Thursday, August 14, 2014

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z Book One (comics)

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Captain America (2013) #1-5

Sad as it was to see him go, it's hard to argue it wasn't time for Ed Brubaker to take his leave. I've read most of his run and while I've enjoyed it consistently, it was clear he was running out of steam and wasn't necessarily writing the stories he felt passionate about anymore. You have to know when to step away and it seems clear Brubaker knew that. It was time for fresh blood.

Is this direction what the book needed? That I'm not so sure about.

Castaway in Dimension Z wastes no time in getting going. Cap is suckered into a train that blasts him to another dimension, one ruled by Arnim Zola, immediately finding himself in a bad way. He escapes, of course, managing to take Zolas artificially created son with him on the way out. Cap and his adopted son then fight for survival for over a decade in this harsh universe, the dream of making it home ever further with each year that passes.

There's something to be said for starting your run off with a bang, but I'm not sure how wise it was to lead off with this extended storyline. We're starting with a fresh volume not far removed from the end of one of the definitive Captain America runs. One has to assume that some people will be lapsed readers - Brubaker was on the book for eight or nine years, after all - and some may be coming in fresh. I don't think it's smart to throw the character out of his comfort zone immediately when you haven't even established that comfort zone at all in your run.

I think this has a detrimental effect on the story. It feels harder to explain than it probably is, but the simplest way I can put it is that Rick Remender never bothered to establish what it is that Cap is losing by finding himself stranded in another dimension for eleven years. If you're a long time reader, sure, you know, but for the purposes of the story, we never really met Caps friends in this run save Sharon, never got a bead on his life save one battle at the start and didn't get a feel for what he cared about back in the real world. It's like leading off with a "their personalities are different, they must be under mind control" story, which I've seen happen before; how are we supposed to have any idea they're acting off when the writer hasn't shown us what they're supposed to be like in normal circumstances? Same principle.

Worse than that, there's something about Dimension Z that doesn't strike me as particularly interesting. It's different, sure, but it feels uninspired. It's mostly a wasteland with a couple groups of weird looking creatures. It's clear we won't be there long enough to get a feel for the ecosystem or how it works - which are sort of hinted at here and there - and it's not visually dynamic enough to make you turn your brain off and forget to worry about the specifics. Dimension Z is just... there. It kind of failed to pull me in.

The timeskips aren't helping its case, either. There are two within the five issues collected. One right after the first issue, skipping a year, and another an issue or two later that skips ahead a whopping eleven years. Most of the trials and tribulations of surviving in this world aren't even touched upon. Same for any character growth for Caps adopted son Ian. Ian is kidnapped - or reclaimed, if you ask Zola - by the end of the fifth issue. He's only been twelve for maybe two and a half issues at that point. How are we supposed to care? We haven't had nearly enough time to get to know him.

It feels like this storyline is trying to pull the trick Cables series way back when did - where he hopped through time, raising Hope through the years - only skipping the character moments and compressing the hell out of it. This feels like the sort of status quo change you hinge upwards of thirty issues on, just to mine all the potential. Instead, we're halfway through, barely scratched the surface so far and only have five issues to go.

I have the distinct feeling that I'm just not getting it, but I genuinely don't know what there is here to get.

John Romita Jr.'s our regular artist. Very hit or miss artist, for me. This one lands somewhere in between. He does pretty capable work here, but at the same time, he shows a new weakness I wasn't aware of before. Apparently, JR Jr. has some difficulty with drawing varied age groups. At the start, Ian is a newborn baby; one year later, he looks like a four year old; eleven years later he still looks like a four year old. Pretty distracting and potentially confusing, especially considering this is a story that loves it some time skips.

I'm not overly impressed with the new direction. Truth be told, I was a bit bored with it. I may read book two to finish out the story, but if it doesn't do a better job of grabbing me, I may pass on following Remenders Cap run any further than that. Too many other books to spend time with.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, August 1, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: A Troubled Mind (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Humberto Ramos, Ryan Stegman
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #6-10

Round two, FIGHT.

