Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hellblazer #276

John Constantine can never be accused of standing still in one place for too long. At the helm of Vertigo’s longest-running series, Hellblazer, John's been to prison on several continents, vacationed in a dozen different planes of existence, died of cancer, stared down the devil and lived in a cardboard box. Most recently, he’s added a scarred brow, thumbless left hand and raven-haired bride to his collection of odds and ends. It’s business as usual for life to be unusual with Constantine, and this month’s self-contained yarn is just another inebriated step down that rocky path.

My last on-again, off-again fling with this series came to a close before Peter Milligan’s run began in issue 250, and under his eye it seems to be moving and shaking once again. No stranger to the strange, Milligan has imbued the book with a sense of unease, historically-hinted mystery and ongoing forward momentum. The writer seems to have a clear vision for his series, but not one that he’s in a big hurry to press to the foreground. This month’s single issue story is a nice diversion, immersing John in familiar mists while keeping several longer-sighted threads stewing in the background. Though the primary story may be short, it’s also surprisingly rich and established, with a past that covers centuries and a moderately timely point at its heart. An under-appreciated veteran of the industry, Milligan’s still at the top of his game, quietly composing this short story with more depth than many of his contemporaries can manage with a six-issue arc.

There’s a whole niche of artists employing a dirty, semi-serious style similar to that seen in Hellblazer #276, but Simon Bisley still manages to pull it off with a sense of legitimacy that’s lost on many of the imitators. Bisley’s artwork is constantly grappling with inner demons, warped and conflicted by some sort of terrible inner duality. It can’t settle on precision or embellishment, dark sarcasm or sick sincerity. Look closely and you can see his influence on everyone from Darick Robertson to Chris Bachalo, but I’ve yet to find another who can match his bizarre feel for unkempt menace and hopelessly chaotic order.

That anarchic sensibility made him a good stylistic choice for Lobo, and it translates over nicely to the broad range of personalities evident in Constantine’s world, too. Bisley gives John himself the look of a man who’s been prematurely risen from a badly-needed rest, disgusted with the civilizations both above and below the Earth’s crust while still maintaining a sharp eye and a self-absorbed, bitter sense of humor. The land he walks has an unsettling character all its own, backed by the sensation that any shadow could be hiding something hairy and tentacled. It’s been a long time since this series has looked and felt so sincerely unnerving, and I can only hope Bisley sticks with it for a while.

Hellblazer looks to be on another upswing, so fans and newcomers alike should take note. While John Constantine’s world may be a bit too rancid for mainstream readers, any fan of the long-standing Vertigo tradition of magic and dark hearts should really think about giving this one a look again. Milligan and Bisley have bottled a certain chemistry that could ultimately have them listed alongside the best the series has seen. Buy it.

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

Uncanny X-Force #5

Though it is but five issues old, already Uncanny X-Force has asked a series of morally-vexing questions refined enough to distance it from the other titles in Xavier’s family. By its very definition an unusually dark wing of the school, the latest revision of this team features a roster that’s united by the residue of evil on their soul. Archangel, Deadpool, Wolverine, Psylocke, Fantomex – these characters have more in common than marketability; they’ve each been tampered with by a dark third party, emerging from their personal trial a profoundly different individual than they were before. Unsurprisingly, that experience has given them each a very different take on the world at large, and as a result they’re much better equipped to deal with problems that fall into the gray area between right and wrong.

Beneath this month’s gorgeous cover is an equally stunning set of compositions from the pencil of Esad Ribic. It’s been some time since I’ve been so impressed by my first encounter with an artist. Ribic’s work has magnificent flow, streamlining every action – no matter how varied – into a beautifully choreographed ballet. His cast strikes original poses at every turn, the camera deciding on novel angles to catch them in the act. His pages are as clean as a restrained animation cel, but also bursting with hidden secrets. When the story moves in its most unexpected directions, Ribic hands in his best work. Rick Remender opens this issue with a set of theories, hints and metaphors that even the best in the business would have a hard time hammering out into a coherent visual, where Uncanny X-Force's artwork only shines more brightly. It could carry this series by himself if it had to.

When he’s knee-deep in the shit, I love every bit of Rick Remender’s writing. He’s opening doors nobody knew existed, exploring the limits of what a Marvel mutant story can be and coming back with answers to questions I didn’t know I had about the X-Men. Those opening pages I mention above are breathless material, an exploration of abstract concepts that veers so far in the direction of science fiction that I wasn’t sure if the cover should bear an X or an F4.

It’s great stuff, so wonderful that the jarring shift into standard material – bickering teammates, dissenting opinions about the last mission, etc. – was as unexpected and unwanted as a land mine. There are enough books on the market that delve into that kind of material, and they do so much more effectively than Remender manages in this issue. As well crafted as his left-field, right-brained dalliances into Warren Ellis territory might be, this writer has a severe disconnect with most of his book’s cast, but it’s most obvious with Deadpool. Granted, the moral quandaries that define this series wouldn't carry much weight without a bit of debate, but of all the characters to take the clear, coherent ethical high ground in an argument, Remender chose Wade freaking Wilson? The author’s unfamiliar approach to most of the cast is a real problem that’s going to plague his writing until it’s addressed, but only in Deadpool’s case does he completely jump the rails. Wilson is the chaotic wild card, not the steady voice of reason.

This issue’s best moments provide a compelling argument in favor of a sci-fi angle to the X-Men family. Remender and Ribic each blossom in the cerebral world that’s explored in the majority of this issue, but while the artwork remains constant throughout, the writing is quickly bogged down when the scene shifts to more generic territory. There’s a lot of hope to be found in this series, but also a lot of uncertainty. If Remender can manage to get a handle on the rest of his cast like he has Fantomex, he’ll be in business. Until then, it’ll just be worth borrowing for the artwork.

