Monday, January 31, 2011

Fantastic Four #587

Well, this is it: the issue you've been hearing about in all the filler segments of the local news. This month the Fantastic Four lose one of their own, and (if we're listening to all the hyperbole spewed by the Marvel promotions department) nothing will ever be the same again. Frankly, I'm surprised the mainstream media still buys into these grandiose claims of heroic death in the comics industry. They've taken the bait for each dirt nap from Superman to Captain America and every single time, without fail, the original character is back below the masthead within a relatively short period of time. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to the fanboy faithful, what with the recurring joke that only Bucky and Uncle Ben ever actually stay dead (hey... come to think of it, maybe we should think about amending that one) but it constantly amazes me that the programming directors of major networks still haven't caught onto that little nugget of info and quit covering these issues like they're some kind of major, permanent event.

At any rate, that is what it is and we've still got a few shovelfuls of dirt to deposit on a nameless character's grave before the day is done. Playing his cards close to the vest, longtime F4 scribe Jonathan Hickman has split the team's membership, dropping them each into a perilous, potentially volatile situation sans backup. Reed is on the surface of a world that's on a collision course with Galactus. Susan stands between the two armies of an impending Atlantean civil war. Ben and Johnny defend the kids (and the Baxter Building) from a surprise negative zone invasion. Somebody's going home in a box, and it probably won't be HERBIE (although that would be the greatest bait-and-switch of all time).

Hickman does a nice job of filling the air with an immersive sense of tension, like storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Despite that dark premonition, though, he's sent the team out to very familiar territory: adventuring, exploring and problem-solving in unfamiliar landscapes at the furthest reaches of our understanding. My favorite element of Fantastic Four has always been that sense of exploration, of looking behind the curtain into the unknown, and this month we're doing that in three different places. The feeling is that the team is stretching themselves a bit too thin, over-diversifying their interests to disastrous result. I suppose it was inevitable, considering their unquenchable thirst for the mysterious, that they'd eventually get ahold of something beyond their ability to contain. It's an inevitable comeuppance, I guess.

Steve Epting's artwork fits the mold of the classical Marvel style, spectacular but grounded. In many panels he appears to be channeling several of the publisher's founding fathers, with the influence of John Romita Sr. shining through most evidently, while in others his take is much more modern and streamlined. His work is best in the galactic scenery that surrounds Reed, but he handles the foreign landscapes presented by the other scenarios decently enough, as well. This issue in particular demands a lot from its artwork, and while none of his panels are really pin-up material, Epting never loses his audience with a momentary lapse of concentration. His work is strong and disciplined, sometimes at the expense of being overly adventurous.

Fantastic Four #587 does deliver on its promise of offing one of the founding members, and while the reasoning for that ultimate sacrifice isn't entirely waterproof, it's no less heroic or meaningful as a result. Jonathan Hickman tells a complicated, multi-faceted story in a clean, easy-to-read style, forking up some big changes without giving in to the urge to over-dictate them. This is a good issue, albeit not an entirely fantastic one, as it never fully reaches the state of heavy emotion it was seemingly intended to. Borrow it.

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

Wolverine and Jubilee #1

The perennial runt of the litter, Jubilee's never had a fair shake from anyone: her family, her teammates, her readers… even her life. Perhaps most distressingly for the young former Generation X'er, that trend doesn't seem to be changing course. De-powered by the Scarlet Witch along with most of the mutant race on M-Day, Jubilee felt isolated just hanging out with her former teammates, despite their assurances that she was still a part of the gang. Now infected with vampirism after a surprise attack on Utopia by Xarus, the son of Dracula, she's been completely ostracized from her closest friends, physically as well as emotionally, while they try to figure out where to go from here.

What the whole of this issue boils down to is the entire team trying to walk softly around their newly fanged adolescent teammate. Most of the school is trying to work out a way to avoid upsetting her, while at the same time coping with their own sense of innate uncertainty and learning to trust that she won't appear at the foot of their bed in the moonlight with that glint of shadowy hunger in her eye. Thus far, though, the only one who's managed to set aside their feeling of distrust is Logan, with whom she'd already developed a special student-mentor relationship. Some of her former teammates do a better job of masking their emotions than others, but there's a palpable sense of unease that presents itself the very moment she walks into a room, which Jubilee herself doesn't do much to dismiss with her frequent, angry outbursts.

