Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: My Own Worst Enemy (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Ryan Stegman, Giuseppe Camuncoli
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #1-5

Well, here we are. It took longer than expected to get to this point - largely due to Ends of the Earth robbing me of any desire to read Spider-Man for a solid year - but I've finally started on the Superior era of Spider-Man. Frankly, I should have tried it sooner.

I was interested in this right from the announcement and you can place that almost entirely on the high concept. One of Peter Parkers greatest enemies assumes his life and role as Spider-Man. How will he fare? This caused no small amount of bitching on the internet but I feel pretty safe in saying that it turned out for the best.

See, I'm generally a bit more receptive to this type of stunt. It's worked out a lot in the past, including Dick Graysons turn as Batman; well, when Grant Morrison was writing him anyway, as the era had maybe two or three stories worth reading outside of him in the two years he was in that identity. Much like that, it was clear the move was temporary; by the end of the first issue, we see there's a backdoor to be exploited in the future of Superior Spider-Man. They thought this one out ahead of time, which is the difference between this and, say, the Clone Saga.

I also find that having someone else under a mask - or, you know, in the body of a hero in this case - also provides a nice contrast with the usual and makes you either appreciate them more or look at them in a different light. One of my favorite Captain America comics is Patriot. That story had jack-all to do with Steve Rogers, aside from the necessary noting of his disappearance, what he meant to people and so forth. We saw the life and times of one of the men who took his place after his disappearance and it gave a wonderful story of a man trying to live up to the legacy. In this case, we have an egotistical villain taking the life of a hero and trying to make good. That just screams interesting reading.

So far, Doc Ock as Spider-Man has turned out to be an inspired move. Dan Slott had built Peter up way too much prior to this, but he isn't even tearing that life apart in a quick, dirty manner. It's all falling apart gradually, piece by piece, just by the way Ock does things. He cuts ties with Mary Jane in a moment of strength; he realizes he'd inherited Parkers feelings for her, but more than that he sees their back and forth for the destructive relationship it is. But in the midst of that, we start to see him slowly piece things together outside of Peter's circle. It's fascinating reading.

Superior Spider-Man also makes a solid case for its lead living up to that billing. Ock pulls a few obvious superhero no-nos - he actually kills a villain in the book, even though said villain killed upwards of thirty people for no good reason - but we also see a Spider-Man that is far, far more practical. Ock thinks of things Peter never would have - partly because Peter is stuck so far up his own ass in regards to his life and is not the best at budgeting his time - and generally makes for a more efficient superhero at the most basic level. Someone in a highly populated area? Ock calls the cops to surround the place and keep it contained until he gets there. Said murderous villain tends to hold hostages strapped to explosives at another place? Ock takes care of that first, whereas Peter would have jumped right in the fray and found himself in a bad position there is no easy way out of. Need to balance a social life? Better use the Ock-bots to patrol the city constantly and weed out the smaller hazards the trained professionals can handle from the big problems that require a superhero.

Frankly, Peter looks kind of incompetent for failing to think of even the most basic changes Ock makes.

It is immediately compelling. No lie, I'm super into this, because it's going to be interesting to see just how the book ends up justifying Parkers way of doing things and proving it's better than Ocks. That's the obvious endgame here, right? But it won't be easy. Even if you prove that Peter is a better hero morally and ethically - you know, the obvious stuff like believing anyone can change, not killing and such - Ock has his crap together more than Spidey Classic ever did. If nothing else, Ock is more efficient than Peter, who always had a habit of flying by the seat of his pants and figuring a way out of messes once he's already in them. This book has pulled a double whammy here, immediately selling me on Ocks time in the suit while also putting forward some fascinating questions for the inevitable return, which is no small feat given where the Peter Parker portion of Slotts run had gone.

Slott also has a good artistic partner in Ryan Stegman. His work is stylized, but not to the point of parody like prior artists for Slotts run. It's dynamic work while being far easier to take. I'm not familiar with the other artist, Camuncoli, but their work is just as good, just in a style that's a bit more traditional and befitting of a typical superhero book. Both artists in this volume are winners.

