Saturday, December 24, 2011

RED (comics)

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Cully Hamner
Collects: RED #1-3, bonus material

This book kicked my expectations around in the wrong ways. I like the work of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner is a damn great artist. On a creator owned book, you'd think it would be dynamite. Unfortunately, the book is fairly disappointing.

We don't have any real curveballs in the concept; it's fairly simple. An extremely dangerous CIA agent is in retirement, wanting nothing more than to be left in peace. Unfortunately, when the new administration catches wind of him and the things he'd done in their service, they drop a deuce in their drawers. Fearing the consequences if such knowledge got out, they rashly order him dead. One problem; he's a killing machine and he doesn't take kindly to assassination attempts. Cue the killing.

The book tries to say something about how the younger generation has lost the intestinal fortitude to make the hard choices and to live with them - and that's fine - but throughout the book, it felt like something was missing. It was competent, told it's story in a neat three issue package and made sure to exit without wearing out its welcome. It wasn't until I finished it that I realized what was off.

There's no conflict or real danger.

Paul Moses is never really in a compromising position at any point in this book. Once he turns back the initial assassination attempt without much trouble, everything between him and his destination dies. There is nothing at stake and you don't realize quite how much that effects a story until you have one like this, where the main character literally makes it through the entire book without suffering so much as a hangnail.

Aside from that, it's not bad. Cully Hamner is his usual awesome self. His clean, simple work is always a joy to behold. He doesn't bother using too many lines; this book proves he knows when less is more. His work stands out more for it as well; there are quite a few artists in comics that overdraw their work with lines upon lines to the point of utter ridiculousness.

One last thing; did no one realize prior to the books production that the back cover quote doesn't even describe the book itself? It just describes what goes into one of Warren Ellis' best stories. Odd oversight? Couldn't they find a better quote?

The Score: 7 out of 10

Worth a look for Hamners art alone. Might also be good for a big Ellis fan or to see what inspired the movie*, which I've yet to see. It feels like a bit of a weird read due to what was mentioned earlier in the review, but it's enjoyable enough.

* This is a bit of an odd choice for a movie, too. It has more than enough action to work as a film, sure, but there's not enough here to go on. Of course, Hollywood has made full films out of short stories numerous times over the years, so no huge shock.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Venom (comics)

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Tony Moore, Tom Fowler
Collects: Venom (2011) #1-5

Symbiotes are very cool, but their popularity waned after overexposure and never had a big shot at an ongoing. In the 90's Venom had a bunch of miniseries come one after the other, which can essentially be considered an ongoing if you squint. They were of varying quality, however, some good, some bad. There actually was a Venom ongoing years back, but we won't discuss it.

Worse still, Venom in general has been floundering for years. Mark Millar removed the symbiote from Eddie Brock during his Marvel Knights run and things haven't been the same since. Millar decided Mac Gargan - the friggin Scorpion - would be good to shove into the suit and that iteration was essentially a chump for years after. Finally, when the Brand New Day era ended and Dan Slott took over Amazing Spider-Man full time, the symbiote was removed from Gargan in-story.

Marvel responded by giving Venom his own series, written by Rick Remender. Damn good call. Spoiler alert: I'm going to be open about the new Venoms identity, so if you somehow don't know, skip to the score.

Remender dodges expectations beautifully by taking on a new high concept for the character, giving him a new host from Spideys revitilized supporting cast and hitting the ground running. Essentially, Venom has become a tool of the government; a special operative tasked with secretly taking out various threats. The government, however, has it on a strict leash; the user cannot have the suit on for more than forty eight hours due to risk of the symbiote taking control and beginning to bond permanently. If Venom takes control, the government has a failsafe that means the hosts death.

The host? Flash Thompson.

This was a masterstroke. Flash is a long time Spidey supporting character that was really brought back into the fold with Brand New Day. Once a high school bully of Peter Parker, he later grew up, becoming Petes friend. Flash went on a tour of duty with the army during Brand New Day and ended up losing his legs. His personal problems piled up and he's struggled to keep it together. But now, the Venom symbiote gives him another chance to serve his country, powers like his hero Spider-Man and the ability to walk again while into the suit.

Flash has a perfect setup here, from a storytelling standpoint, while having many problems typical to the Spider-Man series. His are actually worse when you think about it; while Peter's the hard luck hero, he can at least pull himself out of the hole, while Flash is a disabled war veteran who doesn't exactly live the good life. It sets up a conflict of interest between his real life and his life on duty; it's quite clear that eventually it's going to reach a boiling point. Since Flash is likable, relatable and interesting that one's going to hit hard.

Remender eschews the whole "write for the trade" style with this series, it seems. Of the five issues here, the first and the fifth are done in ones, while the middle three issues form something of an arc. We seem to be trending back towards more of this and less "six issue arcs designed for collection", which is good. The best writers seem to realize a great story does not necessarily need to be a six issue epic. Within those five issues, you get a great introduction to the status quo, insight into Flashs life that the glimpses in Amazing do not give us and a compelling read.