There's probably a decent story in here somewhere, waiting to be unearthed, but Wolverine and Jubilee is taking the long way there. So much time is spent treading water, waiting for all the talk and time-killing to give way to genuine development, that by the time the plot actually does manage to take a step forward, the back cover is just a page turn away. Kathryn Immonen gives her characters some halfway decent dialog this month, but her story structure leaves a lot to be desired.

Phil Noto's subdued, character-focused artwork is the true star of the issue, and while he doesn't get much of a chance to stretch his legs with any particularly interesting panels, his work in the snail-paced establishing pages really shines. I think I'd have abandoned this book around page ten without a better-than-average artistic showing, and Noto kept me reading to the final page. If he can work this kind of magic with a dull, stagnant storyline, his artwork should be a genuine spectacle when he gets something really juicy to sink his teeth into.

I kept waiting for the establishing shot of this mini-series to go somewhere, but it never delivered. Page after page, I was flooded with repetitions of the same central theme: Jubilee feels unhappy, her schoolmates don't trust her. Yes, that much was conveyed in the opening blurb inside the front cover… why don't we get some traction and move forward on that theme? Wolverine and Jubilee isn't awful, but it is terribly redundant and over-cautious, a running-in-place waste of good artwork. Flip through it for the visuals and skip the word balloons.

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

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heroes For Hire #2

Disintegrating completely after a pretty rough run of things during World War Hulk, it’s been a little over three years of inactivity for Marvel’s ragtag group of mercenaries, the Heroes for Hire. Appropriately enough, since it was a company-wide summer crossover event that led to their split, it was Daredevil’s recent mega-storyline, Shadowland, that brought them back together again, albeit with a significantly altered (and noticeably more powerful) roster. Missing are the lesser-known creations that had formerly populated the squad; now their slots are filled by heavy hitters like Elektra, Ghost Rider, the Falcon and Silver Sable.

Frequent collaborators Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, known for their work with Nova and the similarly galactic-faring mini-crossovers Annihilation: Conquest and Realm of Kings, quickly prove they can work just as well inside Earth’s gravitational pull. Their rendition of the team is straight laced and professional, in contrast with the more free wheeling, seat-of-their-pants demeanor of the previous squad. It’s also a revolving door of sorts, with faces from different corners of the Marvel Universe popping in for a guest spot, then disappearing a few panels later. The only real constant is Misty Knight, last woman standing when the previous group met its end, who’s pulling the strings from a mysterious control room deep within an undisclosed location.

The prospect of an ever-shifting cast with a connection to the publisher’s upper class opens up a lot of doors for this series, and cuts away some of its previous limitations as a small cluster of C-Grade supporting characters. Granted, I don’t expect any of the Avengers to show up on Misty’s payroll any time soon, but the obvious increase in available firepower is just what the new series needed to declare its own identity. Abnett and Lanning have retooled Heroes from a fringe mercenary series into a genuine international operation – locked, loaded and already hip deep in the action.

Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessy, who teamed with Abnett and Lanning for the majority of their run on Guardians of the Galaxy, are back at the duo’s side for Heroes For Hire’s return. They’re a great fit for the shadowy, action-with-flair style intended by the story, with an explosive knack for the big moments and an uncanny ability to add depth to the small ones. Walker and Hennessy’s characters are thick and substantial, holding true to their larger-than-life stature, with each guest spot treated with the kind of familiarity usually reserved for the regulars. Walker and Hennessy know that, in order for a team-up book to really find a degree of success, it’s crucial to spotlight and showcase each character’s individuality, and if this early showing is any indication they’re most definitely up for the task. The pair handles everything from demonic flames to duck-and-cover firefights with the same degree of panache.