This volume sold me the rest of the way on this change-up to the Spider-Man world. I hesitate to tell you to go out and buy it right off - this is only the first volume and I don't know if the quality keeps up through the whole thing - but you definitely ought to read it. Doc Ocks turn as a superhero makes for some damn good reading, easily the best of Slotts run thus far. I'm in to the end.

My Opinion: Read It

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Justice League of America: Worlds Most Dangerous (comics)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt
Artists: David Finch, Brett Booth, Doug Mahnke
Collects: Justice League of America #1-7

Spinning out of the end of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis comes  the Justice League of America, an interesting book that suffers from outside circumstances.

Going by the first five issues, this would be a pretty decent start to a longer run. Our team is formed pretty quickly, they're out on a mission by the second issue and they come up against a threat befitting of a super team. Most of it is made up of characters you wouldn't normally associate with the JLA and some curious choices from the Leagues past, but it's anchored by the Martian Manhunter - a beloved stalwart who hasn't been involved in League related matters since the start of the New 52 - and does a decent job of selling us on the rest. Also along for the ride is Steve Trevor, who you may remember as the most interesting character in the first two volumes of Justice League, and Amanda Waller, who is looking much slimmer these days.

The only problem is that this comic isn't around long enough to make enough of an impact. It's clear right from the start that it's a piece of Johns overall puzzle, setting up for the inevitable three way conflict in Trinity War. That's fine. We ought to have at least a couple storylines with this team to invest in them before the fireworks, though. Instead, we only manage to do the introductory arc, which one leaguer - the Green Lantern on the cover, Simon Baz - isn't even around for. It feels like we jumped to the big story too soon.

If this was the route they were going to go, they should have just announced this as a miniseries, packaged it with a few issues of Justice League and called it volume four when it came time for the collection. Also odd is the inclusion of issues six and seven; both are a part of Trinity War, presented here divorced of their context. I guess they were worried about throwing out a five issue hardcover, but it isn't like it hasn't happened before. That's just the way it works out sometimes. Throwing in issues that are obviously going to show up in another collection wasn't the way to go.

All that aside, the book is still worth reading. I wasn't kind to the early volumes of Geoffs run, but Throne of Atlantis and Worlds Most Dangerous have done a good job of bringing me back into the fold. I think the big difference is that the over-arching plot has emerged and is actually a lot more interesting than I would have figured. It's become fairly obvious that we're building toward big things down the line and some of it is the kind of thing that might not have flown within the prior continuity. The New 52 hasn't done nearly enough of that and it helps to smooth out some of the glaring problems.

Also included are some back-ups that ran in the single issues, scripted by Jeff Lemire. Martian Manhunter is the lead and they mostly serve to re-introduce the character. A fair amount of the backstory is the same, but a few interesting liberties are taken that could lead to something. Nothing absolutely essential, but I'm never going to scoff at extra stories. At the least, it's good to see J'onn associated with a League again; I totally get why they shuffled him off*, but Stormwatch wasn't doing anything for him.

The art is handled by David Finch. I'm not sure what to say about it. It's David Finch art, all right. If you're into that kind of thing, well, here you go. I will admit Finch probably fits this story better than he would had he done a stint on the main title.

Problems aside, I'd say Worlds Most Dangerous turned out to be a worthwhile venture.

My Opinion: Try It

* J'onns inclusion made a lot of sense during the two decades or so that DC shied away from including its most recognizable characters - Martian Manhunter became the muscle of the team - but whenever the League embraces the "Big Guns" concept, he presents a problem. There's simply way too much overlap in power set when Superman is on the team. Martian Manhunter has a lot of the same powers Superman does as well as several he doesn't. He just isn't as marketable. Putting him on a separate Justice League is far from the worst idea I've ever heard.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Tony Daniel, Paul Pelletier
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

It's certainly been a while.