Remender is helped along by Tony Moore. Moore is definitely suited to the proceedings, having a knack for fun and over the top ridiculousness. There's this one panel that really illustrates it; Venom is running towards his destination, civilian in tow, the symbiote keeping a live grenade from blowing, three tendrils controlling assault rifles firing behind him while he fires a pistol forward. Bullets rain down all over, bodies everywhere. It's completely over the top while managing not to feel out of place in what's written as a very serious mission. Artists with less skill might have made such a panel humorous; and while the comedic approach is a valid one, it's pretty clear such a moment isn't supposed to be played for laughs.

Moore doesn't do everything, but I have to say the fill in for issue three and most of five isn't bad either. His style's a bit cleaner than Moores, but it's not jarring enough to feel out of place. Usually fill-in art is a dirty phrase in comic fandom, but done right it can fit right in. I won't be too upset if Tom Fowler is Marvels regular pinch hitter for this series.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

A new approach and mission statement does wonders for the Venom symbiote. This is a great read and an excellent introduction. Definitely pick it up, it's well worth the change. Who knew Marvels next must-read series would star Venom?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thor/Iron Man: God Complex (comics)

Writers: Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning
Artist: Scott Eaton
Collects: Iron Man/Thor #1-4

So there was this Thor movie and Marvel, seeing dollar signs, decided "lets put out half a million Thor miniseries". Desperately hoping to catch some of that movie audience who wouldn't know where to find a comic shop if their life depended on it, someone decided "hey, lets have one be a team-up with another hero with a popular movie franchise". Thus, God Complex was born.

DnA, usually workhorses of the industry, put out a surprisingly dull effort this time. There are some good ideas - trying to create a new age of gods to replace "obsolete" ones is a pretty nifty way of ensuring Thor and Iron Man would end up on the same adventure - but the comic itself fails to be particularly interesting. There are some sequences that seem like they're there just to kill pages; I can't even remember why some of Iron Man and Thors villains were on board with the High Evolutionary and I just read the book.

Part of the problem is the length. They put this out as a four issue miniseries, which is about the length you need to put out a premium hardcover without the covers being thicker than the story they bookend. Trouble is, this is two issues worth of story, tops - two issues that could easily have been slotted into either Thor or Iron Mans ongoing - stretched out to four. Never a great plan if you want to end product to be a good read.

The end result is a story that struggles to gain momentum. Given some trimming, it probably could have made for a pretty decent team-up adventure. The art is fairly decent, but it's not on the level that would make the exercise worth it. There's just not that much to discuss in regards to this book, other than the fact that it's pretty disposable.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Skip it. It's not what I'd call bad - hence the rating, as opposed to something lower - but it's not really worth the time. Or the money. Both will be better spent elsewhere, unless you're really jonesing for a Thor/Iron Man team-up.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hulk: The End (comics)

Writer: Peter David
Artists: George Perez, Dale Keown
Collects: The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect #1-2, Hulk: The End

For those not in the know, at some point years ago, Marvel decided it might be a good idea to put out some comics centered around the end of a given superhero. Obviously, "the end" in superheroics means death, since they're not going to stop fighting until they croak, and that point is not one superhero comics tend to go to. Even if they did kill off a hero, it would be in the more likely outcome of dying in the line of duty or something similar. It can be powerful, of course, but in a different way.

Marvels answer was "The End", a line of books centered chiefly around the possible end of a given hero. Each book was its own thing, not tying to any greater events. The line had no continuity between the books; Marvel simply rounded up the iconic creators of a given character and asked them to put together an "end" to that hero as they envisioned it. The Hulk was the first hero to get the treatment and they tapped Peter David for the project, since he's one of the few definitive Hulk creators.

The result is striking and it becomes clear pretty quick this isolated form was the right way to go. It allows Peter David to go back to the core concepts behind the character to fashion his "end", as it were. Hulk was, of course, a product of the Atomic Age, with all the fears and problems that came with it. Obviously, the Cold War came and went - and while the possibility lingers in our worst nightmares, the probability of that terrifying "World War III" coming to pass is very low - but even today the spectre of nuclear radiation and the damage it can do hangs over us like a Damocles sword. Japan can attest.

Well, in this reality, that dreaded World War III came to pass and humanity is gone. Bruce Banner and his alter ego are the only ones left. It's the loneliest of lives, Banner struggling to keep his sanity while wanting nothing more than to die, but with the Hulk refusing to allow him that peace. Banner is left to wander the wasteland, looking for perhaps some sign that something has survived. But it's a sign that never comes.

Peter David brings us right back into the thick of the Jekylll and Hyde dynamic that sits at the heart of the concept. Banner is weary and wants nothing more than to join his loved ones - Betty, Rick, the whole nine - in the aftermath. But the Hulk is our dark side personified, here more than ever. He's selfish, crude and hateful. Everything is out to get him, of course, even when the only thing left to attack him are cockroaches. Rather than deal with the last remnants of humanity - who, when you think about it, Banner could probably have helped if Hulk let him - he walks away, leaving them all to die to seal himself in a cave so he doesn't have to hear them die. So he can be alone.

