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

Sunday, June 7, 2015

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

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Captain America (Vol. 7) #6-10


So, I wasn't a big fan of the first volume. It had some good ideas, but most of the emotional beats hit with a resounding thud. It was a rare occasion where some extra decompression might have actually helped the story. Even an extra issue or two in the story might have made it easier to swallow.

I figured that I might as well finish out the story, so I'm back for round two.

The second book isn't so much improved as it suffers from fewer issues with selling its big moments. Things ramp up immediately as Cap sets out to recover his adopted son Ian and the volume doesn't really slow down until the end, so there's less to be concerned with. Still, there are some hiccups born of the structure choice - the big moment with Steves would-be rescuer don't work if someone decided to start with issue one of this Cap volume - and the rescue attempt hinges on whether the reader could buy the father-son dynamic the first volume tried to present. I've already gone over that particular problem the first time around, so I won't repeat myself, but it didn't work that well in my opinion, so the payoff we get here falls flat.

Again, this really felt like the kind of direction you apply to fifteen or more issues, not ten.

JR Jr.'s artwork hasn't changed much since the first volume. Same strengths, same weaknesses. The weaknesses are a bit less glaring though; we have no time skips as in the first part of the arc, so we are mercifully sparred jarring moments like Ians complete lack of growth. Still, it's not something I'm super into. Plenty of others disagree, so take it as you will.

The ending does leave us with some potentially interesting tidbits for the future, so the book could easily improve. If I decide to continue it will be because the library has it, which is fairly likely. I'd recommend you do the same. Castaway in Dimension Z is far from bad, but it's not something I'd recommend purchasing.

My Opinion: Try It

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight - Mad (comics)

Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Artists: Ethan Van Sciver, Szymon Kudranski
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #16-21, Annual #1

Three volumes in and The Dark Knight seems to be settling in to its own niche as the "villain origin" book. Last volume, the debut of Gregg Hurwitz as the new ongoing writer, focused on the Scarecrow. It was decent, but not something I was in a rush to review; if I had, the vast majority of it would have focused on the fact that Batman hooked himself up to a device on the Batplane and bled all over the city to cure Scarecrows latest toxin, because reasons.

Perhaps the most "important" development of this comic has been the introduction of a new love interest for Batman. We almost immediately dropped into familiar territory with that one, with Bruce almost immediately feeling she's "the one". Also familiar is his desire to share his secret identity with her, as well as the desire to retire from crime fighting to foster said relationship.

Do I even need to tell you where this is going? If you answer "they fridged her", well, of course they did. Barring the animated Phantasm movie that kind of development never goes in any other direction. Which leads you to wonder what the point is. Creating a love interest only to kill her off in a short span of time, said event accomplishing nothing, really.

That's really the problem here; familiarity is the death of this volume. It's a Mad Hatter story and it's the exact Mad Hatter story you're thinking of. You know the one. He concocts a Wonderland for his Alice - an unrequited crush from the past - and then attempts to kidnap her. I suppose I understand the desire - Batman: The Animated Series nailed it on the first try, but the comics never really translated it into a "definitive" story - but it adds to that derivative feeling.

One thing I do enjoy regarding Hurwitz approach is his use of flashback. We cut to them fairly often, each one showing the past events that led the villain to their current state. It started last volume with the Scarecrow story and continues here. It's an obvious pattern, but it does allow us to get into the things that made them who they are a little better.

I'm hoping they lay off the childhood trauma bit, though. I can appreciate it in certain characters, but at times it feels like all writers think a villain needs a sympathetic connection to the reader stemming from some form of abuse. While that's a very true to life scenario, it's getting to the point of over-saturation. Sometimes, a villain should just be left as an evil dickbag.

Oh, there's an annual too. It focuses on a few of the rogues this series has handled thus far getting themselves trapped in an old, abandoned asylum for crazy kids and scaring themselves senseless out of fear that it's a trap set by Batman. In an amusing twist, they're at least half right.

The art is by Ethan Van Sciver. I hear he's popular with some folks. His work here is clean and fairly expressive. There's not a lot to talk about. Szymon Kurdanski handles the annual and one issue of the arc. His ark is murkier than Van Scivers. This helps sometimes, especially given the tone of the annual, but on the downside it leads to a few instances of unclear storytelling within his issues.

Overall, I wouldn't say this is a bad volume. There are parts of it I enjoyed. It's just derivative. There are worse things to be. It would be nice if we could get past that whole "create a female character for the sake of killing" deal though.

My Opinion: Try It

Overall, there are some scattered scenes I enjoyed