About ten months ago I reviewed the second volume of this incarnation of the Justice League and it was scathing. The Villains Journey was bad enough that I wasn't sure I'd be back at all. But time can temper your annoyance. Eventually I decided to give the book another chance.

Throne of Atlantis is a crossover with the Aquaman title, concerned as much with advancing that comics story as it is the League. The short version is that a missile test goes wrong - foul play is evident, but that's left to simmer a while - and Atlantis is left with the impression that it was an attack. Thoroughly pissed off, Atlantis attacks the surface. The Justice League retaliates. Aquaman, who wants a peaceful solution, is caught in the middle. The creatures of the Trench are also involved; they were introduced in the first volume of Aquaman.

I'm not sure what it is about Aquaman that brings out the best in Geoff Johns, but if nothing else he's done a pretty great job of making the character interesting. Between Brightest Day, the characters solo and this crossover, it feels almost like a rehabilitation project for him. Throne of Atlantis does a fair job of redeeming the League, as well; they feel more heroic here than they did in the last volume. Even Wonder Woman has signs of likability as she attempts to solve a conflict with a classic rogue without bloodshed.

This ties into something I said about Geoff Johns in the last review, mainly that his best work seems to be when he focuses on the characters as opposed to simply worrying about the plot at hand. Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Throne of Atlantis works where Origin and The Villains Journey absolutely did not. He's clearly trying to do better with Wonder Woman, who has been portrayed as little more than a bloodthirsty warrior in past volumes. Cyborg has to make a hard choice in order to go save the League. Aquaman struggling with his dual heritage obviously has a lot of focus. It plays more to Johns strengths as a writer than the usual shock schlock.

We even get some long overdue moments between team members, chiefly Aquaman and Batman, who finally come to an understanding. Batman is the first to get what kind of position Aquaman is in, adamantly states that Aquaman will get a chance to resolve the conflict peacefully when the rest of the League is ready to go in and even goes for the old "we were both at fault" chestnut when Aquaman starts to blame himself. It's exactly the sort of thing this comic needed a lot more of; had a few storylines with similar development been done between Origin and Villains Journey, the conflicts of the prior volume would have been easier to take at face value. Batman and Aquaman feel like teammates here.

On top of that, there's a decent fake-out regarding the character behind the events that transpire. I won't spoil what happens, but it's a plot beat that has some more weight of you were a fan of DC or even just Aquaman before the New 52. The story leaves you expecting it to go in a familiar direction, then it flips the script. It's simple, but effective.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. We get the fallout to the big kiss that closed the prior volume. You may recall I wasn't fond of that whole thing. It doesn't get much better. Geoff's clearly trying to make this work, going so far as to show the two on a "date" in civilian garb, but it feels like too much, too soon. We have the implied five year history, but nothing about the actions of the characters or their dynamic suggests people who have known each other for that length of time. We're told five years passed after Origin, but it feels like these events could only happen a year later at maximum, if that makes sense. So with things like Superman and Wonder Womans budding relationship, it feels like they've only just met - even if we know better - only to throw themselves into a relationship with the other. Mainly because they're lonely, which is the other problem. They don't even have much chemistry, at least in my opinion.

I'm want to just accept it at face value and move forward - after all, this is clearly going to be a thing whether we want it or not, so it's easier to just let it go - but I can't escape the feeling this whole thing is as shallow as I feared.

There's also the reality that the League this comic was sold on is changing. We've already lost Green Lantern because of plot contrivance. It's unclear, but we may be losing Aquaman as a result of this volume; the epilogue deals with his decision to go back to Atlantis and lead, interspersed with the League discussing recruitment. The New 52 Justice League was clearly marketed as a team of the greatest, most recognizable heroes and by the end of the second volume we've already started losing members. I was on board with the lineup, so the fact that it's already in flux isn't a good sign. I could always be reading the epilogue wrong and Aquaman will be present at the start of the next collection.

Oh, and Batman is still sort of useless, which is an obvious negative, but the book is clearly trying to work him in better.