Keep this team together as long as you can, Marvel, because this is a formula that works. Abnett and Lanning are ready, willing and able to deliver nonstop action with reckless twists and turns, and with Walker and Hennessy at the wheel I’m confident we won’t end up in a fiery wreck at the end of the road. The new Heroes For Hire is an exploding barrel of a good time, loaded with just enough star power to actually mean something. Buy it.

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

Spawn #200

Like the reanimated corpse at its epicenter, after two hundred issues and eighteen years of publication, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn is still slowly lurching forward. But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and despite the intimidating volume number and a new protagonist, this series is still in virtually the same place it was way back in 1992. A borderline giddy, nebulous all-encompassing evil still pulls the strings, while the modern carrier of the monster’s symbiotic battle armor fights a losing battle to loose himself from the fate that’s befallen generations of similarly strong-willed souls in the past. The identity of the two may have switched places a few times over the years, but it’s ultimately the same game with mildly different players.

After toying with dedicated creative teams for decades, original writer-artist-creator Todd McFarlane has recently reclaimed both roles, perhaps inspired by the semi-recent creation of his second creator owned property in as many decades, Haunt. Sadly, many of the same handicaps that befell the once-talented artist in his first pursuit have not passed with age. Reading McFarlane’s writing is like drinking gruel through a straw – frustratingly ineffective, it’s ultimately unsatisfying. His cryptic, uncertain script is rife with hyperbole, long, fruitless diatribes and forced jokes. And, despite the ever-expanding word count in his scripts, the legendary creator still can’t concoct a legible plot thread. After sixty-plus pages, I’m still not entirely sure what I was supposed to take away from this issue. The story must have threatened to go somewhere twenty different times, but upon reaching the final page I wasn’t surprised to find it still treading water.

With well over a decade’s worth of neglect in its past, McFarlane’s loose, undisciplined modern artwork is a limp parody of his better years. This month, faced with the prospect of a double-sized anniversary issue, he wisely splits pencil duties with Michael Golden, who can only do so much to reign in the madness that surrounds him. There was a time, particularly during the first year of Spawn’s publication, that McFarlane’s artwork was a revelation. At once elegant and disturbing, an uncommon marriage of excess and restraint, McFarlane was the hottest name in the industry for good reason. His experiments in layout were a breath of fresh air, his pin-ups worth the price of admission by their lonesome. In his modern work, McFarlane goes through many of the same motions, but they’re lacking the dedication and devotion that made his work sing in the ‘90s. Spawn #200 spills over with rushed, incomplete renderings, dull, half-hearted panel arrangements and bland, stiff action scenes. It’s like buying an album from your favorite band and realizing they just don’t have it any more.

Though it’s spent years trying to shake the preconceived notions of what it’s all about, two hundred issues of Spawn have done little more than supply its critics with more ammunition. This issue’s non-story delights in nonsensical prose and ruthlessly illegible character interactions, but where past arcs could always fall back on the artwork to bail them out with a randomly-interspersed power battle, that means of escape seems no longer available. It’s an ugly, clunky tale paired with an artistic showing deserving of the same adjectives. Skip it.

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

Avengers Prime #5

The classic Avengers squad of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America may have finally reassembled into a single formidable unit once more, but they’re still badly in need of a group hug. After alien invasions, assassinations and superhuman registrations, the three heads of this all-world superhero stable still have some major issues to work through – and, fortunately enough, they’ve stumbled into the closest thing to a weekend retreat the Marvel universe has to offer. Transported into separate mystical realms by a mysterious force, this trio has fought their way through trial after trial and, ultimately, come together as one to tackle the renewed threat of Hela, Goddess of Death. Looks like this is the month their new partnership gets its first real trial by fire.

