare dental records and historic bone breaks, and determine it couldn’t be anyone else. We see the entire league struggle with the realization of such a loss, each member handling the grief in his or her own way. And, ultimately, we’re left with the sense that this would’ve made for a fine capitalization on the shock readers were certainly feeling themselves… nineteen months ago, when the event was still fresh in their minds.

The issue’s still somewhat worthwhile, if just for the historic perspective and the sometimes unexpected ways Bruce’s closest friends deal with his death. Nightwing’s initial disbelief takes the same shape as many readers: he won’t believe it until he sees the body. Wonder Woman hangs quietly around the fringes, afraid to say the wrong thing. Superman’s reaction is the most surprising. His quiet, spaced-out initial reaction to Bruce’s death is followed by a sharp turn into hostility toward Dick Grayson, of all people, none of which seems to be in-character for one of the DCU’s most balanced, rational personalities. Grief can have strange effects on a personality, and it’s somewhat humanizing to see Supes in this light. It doesn’t feel entirely right, but I’m not sure what would.

Artist Marco Rudy is difficult to get a handle on. In some pages, he bears more than a passing similarity to Tim Sale, himself a veteran with both characters in Superman: For All Seasons and Batman: The Long Halloween. Rudy’s style bears a bit more detail than his contemporary on these occasions, but his ultra-simplistic lighting effects and unusual panel structures had me thinking of Sale with some regularity. On other pages, though, Rudy’s work moves in the opposite direction, overloading the scene with jagged details and dozens of clunky, oddly shaped overlapping panels. Typically I’d credit this to the influence of two different inkers, taking turns with the artwork on every other page. These shifts in style are so fundamental, though, that I can’t imagine that’s the culprit. Rudy’s simply changing styles from page to page like a Tour De France rider shifts gears from incline to straightaway.

This “Batman’s dead” issue of Superman / Batman is a confusing creation. It’s mistimed, completely missing the caped crusader’s prolonged absence. It jumps all over the place, sailing from Clark’s outraged reaction to Dick’s decision to don the cape and cowl to his acceptance of the necessity within just a couple panels. It tries really hard to be a touching, tear-jerking remembrance, but ultimately feels hollow, insincere and borderline exploitative. It’s the wrong story at the wrong time, a chapter in both characters’ lives that doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. The tragically curious-minded will find something to dig into, but the rest of us would be better off giving it a flip through and walking away.

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