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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Deadpool and Cable #26

It’s been more than a year since Cable took a dirt nap at the conclusion of the X-Men’s last major crossover, Second Coming, and even longer since the last issue of Cable & Deadpool hit the stands. The duo did enjoy a single-issue reunion at the tail end of the deceased gunslinger's self-titled series, though, which I’d presume is responsible for this one-shot’s inherited numbering. Given their long history together, it’s only natural to assume that an issue dedicated to Cable’s memory – from Deadpool’s perspective – would provide a quick and easy follow-up to the character’s demise. The real question is why it didn’t arrive any sooner.

Don’t look to the interior for any sort of answer on that front. Deadpool and Cable #26 leads off at Nate’s wake, on a stereotypically twilight-lit cemetery hill, with most of the X-Men roster in attendance. From there, it very quickly spirals off into the uncertain reality of Wade’s wacky imagination. Like so many beige ammo packs, we’re strapped to the crimson mercenary’s hip as he thinks aloud, leaps continents and goes nowhere in particular but still manages to find a worthy adventure.

Deadpool and Cable made perfect foils for one another at the height of their infamy. Nathan, the no-nonsense future warrior who desperately needed to lighten up, played a fine counter-weight to Wade’s inane walking punchline, a polka dotted dune buggy without a steering wheel. And, naturally, they both loved the feel of an unfathomably big gun in their hands. Via a string of brief flashbacks, author Daniel Swierczynski recalls the brilliance of that pairing, alongside Wade’s well-meaning (but ultimately idiotic) attempt at a permanent remembrance for his fallen buddy. Though he only wrote for the duo once before (in the aforementioned Cable #25), Swierczynski quickly proves that he was a regular follower of their adventures, showcasing a firm understanding of their dynamic and an energetic regard for the shared history.

The artwork of Leandro Fernandez is right along those same lines. His clean compositions and willingness to embrace the crazier aspects of Deadpool’s daydreams grant the issue the kind of easy-to-navigate zaniness you’d expect from this cast. Like Eduardo Risso in 100 Bullets, his compositions and characterizations are limited in linework but strong in individuality; even the throwaway characters on the story’s fringes enjoy a face and persona of their very own. Though he missed the boat by a couple of years, Fernandez would’ve fit right in with the lineup of artists that assisted Fabian Nicieza over the course of Cable & Deadpool’s fifty-issue run.

This isn’t the most consequential story you’ll ever read, nor the most timely. It feels like something that Marvel had every intention of publishing ages ago, but kept pushing back for whatever reason. It plays as both a synopsis and a conclusion to the dueling mercenaries’ adventures together, a lightweight love letter to their unique relationship. Fans of the original series will want to give this a long look, if just to reminisce and laugh, but unfamiliar readers won’t be missing anything important if they leave it on the shelves. It’s harmless, inconsequential fun. Borrow it.

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

From the Vault: Doctor Strange

When you’re running a business in the creative industry, there are bound to be unexpected casualties. That’s just as true in comics as it is anywhere else, perhaps more-so, and this long-lost Doctor Strange story is one such victim. Originally plotted and illustrated thirteen years ago, it sat in an unfinished state for over a decade when Marvel Universe, the series it was intended for, ran headfirst into an immediate cancellation. As with cold bodies anywhere in this landscape, however, you’d be foolish to think that the death of a nigh-complete story such as this one could ever be a thing of total permanence.

This kind of story, in particular, seems especially suited to such post-mortem revival. An out of continuity glance back at Doctor Strange’s early-career search for his mystical base of operations, the basic premise of this story feels as fresh today as it likely would have back in 1998. Which is to say, as fresh as a jar of pickled eggs. It’s a chapter in the character’s history that isn’t going anywhere and should always be set in a familiar period, barring a significant reboot such as the one seen in the Ultimate Universe a few years ago. But while it’s that lukewarm, not-quite-fresh setting that was more than likely responsible for this story finally seeing print after so many years, it also asks the reasonable question of whether such familiar territory was worth dusting off at all.

To that question, I’d respond with a tenuous “yes.” Roger Stern does uncover some new ground in his exploration of an easily recognizable chapter in the character’s history. Though the mystique of the Doctor’s Sanctum Sanctorum has always been present, the root of Strange’s relationship with his abode has, as near as I can recall, never been given this kind of attention. Pity, then, that Stern’s storytelling is so shallow and transparent. This is a very basic story, carried by a few mildly spooky coincidences, that telegraphs almost every one of its twists. It weighs in at a light twenty-two pages, with very little of consequence in its bag of tricks. Strange feels a bit too passive for his own good, with the few stumbling blocks he encounters ultimately providing very little in the way of a real threat.

Artist Neil Vokes can be held partially responsible for that lack of circumstance. While Stern seemed dedicated to telling a story with hints of darkness and an underlying sense of unease, Vokes’s bright, merry illustrations paint an entirely different picture. His artwork isn’t without its place - in this instance a few panels of an unnamed, abstract-influenced extradimensional realm - but on the large it’s a bad match for the mood and weight intended by the story. The poor fit isn’t that much of a surprise, given that the series was so close to cancellation at the time of the creators’ pairing, but the valid excuse makes it no more tolerable.

Some bodies should remain buried, and unfortunately it seems that this forgotten issue of Marvel Universe is proof of that fact. While the concept showed promise, shedding new light on an old chapter in the life of one of Marvel’s cornerstone figures, the execution was an excursion in sleepwalking, offering nothing of consequence. Badly matched artwork is just the icing on the cake. Skip it.

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