After an opening volume that put the pieces on the board, volume two offers more of the same. Make no mistake, that is meant as a compliment. The first five issues only scratched the surface of this idea.

As expected, SpOck pretty much wrecks Peters old life, one piece at a time. He's on the outs with the Avengers, he barely seems to pay much attention to Horizon Labs and most of the friends Peter made have fallen by the wayside. In its place are some new, equally interesting scenarios that come about due to the connections Ock establishes in his return to college in pursuit of his doctorate.

Less expected is the fact that the "back door" I mentioned in the last review is dealt with a hell of a lot sooner than I expected. I didn't go into detail last time, but the gist is that some part of Peter Parker remains in his mind, taking a visual form as some sort of apparition for our benefit. This seemed like the obvious solution to bringing Peter back when the time came, but the situation comes to a head here, within the first third of the series. I doubt everything is as it seems - I'm sure it will be revisited down the line - but for now it appears to have wrapped.

Not a moment too soon, in my opinion. I get why the fragment of Peter was there. People were pissed when this storyline kicked off. Marvel and Slott needed something to take some of the immediate heat off, so patting readers on the head and almost immediately assuring them that Pete isn't completely gone seems like a fair enough price to pay to keep it for a while.

Trouble is, it wasn't doing Peter Parker any favors. It's kind of hard to miss someone when they won't go away in the first place and Ghost Peter was verging on the point of being an annoyance. Using him to highlight the differences between his and Ocks way of doing things is fine, but there came a point where they were beating us over the head when the story didn't need it. It also doesn't make him look all that great; he gives credit where its due at times, but more often than not he's worried more about what is happening to his life and second guessing Ock than he is with noting the clear improvements to his crime fighting formula.

SpOck needed room to breathe and that wasn't happening with Pete around. There's a scene late in the book where Mary Jane finds herself in trouble; Ock doesn't know that, of course - even if he did, I'm not convinced it would have changed his mind - so he reroutes the call to the fire department - people trained to handle such situations - and thwomps some of Hammerheads goons across town instead. Mary Jane expects Peter to rescue her at every point in the affair - and, if we're being honest, he absolutely would have dropped everything to save her - but he never comes.

See? We can spot the difference in approach with no problems and we didn't even need Peter the Whiny Ghost to beat it into us.

Also of note is the new supporting character in Anna Maria, one of Ocks classmates in college. She really bucks convention in a way most female characters in Spider-Mans supporting cast do not. Peter Parker has had relationships with a fair number of women, but most of them are cut from the same cloth; stunningly beautiful, perfect in appearance, well loved and, in the case of Mary Jane, occasionally a model or actress. Anna Maria is a far sight under five feet tall and, while she's drawn as a fairly pretty woman, she's not supermodel level attractive like most of the girls Peter has falling all over him. She also has to put up with some obvious challenges, including the expected bullying. Her personality and outlook add something new and, frankly, she's the best supporting cast member Slott has made so far. It's kind of a shame she's probably going to fall to the wayside when Peter regains his body.

Humberto Ramos is back. Past reviews will show that he is not one of my favorites, but I've kind of come to terms with the reality that he's clearly going to be in the rotation of artists until Dan Slott decides to move on. To be fair, aside from a few scenes that show his weaknesses, he's does good work here that is mostly devoid of the oddly sized limbs that I hate so much. Stegman also returns for the last two issues of the collection; his artwork is stylized as well, but for some reason it goes over better with me.

Two volumes in and Superior Spider-Man remains a clear winner. Maybe I'll feel differently once we near the end, but it's kind of sad that I'm already a third of the way through this series. This really feels like a status quo that deserved an extension, much like the Dick Grayson era of Batman recieved. I genuinely think this could have carried another twenty issues, especially given the fact that Marvel double-ships Spider-Man books.

My Opinion: Read It

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