Saturday, August 22, 2015

Superman: Fury at Worlds End (comics)

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Kenneth Rocafort
Collects: Superman #0, 13-17

This volume is entirely pointless and its existence annoys the crap out of me. Fury At Worlds End is one of those volumes that collects a particular books issues of a crossover and nothing else. In this case, the Superman issues of H'el on Earth.

It's one of the most annoying practices comic companies pull and DC was especially guilty of it around the period this trade came out; see JL: The Grid and JLA: Worlds Most Dangerous, which had chapters of Trinity War. Sure, technically, you can fill in the blanks enough through basic logic to read this on its own, but most of the reasoning behind several plot points is stripped. Why is Supergirl so wrapped up in this guys bull? How did H'el get his hands on Superboy? How did H'el and Supergirl get control of the Fortress of Solitude? I don't know. You don't know. All of that happened in the Superboy and Supergirl issues of the crossover.

If you're interested in the story, basically someone names H'el shows up claiming to be a lost kryptonian and he's ready to wipe Earth off the map to bring Krypton back. He's convinced Supergirl to join him, I assume because she's got some serious PTSD over Kryptons destruction, so bringing it back appeals to her. Superman has to stop them. That's the long and the short of it. Most of the details are lost in the absence of the other two comics.

The writing is another throwback. The same problem previous volumes had. Reads like it belongs in another era, so on and so forth. This is clearly going to be an issue with Lobdells Superman going forward, so if that bugs you, it's probably safe to write off the New 52 Superman book for now, because Lobdells around for a while. I guess it doesn't bother me all that much - not like the characterization does, at any rate - but it can be tiresome.

Speaking of characterization, everyone in this book is an asshole. Superman is short with Superboy and barely seems to tolerate him at times. Kara's easily led by the nose and quick to distrust her cousin. Clark is a prick to Lois because she's moving in with her boyfriend and I guess she needs to run that by him first or something. No one is particularly likable. I really hope it's just a hiccup, because if this is the way everyone is going to be written going forward I'm not sure I'll continue with the book for long.

But hey, there are good things to be said! The artist is Kenneth Rocafort, an artist I'm rather fond of. I like his linework and style and the color is perfect. I assume he works with the same colorists every time? I checked and he's paired with Sunny Gho and Blond. I haven't checked before, so I'm not sure if they're the same colorists he always works with, but if so, he should definitely stick with them. The only problem here? I wish Rocafort were on a book I cared more about; so far, Superman has not been kind to me and I'm not super interested in Red Hood and the Outlaws.

The art is the only thing really worth praising, though. If you're going to read this, you should be reading the big, all encompassing volume titled, wait for it, "H'el on Earth"! It has every issue this one does, save #0. This is not a problem, because issue #0 has nothing to do with anything else in the Superman comic up through H'el on Earth. You don't have any other exclusive material like the Justice League books, so seriously, don't even bother with this.

For my part, I may read the trade collection that has the entire story at some point, but I'm beginning to lose patience with the New 52 Superman book. This is the third volume that has landed with a thud. Between the constant creative changeovers and the dated feel of the writing, this has been the weirdest comic launch I've seen and also the least interesting. I may give Lobdell another volume - Justice League pissed me off worse and my opinion on it took a major turn, so I feel like I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't give him another chance - but if that doesn't grab me I'm out until Gene Luen Yang takes over.

But seriously DC. Slapping the issues of a crossover together in a standalone volume? That's incredibly sleazy. Cut that shit out. Just title the next standalone story "volume three" if you have to.

My Opinion: Skip It

Monday, August 3, 2015

Batman and Robin: Dark Knight vs White Knight (comics)

Writers: Paul Cornell, Peter J. Tomasi, Judd Winick
Artists: Scott McDaniel, Patrick Gleason, Greg Tocchini
Collects: Batman and Robin #17-25

This, my friends, is what we call a holding pattern.

Grant Morrison had just finished up on this title - its part to play in his ongoing Batman Epic over - and despite the insistence it should be by armchair analysts who feel they know it all, it wasn't cancelled. In fact, they had a pretty exciting team lined up to take over. Peter J Tomasi and Patrick Gleason.

Well, turns out Flashpoint was just around the corner, so there's some time to kill; might as well get an arc out of the two with the old status quo, rotate some other teams in and start their actual run in earnest with the relaunch.

That's not to say Dark Knight vs White Knight is without merit. Of the three arcs collected, two are decent to good, with only one dropping to mediocre. Paul Cornell's story has an old flame of Bruce Waynes come back to haunt his sons, seemingly for Bruces negligence. Tomasi's arc concerns a new villain, the titular "White Knight"; the name is lame, but he has an interesting hook in that he aims to kill off the family lines of everyone in Arkham to stop the spread of their "evil".