Unlike Origin and Villains Journey, I don't have any major problems with the art of this collection. The highlight is, of course, Ivan Reis, but the others do a good job of keeping a visual consistancy. Aside from a few iffy panels where the storytelling isn't particularly strong, Tony Daniel manages to hang tough for his two issues as well. Jim Lees departure may have hurt the book in star power, but the result is stronger as a whole.

We'll see if the quality holds, but for now Justice League has won me back.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Superman: Secrets and Lies (comics)

Writers: Dan Jurgans, Keith Giffen, Scott Lobdell
Artists: Dan Jurgans, Jesus Merino
Collects: Superman (vol. 3) #7-12, Superman Annual #1

Hey, are you ready for another switch of creative teams? Too bad! Jugans and Giffen are only around for this volume. Lobdell takes control with the Annual - included here - and has the reigns for a couple volumes.

This volume of Superman may have the highest creative turnover of the entire New 52 line and it's not doing the book any favors.

We've already encountered Dan Jurgans at least once in the New 52. He's a dependable talent, not shifting too far in either direction as far as quality goes, but I'm hard pressed to think of anything he's done I really loved. The trend continues here, despite the addition of Keith Giffen; I enjoyed his art and the writing isn't half bad, but nothing about this book is even remotely memorable.

Part of that may have to do with the constant creative shifts. George Perez didn't last longer than a volumes worth of comics either. It's difficult to set up some sort of stable status quo or do anything interesting when no one can even settle in before they're gone. Still, it makes for a forgettable experience.

So we're left with a book that doesn't have a real direction; as such, it's sort of become a dumping ground for short, old school, disposable Superman adventures. I suppose there's some merit to the approach - it's a contrast to Grant Morrisons approach over in Action Comics - but the New 52 wasn't really supposed to foster books like this, where you can practically see the wheels spinning. It was supposed to foster excitement and new directions, wasn't it?

Instead, the Superman comic has felt like something out of the past. You may recall one of my complaints with the first volume was that it felt like a throwback to the Bronze Age. Well, it didn't get any better with this one. It has the same feel of a comic from a bygone era, though maybe a bit more modern than What Price Tomorrow. It only manages to get worse when we get to Scott Lobdells Annual; George Perez occasionally slipped into the old timey practice of using thought balloons, but Lobdell straight up embraces it.

Guys, we moved past the thought balloon for a reason.

Ultimately, nothing of consequence really happens here. I mean, it sort of advances the Daemonite plot that's popped up here and there and tries to set up a villain I assume Lobdell will be using, but it all feels like we're killing time. It's difficult to remember what actually happens save a few bullet points; I just read it last night and I can only remember the broad strokes. I actually stopped three times in the course of reading it, which is never a good sign for any volume that doesn't collect a number of issues somewhere in the teens.

I can typically see the purpose of a New 52 title or why DC might have been looking for when it made a certain comic. Superman is the title I understand the least of any of them. I don't really get what they were trying to accomplish with this or why they decided on this direction. All I know is it's not working.

My Opinion: Skip It

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Alan Davis
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #6-10

Sometimes it's difficult to write about Ed Brubakers Captain America. Reviews are often the hardest when a series is consistently good. What do you say? It would likely be a lot easier if you could do it in bigger chunks, like two volumes of nine or ten issues as opposed to four with five issues. But then Marvel makes half the money, right? Can't have that.

Volume two picks up where the first left off and it carries the same tone. Brubakers Cap feels different now; it's focused more on superheroics than than the intricate plotting of the past. It's not a bad approach, but I'm not surprised it turned people off. I appreciate it for what it is; it's kind of fun to see something a bit more straightforward as Bru prepares to depart the character.

The story for this volume is that Caps powers are out of whack. He's changing back to the ninety pound weakling he was prior to the Super Soldier Serum seemingly at random. The timing couldn't be worse, because someone has set up some Madbombs in New York, causing dangerous riots in the midst of some highly populated areas. Cap and friends have to figure out what is going on with him and stop the villains behind it.