Kudos to Brian Bendis for trying something different with the scenery in this arc, trading the standard orgy of plasma-based laser blasts on city streets for a simple struggle between black magic and cold steel, but I’m just not feeling it. By stripping all three heroes of their most iconic abilities – Cap of his shield, Thor his hammer and Tony his technology – Bendis had a good chance to reinforce the classical personalities behind those powers. Which, one would think, would be essential to their mutual reconciliation. Instead it just plays like a handicap, something the three have to deal with for the duration of the big fight before the status quo is restored and everybody gets to reclaim their crutches. Stark and Rogers don’t even seem all that upset about it, merrily smashing random foot soldiers throughout the issue while Thor tackles the more risky challenges. Their constant wise cracks, while often amusing, also rob the story of its serious undertones. How solemn can the son of Odin’s life-and-death struggle really be if his cohorts are too busy coming up with their next zinger to pay him any mind?

As with almost any of his previous collaborations, Alan Davis's artwork grants the issue a deep sense of legitimacy and respectability. His illustrations greet each character like an old, familiar friend, and ground a tale that might otherwise have flown a bit off the handle. Davis is a master, no question about it, and while a few of this month’s illustrations do seem a bit dated and restrained, there’s always a more exciting panel just a page or two away. In particular, he delivers on pages spotlighting Hela and her dark army of undead monstrosities, in which the ink is thick and the tone is sinister. It’s a good showing, if perhaps not on the level of the work he was pumping out in his prime, twenty years ago.

As the ultimate resolution to a clash of personalities that’s been unfolding for ten years, this was amazingly unimpressive. It’s a resolution, I can give it that, though not a particularly interesting one. The three classical heads of the Avengers have taken the first real step toward resolving their long-standing differences, which should be a landmark moment in the history of the team, and here I am feeling like it wasn’t really much of a moment. If medieval fairs and tear-stained beards are your thing, this is the place to be. If you’re after a moment with a bit more electricity, turn your eyes elsewhere. Avengers Prime is just painting by the numbers. Flip through it.

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

John Byrne’s Next Men #2

After fifteen years, comics legend John Byrne has returned to his first creator-owned property, Next Men. A pondering on the feasibility of a squad of government-created superhumans in the real world, the series was a moderate hit for Dark Horse before Byrne placed it on the backburner to investigate new ideas in the mid-'90s. Now, in addition to adopting a new publisher, the series seems to be moving in an entirely new direction. Though time travel was never a foreign concept to the original stories, in this modern revival it’s become the plot’s sole motivation.

By means that have yet to be revealed, the group has been split up, both physically and temporally. They’re visiting different times, places, mentalities and situations, with some handling the predicament more elegantly than others. Byrne, never being one to shy away from a controversy, has naturally dropped his creations into some of the most politically charged moments modern history has to offer. After all, what jaunt through time and space would be complete without a visit to German concentration camps and the Confederate States of America? Though unapologetic stereotypes abound freely in each location, Byrne does make some base efforts to tell stories with a message, something beyond the basic idea that slavery/anti-semitism is wrong. The stories aren’t easy to read, particularly if you’d developed any sort of affinity for the characters he so willingly drags through the worst our world has to offer, but they’re also weightier than the simple caricatures they appeared to be at first glance.

Byrne’s artwork is sufficient if not spectacular. He places a lot of emphasis on getting each historical setting just right, with appropriate attire, architecture and attitude, which really helps to authenticate each chapter. His actual execution, though, is often under-thought, uncomfortably exaggerated and sorely lacking in polish. While his writing is sometimes (though not always) working against the natural tendency to cast the bad guys as a single, faceless mob, Byrne’s illustrations only reinforce that idea. Though his plot features countless opportunities for a striking visual or explosive development, his visual chops just aren’t up for a delivery. It’s a dry, dull look and feel for Next Men V2, from cover to cover.

Like so much of this issue’s cast, John Byrne seems to be lost in time, plodding along with a mindset and toolbox that’s neither appropriate nor advisable for the era in which it appears. The story’s slow, deliberate pace and hackneyed dialog let down a concept that could’ve had legs. The few moments of excitement that the plot musters are quickly squashed by Byrne’s own drab, incomplete artwork. At the end of the day, this seems like the work of a creator who’s taken on more than he can handle and, as a result, falls back to his old habits just to get the job done. Perhaps the aid of a dedicated artist or storytelling assistant could’ve transformed this into all it had the potential to be... or perhaps not. In its present state, I’d suggest you skip it.

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