Only Judd Winicks arc really falls below par. It concerns Jason Todd - a character Winick knows well - and while that's enough to get your interest it never really goes anywhere. It seems to exist mainly to undo the position Todd had been put in at the end of the second arc of Morrisons run on the title. Why? I don't know. The relaunch was right around the corner. I mean, we don't even find out the motives of the group that's after him; they're just there, seemingly for no other reason than to give the three sons of Batman someone to fight. It's competantly written and has a few fun scenes, but once you get to the end and nothing feels truly resolved, the whole thing feels like stalling.

For some reason I can't fathom, the last issue of Batman and Robin - issue #26 - is absent. Why? I haven't a damn clue. the trade was already nine issues. There's no good reason not to slip the last issue of the volume in, especially considering there is nowhere else it would fit and as such it went uncollected. No, it's fine, it's not like it was the issue I wanted to read the most out of the ten.

The art is, for the most part, pretty damn good. I'm not always the biggest fan of Scott McDaniels art, but there's no question it works for Batman. Patrick Gleason is just excellent and rightly goes on to be a steady hand in the Bat books from here on out. But it's the last arc that stumbles. The first issue of the three is a half and half job between Guillem March and Andre Bressan. That's not so bad; Bressan does a good enough job aping Marchs style. No, where things go sour is when we switch to Tocchini for the last two issues.

Now, I like Tocchini's artwork - his style reminds me a bit of Frazier Irving, though part of it comes down to the coloring - but stylistically it's the most jarring shift you could ever ask for mid-arc. Why? Hell if I know.

But hey. Two out of three ain't bad, right? Aside from the missing issue, which probably annoys me a hell of a lot more than it would you, this is a fairly solid volume. Not something you just gotta have, but for something coming out sandwiched between two long, acclaimed runs, you could do a lot worse.

My Opinion: Try It

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lazarus Book One (comics)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Michael Lark
Collects: Lazarus #1-4, four page preview story

Even the best fumble sometimes. I'm generally into most of the work Greg Rucka has made over the years. Lazarus might be the first that didn't lose me so much as it never had me and I'm not even sure how much of that is the books fault and how much of it is my own opinions.

Lazarus doesn't feel too much different from the typical Rucka deal. Some behind the scenes backstabbing is going on, there's some espionage, such like that, in a super vague dystopia. Maybe that's the problem. It feels "safe". It feels like a "typical book" for Rucka. Maybe that's not a problem for most people, but occasionally I find if a creator does a bit too much in one style or genre I start wishing they'd branch out some.

But all that could just be me. Hey, personal opinions and all that. I'm not so convinced the other issues are entirely on my end, though. There's something about Lazarus that just doesn't grab me. I couldn't connect to any of the characters, I didn't much care what happened to any of them and when things went bad I didn't much care to see where things would go from there. It feels so by the numbers I couldn't truly invest in it. It got to a point where, in the midst of the second issue, I actually hopped on Twitter to ask someone I knew was a Rucka fan if it got more interesting*. Something just isn't working.

As a side note, naming the unkillable bodyguard "Forever" is so on the nose I audibly groaned.

The bright spot is the art. Michael Lark is pretty amazing. But you know that. Even so, something feels off here. Like this is not the sort of project his artwork fits with. It's just a personal feeling. I'm not sure I can explain it.

Boy, not much I can explain in this review, huh?

Anyway, so far I'd say to give Lazarus a pass. Something isn't clicking. I may give it one more volume, but so far this is the least I've liked a Greg Rucka comic. That's an odd feeling. I hope it's just a hiccup.

My Opinion: Skip It

* The answer was no, by the way. He made it to the eighth issue before giving up. The rest of the first volume didn't exactly prove him wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Phantom Stranger: A Stranger Among Us (comics)

Writers: Dan Didio, JM DeMatteis
Artist:Brent Anderson
Collects: Phantom Stranger #0-5

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Phantom Stranger. Yeah, I know, I'm one of about three people. What can I say? He's got a certain air of mystery surrounding him that lasted all the way to Flashpoint, a tendency to make cool cameos and a killer outfit. Don't underestimate how important a great look can be for a character. The only reason Ghost Rider lasted as long as he has is because the visual of a leather clad biker with a flaming skull for a head is rad as hell.

Even so, that mystery can sort of work against him. I've seen dozens of appearances by the Stranger and it became pretty clear that he's a fine tool to use for the sake of setting heroes on the right track, he's kind of limited in regards to what he offers as a solo character*. After all, prior to Flashpoint, his main schtick is that he could not directly interfere in most threats short of The Spectre himself bugging out and trying to annihilate magic or something. He's the DC iteration of Obi-Wans ghost, really.