All told, it's an average adventure. But it does have one thing going for it. Alan Davis is the artist and his work can elevate any material. He's as good as ever and frankly I wish we saw more of him in mainstream superhero comics.

I'm not sure what else to say. This isn't a story that fosters a ton of analysis, but it's perfectly enjoyable for what it is. You wouldn't just pick this volume up in a vacuum, but if you're already this far into Ed Brubakers I imagine you're in it until the end. Just don't go in expecting something that will blow your mind and you should have a good time.

My Opinion: Read It

Friday, May 23, 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid HC vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Mark Waid
Artists: Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Emma Rios, Kano, Khoi Pham
Collects: Daredevil #1-10, #10.1, Amazing Spider-Man #677

About two years ago I reviewed Daredevil Reborn for Collected Editions. You can find it here. Since it was meant to clear the deck, I read it in preparation for this relaunch, which I believe was just beginning to hit the shelves in collected form at the time.

The fact that it's been two years since I've read a single thing involving Daredevil ought to tell you how well that worked out.

Part of that can probably be attributed to a lack of love or tolerance for the character. While he's enjoyed a solid decade of critically acclaimed, well loved stories, the end result is a character that is cripplingly depressing. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating; the three runs prior to Waid did everything in their power to keep things interesting, but in the process didn't pay enough attention to the consequences. Bendis - and later Ed Brubaker - left the book after some big, status quo shattering events, leaving the pieces for whoever was next to work with. Usually, said writer would break them into smaller pieces.

Eventually, they wrote themselves into a corner. The biggest events in the past ten years of Daredevils publication history were not the type you could easily undo. Even attempting it backfired. Daredevil Reborn, meant to get the house back in order, only served to make things worse. Every character in that book was a moron that made one monumentally stupid decision after another. Given the fact that Reborn seemed to want to handwave away some of the bigger issues to get to a familiar status quo, logic be damned, I didn't expect much.

Well, apparently Mark Waid is a wizard, because he found a way to fix things without getting too contrived. Not everything works the way I think they hoped - Matts way out of his blown secret identity is steadfast denial, letting the skepticism of others do the rest, even though we should be way past the point that would work - but in a world where Iron Man can just say he isn't in the armor anymore and everyone buys it, it's good enough to get you to suspend your disbelief. The Nelson and Murdock situation - a major, major issue with the end of Reborn - is addressed almost immediately. Waid managed to find a clever way around the elephant in the room with a delightfully comic book-y solution that doesn't insult your intelligence; impressive, especially considering I genuinely expected the whole situation to be glossed over.

Better yet, he manages to inject fun back into the character without sacrificing what came before or veering out of character. Murdock has his smile again, but it's abundantly clear that it isn't entirely honest; he's forcing clearly forcing it to some degree, which fits with his pattern of refusing to deal with things properly. His life isn't a series of devastating personal blows anymore, but a lot happened to him and he still isn't exactly the guy best equipped to handle the weight.

Another good idea centers around the choice to keep it brief. Most of the book consists of one or two issue stories with an overarching plot in the background. It makes for a nice contrast to many modern comics, where the four to six issue arc was adopted as the standard a long time ago. As a bonus, it feels like a lot happens in this one hardcover.

One thing did puzzle me, though. Matt comes into possession of an artifact mid-way through the book that has enough info to bury the five major crime organizations in the Marvel Universe. The book does have the decency to explain why Matt doesn't just hand it over to the Avengers or the Fantastic Four - other than the fact that it's his book, so he obviously needs to deal with it - but events at the end of the book did leave me confused as to why he doesn't just use the info to blow them all in. You'll see what I mean. It isn't a deal-breaker, though. Just odd.

I can't end without mentioning the art. It's easily the cleanest, brightest work Daredevil has been graced with in years. Alex Maleevs influence has been all over the franchise since his days working with Bendis; only now do we truly break away from it and it really, really works. It complements the tone of the book well and it's a good part of why the new direction works. Without Rivera and Martin, I'm not sure it would have the tone Waid was looking for.