Regardless, DC decided to take a crack at it, spinning off the Strangers very own solo title from his New 52 status as one of the "Trinity of Sin".

All told, they make a pretty good go of giving the Stranger a solid hook in the New 52 continuity - something he lacked prior to Flashpoint - with enough depth to make him a viable solo character you might want to follow. The broad strokes are that the Stranger was once Judas - yes, that Judas - whom, after betraying Jesus, was lost in such a bottomless pit of self-loathing that he hung himself in an attempt to pay for his sins. Unfortunately, the numerous higher powers of the DC universe had other plans. Cursing him with a necklace made of the thirty pieces of silver he was paid for the betrayal of Jesus, Judas was cast back to Earth to forever walk, a stranger to all, until the time came when his services were called upon.

One piece of silver is destroyed for every divine task he completes; often, these tasks lead to him being forced to betray everyone he comes in contact with or attempts to help.

It's a clearer purpose than the Stranger has had in a long time. Not only does he now have a hook, he has an actual origin as well; something the pre-Flashpoint universe was unwilling to commit to**. It gives him a good excuse to interact with a lot of the DC Universe; in this volume alone, we see an origin for Raven - of Teen Titans fame - Terrance Thirteen shows up, the Spectre is in the house, Trigon drops some threats and even John Constantines merry band of dark Justice Leaguers decide to drop in. The Stranger touches a lot of lives, for good or ill.

Seeing that we've addressed the upgrades, we might as well move to the writing. Honestly, it takes a little bit for it to catch up to the potential of the concept. Dan Didio scripts a good two thirds of this trade. Dan's usually hit or miss as a writer - he seems to do his best work when allowed to cut loose with a crazy character or concept - but he's perfectly servicable. Even so, his issues, while inoffensive, aren't wildly interesting and his dialogue could use a little work. As interesting as issue number one is - that is the Raven issue, where we see how one single encounter with the stranger upends her entire life and ends up sending her where she does not want to be - it's a quick one. There are maybe three real scenes across the issue and while they do a pretty decent job of getting the concept across, it feels like it could have easily been compressed a bit to add more to it.

Luckily, JM DeMatteis - a writer I've yet to read a bad story from - comes on board as the scripter as of issue four and coincidently or not that's where the comic starts to pick up the pace. He immediately takes the setup Dan provided him with and turns it on its head, almost immediately leading into encounters with the Justice League Dark - a book I believe DeMatteis had taken over by the time this comic saw print, or would take over shortly after - and a knock down drag out fight with the Spectre.

The artwork is provided by Brent Anderson. It's not a name I'm familiar with, but he seems pretty good at what he does. My only real complaint is that he does a bit more crosshatching than I care for. We're not talking 90's level, where there's so much of it that every character looks to be in their late eighties, but enough to be noticable.

By the end, I was on board The Phantom Stranger. Be aware, though, that it takes a bit for the book to pick up. Prior to issue four I liked it well enough but wasn't sure I would continue. While it ended strongly, my score reflects that. Hopefully the second volume picks up well from where we left off. Anyway, give it a shot if your local library has a copy.

My Opinion: Try It

* I know he had a solo title way back in the 70's or 80's that went for a good forty issues, but I've never read it, so I don't know how they got around it.

** In the pre-Flashpoint universe, they kind of pulled a Joker style "multiple choice" deal with him. There was a special DC once did that presented four different possible origins for the Stranger. No two were alike. One of them was similar to the broad strokes of the current iteration; he was not Judas, but someone else inadvertently affected by Jesus in a negative way. Unfortunately, one of the stories was written by Alan Moore and, as DC tended to do with any Alan Moore work, was thusly considered about as official as DC was willing to commit. Say what you want about Alan Moore and his bitter rants - I've plenty, not a lot of it nice - but he does have a bit of a point whenever he alludes to DC being unable to let go of his work.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Justice League: Trinity War (comics)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, J.M. DeMatteis
Artists: Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, Mikel Janin and others
Collects: Justice League #22-23, Justice League of America #6-7, Justice League Dark #22-23, Trinity of Sin: Pandora #1-3, Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger #11, Constantine #5, New 52 Free Comic Book Day Special 2012

For as many mistakes as the New 52 initiative may have made, it certainly did a fine job of returning some of the lost luster of the Justice League brand. JLA ended somewhere around 2006 and despite numerous attempts it never really managed to strike a chord with anyone. That changed after Flashpoint, with no fewer than three Justice League books launching under the relaunches umbrella; one faltered, but was swiftly replaced by another. They rarely, if ever, interacted on any major scale.

Finally, a solid two years in, they collide in a big crossover. This time it's war. Well, sort of.

Trinity War certainly feels important. For one thing, it's the first big "DC Universe" story since the relaunch. For another, it's readily apparent that it is meant to be a culmination of everything the Justice League line had done in its first two years. Not everything feels as though it was planned - having read all the League books from Flashpoint to Trinity War, I get the distinct feeling that the plan for Pandora may well have shifted early into the lines life - but for the most part you can draw a clear line through each book to lead here. That's fairly impressive, especially given the fact that DC has often had troubling aligning the stars in the past.

The stakes are fairly high as well. We start with Superman having apparently* killed someone. From there things escalate as numerous heroes of the DC Universe try to absolve him - after, you know, the requisite punchup, lest the title be a complete lie - with battle lines being drawn over the best way to go about it. At the center of the conflict is Pandoras Box, the supposed prison of evil the titular character unwittingly opened long ago, unleashing sin upon the world.

It's an interesting story and it holds up fairly well, despite involving several writers and even more artists. I think what impressed me the most is that by the end, you realize the stakes are even higher than previously indicated. Trinity War manages to re-purpose several characters and concepts in ways that might surprise you, including a silver age villain given a no brainer of an origin that makes you question how this is the first time anyone has tried it.

As always, there are flaws. As the crossover goes on, there's less importance put on the "Trinity of Sin". They're made out to be a big deal very early on, but The Question is practically a non entity and while important, Pandora kind of fades to the background a bit by the climax and the Phantom Stranger, who is definitely a presence throughout most of the story, just disappears from it past a certain point. It's also a big difficult to suss out how the "sins" work, exactly, given the big twist of the storyline. I think I managed to figure it out, but it's something that isn't spelled out all that clearly. It isn't enough to break the story - and I imagine the nature of the sins will be explained more in the issues of Pandora that take place after Trinity War - but it's fairly curious.

There's also the elephant in the room that is the ending. Trinity War doesn't really finish so much as it moves us into the next phase. Turns out the war leads into the first - and with the recent end of the branding, only - event comic of the New 52. I can see how that might piss some people off. Personally, I think it works and the twist is intriguing enough for me to overlook the fact that the story is, in a way, a big lead in to an event. I understand how others might chafe, however.

Despite utilizing a small army of artists, visually the book holds together quite well. You'll still see some visual flair here and again, but most conform to a general "look". Many people bristle at the mention of a companies "house style", but there's little denying that in the case of multi-book crossovers like this it's an advantage as opposed to a detriment. Ivan Reis is the best of the bunch, but everyone holds their own well.

All told, Trinity War is a fun crossover that does its job well. You could do far worse. Do be advised, however, that it doesn't so much end as it pulls a time honored "to be continued". It's entertaining enough that it doesn't matter to me and it did its job well of stoking the flames of my interest in Forever Evil.

My Opinion: Read It

* "Apparently" because a three year old could tell you Superman wouldn't do that. The story, to its credit, doesn't even try to pretend otherwise; once everyone calms the hell down and stops throwing punches - hell, even while punches are being thrown - pretty much everyone agrees something is wrong with the picture. Well, save Waller and maybe two others, but if we're being honest "distrusting ass who is not afraid to pull some seriously shady business" is her character in a nutshell.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Justice League: The Grid (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, small bits by other assorted artists
Collects: Justice League #18-20, 22-23

The upward arc in overall quality continues for Justice League, but unfortunately the collection itself kind of pisses me off.

Regarding the story, in itself there's nothing wrong with the Grid. There's a fair amount to keep you interested, including the League opening its doors to new members for the first time since the unseen conflict with the Martian Manhunter. Despero shows up. There's some mystery over who broke into the Batcave and some obvious subterfuge going down behind the scenes. Plus, we revisit the old "Batman has a plan for everyone" chestnut, though this time Batman not only comes clean before anything happens, but everyone is far more reasonable about the whole thing.

This book also has a few... Heartwarming Batman Moments, I think we'll call them. I've noted before that while I'm fine with dark Batman stories, the old Batdickery bit had gone way too far, especially prior to the New 52. It's a problem similar to what we see with Iron Man over at Marvel, only not quite as severe; the writers take their behavior so far it's amazing anyone will put up with or work with them ever again.