Just good, good work all around. Assuming the quality keeps to this level, I may be in for the long haul. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Buy It

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Incredible Hulk by Jason Aaron vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Jefte Palo, Steve Dillon, Pasquel Ferry, Tom Raney, Dalibor Talajic, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Incredible Hulk #7.1, #8-15

I liked volume one, but it left me concerned. While the high concept flipped the script on the Hulk in an interesting way, the things it said about Banner were not exactly kind. Turns out Jason Aaron knew what he was doing all along.

Too bad it stops here.

At the conclusion of the first volume, Banner had perished in the battle with Hulk. Or so we thought. After Hulk enjoys some time without Banner, he realizes his other half isn't quite as gone as he thought. What follows is a romp through the Marvel Universe, as Hulk tries his hardest to stay angry and somehow figure out what nefarious plan Banner has up his sleeve. But everything is not quite as it seems.

Jason Aaron broke away from the pack to become one of my favorite writers in a short amount of time and at least a part of that comes down to his sense of humor. Even a fairly serious story will be littered with a well time piece of dialogue or sight gag. Wolverine and the X-Men has a ton of it. His Ghost Rider run had a bunch of outlandish, ridiculous crap that you couldn't help smiling at. His Wolverine run had cancer bullets. A Jason Aaron comic stands out because it gives you things you never even thought of. The second and final volume of his Hulk has more of this type of levity than the first did and is better for it. I won't spoil some of the better moments, but suffice to say it made a decent comic even better.

Better than that is the fact that the story answers the question of what exactly was up with Banner in a satisfying way that doesn't really throw the character under the bus. Many Hulk writers have explored the MPD angle of the Hulk, but no one ever touches the implications. Hulk is a part of Banner, right? He's an undeniable part of Bruce Banner, the past he repressed most of his life, given physical form whenever he loses his temper. Yet Banner always wanted to get rid of Hulk. What happens when you do manage to eradicate a part of yourself? Nothing good could possibly come of that, right?

Turns out that question drove this story all along. I'm still not sure it speaks well of Banner - without Hulk, the manifestation of Banners rage, the history of insanity in his family comes to the fore - but it explains a lot and it's a novel take on the formula. Also a plus is the fact that, when whole, Aarons version of Banner is not a total douchebag, which was a problem in Indestructible Hulk.

Everything wraps up in a satisfying manner, clearing the deck for the next era, which would be the aforementioned Indestructible. The only real question I had pertained to Dr. Doom, more specifically what was going on with him. I assume it relates to events elsewhere in the Marvel universe, but there isn't even a "check ____ for the full story" footnote to help you find out. It isn't super important to the story, so it doesn't matter much in the long run, but it's an odd omission.

Unfortunately, there are a couple strikes against this. The least important of the two is the issue of length. At sixteen issues - including the point one in the number - it's the shortest run Jason Aaron has had on a Marvel property that I'm aware of. The first volume is good, but not quite great. The second is far better - as well as the point where it feels like Aaron has really settled in - but before you know it, the ride is over. Too long to be a punchy statement on the character, but too short to leave any sort of impact. The next Hulk series doesn't even reference it.

Worse is the art situation. Volume ones art was, well, not great. Volume two has the opposite problem. I'm sure you've noticed the artist list up top; no less than six people worked on this volume, most at one issue a piece. Most of it is good - Steve Dillon does the issue where Punisher guest stars and it's good to see him draw the character again, even if the issue seems to exist entirely for the "shoot me in the face" gag - but the result is a volume that lacks any sort of visual identity. It's offset by the fact that each issue is its own story within the arc, but even so, that's about eight artists for sixteen issues.

All told, between its length and the art, Jason Aarons Hulk is probably not going to go down as a definitive run. That's a shame. Maybe we'll see him take another crack at it in the future. Regardless, the story he did tell turned out to be worth it in the end and at two volumes it isn't exactly a big money sink, so I recommend it regardless.

My Opinion: Read It