As such, I enjoy bits that focus on their humanity and ability to get along with others, even in a small way. Here, Batman stops Jason Todd from beating himself up with a hand on the shoulder and a "I'm just glad you're okay". In another scene, he rationally discusses the at-the-time secret relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as the impact they have on how the League is percieved, without the theatrics or yelling you might usually see in a scene like this. Later, in private, Batman affirms that Superman is his friend and offers a briefcase with plans to deal with him, should the need ever arise. It shows the characters usual forward thinking while also showing a humility he simply did not have in the pre-Flashpoint version of this plot point, Tower of Babel. There, while technically correct in his thinking, there was an undeniable bit of arrogance to Batmans plan, seemingly suggesting that he was the only one there who was infallible.

Showing that the heroes are actually friends within the comic itself? That's something I wanted since volume one. I cannot dislike that. I'm not a rock. Throw in more Ivan Reis art and yeah, I'd say I'm pretty well on board with Justice League again.

Sadly, as I noted at the start, the praise had to end eventually. I didn't go into the story too much because, frankly, there isn't much to get into. You probably noticed the little "collects" bit there, right? Five issues. Issue twenty one is skipped because it's the full issue conclusion of the Shazam story that had been running in the singles as a backup and is, I assume, collected in the trade of that material. Of what we have, only three of the five issues are a coherent story exclusive to this volume.

The other two? Chapters of Trinity War, also collected in the Trinity War trade. You'll recall Justice League of America pulled this as well, but the difference here is that book had five issues of exclusive material. That's fairly reasonable for a volume. The Grid, however, has three. The Trinity War chapters are the bookends of the event and fairly incomprehensible without everything in between.

Whether it's intended or not, it feels like being fleeced. This volume, after all, has a suggested retail price of seventeen dollars for the paperback. I realize they were kind of put in a hard place here, but is there any reason they couldn't have collected the three issues as a small, nine dollar collection? It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. What other reason is there except that extra seven dollars a copy?

I'm enjoying Justice League now, but I don't enjoy feeling like I'm being bilked for extra cash and the score reflects that.

My Opinion: Try It

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Justice League Dark: In The Dark (comics)

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Mikel Janin
Collects: Justice League Dark #1-6

Okay, right away, can I just say "Justice League Dark" is the dumbest title for a comic? I get the reasoning. The Justice League is a popular brand. I get it. Hell, Marvel does it too. But come on, you mean to tell me that with all the talented writers and staff on hand at DC no one could come up with a better title than "Justice League Dark"?

Just rolls right off the tongue. Could be worse, I guess. The concept could be as stupid as the name. Sup', Avengers A.I.?

Stupid name aside, I was actually kind of excited about this book when it was announced as a part of the launch of the New 52. A team comic based on the supernatural and magical elements of the DC universe? I'm into it.

Sadly, the first volume doesn't quite live up to the potential. The book has all the elements of something great. There's a bunch of interesting characters with diverse personalities and problems, you have magic, you have crazy vests attached to insane people. Split personalities. Just a bunch of cool stuff. It simply never comes together.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have its moments. Having Superman and a few other members of the main League go down early to an attack as bizarre as a hurricane of gross magic witch teeth feels inspired. Sadly, scenes like that prove to be a bit of an exception. Most of the book is aggressively average, from the writing to the art, which is not what you want to be when you're one of fifty two books introduced all at once in a massive relaunch.

Even the conflict is kind of ho-hum, at least for it's length. Apparently, the Enchantress has split into two, with June Moon running from the magical embodiment of her insanity. Not a terrible plot for a short arc, but for five issues it comes down to a fair amount of wheel spinning. The threat of the crazed Enchantress is rarely confronted head-on and her ultimate defeat just kind of happens without a ton of conflict, aside from two team members briefly fighting over the solution. I appreciate that the manner in which the threat is resolved shows Constantine as the outright bastard he typically is, but it doesn't make for an exciting read. The team scatters to the wind afterwards, since no one likes Constantine or trusts Madame Xanadu.

The volume ends on a single issue where the group decides to stick together after having some shared nightmares. Six issues in and we finally have our team formally introduced. Credit where it's due, however; while the team doesn't form until the end, we meet each member fairly early in the book and their paths cross numerous times before we're done. It's a fair middle ground between Justice Leagues staggered approach and Justice League Internationals quick formation.

We close with an interesting cliffhanger that promises a tie to one of the New 52's under-rated gems, but I sincerely hope business picks up in volume two, because you can only coast on potential for so long. Justice League Dark might have an easier time surviving than, say, Shadowpact, if only because of the name, but eventually you need to properly hook people if you want to keep readers. As it is, having an opening trade this bland doesn't help the books cause, especially since DC insists on numbering them and subsequently discouraging the more casual reader from skipping a duller volume.

My Opinion: Try It