Peter David is in top form here, if you ask me, putting forward a story that perfectly suits the Hulk. There's a reason David is considered one of the definitive Hulk creators; he gets the character and everything that goes with him to a tee. His long run on the book proper attests. Here he's distilled it all down to a grim, unsettling portrayal of the last days of the Hulk. The Hulk is the monster personified and when he finally gets what he wants, we start to see that one chink; maybe, just maybe, he was always fooling himself.

Hulk: The End was a one shot. As you can guess, that's not going to fill a trade, not by a long shot. Luckily, Marvel pulled the shrewd move of packing in another classic from David. The two oversized issue miniseries "Future Imperfect" that Peter David had done with George Perez. Man it's great.

It hits some - but not all - of the same themes as The End. It's another possible future for the Hulk, only this time, when the bombs dropped, humanity survived and Hulk turned into a vicious ruler of all known as The Maestro. It is, again, the worst of the Hulk to the extreme, now ruling over a rotted, dystopic, seemingly hopeless future.

It's a classic for a reason.

If there's a downside, it's the future lingo. This is always such a dicey proposition. On the one hand, lingo is going to change in the far future, but making it feel organic or outside of the realm of completely goofy is a challenge. David doesn't quite nail it. Still, it's not too difficult to get past, at least for me. It's ignorable, at any rate.

What puts it over the top is the art by George Perez. Man, can that guy draw. Perez has always been able to pack in so much detail in his work with excellent figurework and storytelling. Perez is one of the greats of the business, for sure, so having him on a project is a definite boon.

The Score: 9 out of 10

This trade is fantastic. Both stories are great reads and well worth the time. Great stories, great art, great package. Definitely pick this up if you like the Hulk. It's a worthy addition to the bookshelf.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Superman: Grounded vol. 1 (comics)

Writers: J. Michael Straczynski, G. Willow Wilson
Artists: Eddy Barrows, Leandro Oliveira
Collects: Material from Superman #700, Superman #701-706

God, I don't even know where to start with this. I have such conflicting feelings about this. On the one hand, this book is complete ass. On the other, it's fantastic in that it made me laugh. It's asstastic.

Look, we all know the story, right? It hit the mainstream news, for chrissakes. Superman takes a walk. Along the way he spouts half-assed philosophy and generally ignores legitimate questions about what the hell he's doing. I'm not sure that last part is on the back cover though.

As a Superman story - in regards to who Superman is, who the character has become, what he represents and how we understand him - this story is just so bad. Dude straight up hassles people, acts condescendingly and spouts the most cliched bullshit going. It's clear that the only villain here is the strawman Superman meets every issue to argue into submission. Well, that and the unbelievably blatant metaphors he comes across from time to time; I do not think a writer can lack any more subtlety than having actual aliens in the country illegally. He doesn't even play it for laughs, which might redeem the bit.

Even the way it starts off is patently moronic. A woman whose husband died from cancer slaps Superman for being off trying to stop a war between Earth and New Krypton instead of being there to cure her husbands cancer. Because, you know, dude should be focusing on the important stuff, right? A normal human being would shrug this moronic nonsense off, but Superman takes it to heart and decides the answer is to walk across the goddamn country.

There aren't enough words to describe how utterly dumb the premise is, much less how out of character this Superman feels.

Of course, it's possible that's the point and something is wrong with Superman. It's been hinted as much, though the rest of the internet takes that with the requisite skepticism. But to be fair to the book, there is just as many instances of Supermans loved ones expressing concern and all but outright saying he's acting goddamn weird. It could always be said that it's nothing more than JMS using a stand-in for readers or critics of the concept, but I'm not so sure. It seems a bit too... planned, I guess; like hints of something wrong to come into play down the line.

Unfortunately, this isn't one of those trades with creator interviews to shed light on the subject, so no one but the folks at DC knows for sure. Regardless, JMS is a better writer than this. I know he is. I don't know how this came out of the guy who wrote the book that got me mildly interested in Thor.

The other side of the coin is that because of the fact that Superman feels so wildly out of character the book is pretty hilarious. Superman is a complete dick to everyone in this book. The shining example that inspires humanity to be its best straight up holding a stalker by the ankle high in the air and demanding he never stalk a lady again is just plain funny. Not that the guy doesn't deserve it, but - and the story even points this out - that is a Batman tactic, not Superman.

He also burns drug stashes hidden in houses with his heat vision. In the middle of a neighborhood. Seemingly without thinking about either the smoke from the burning drugs or the fact that the houses could catch on fire and spread as, you know, fires are wont to do. Oh won't you be his neighbor?

It provides the kind of humor people built an entire website around. It's great, but not at all in the way they intended. If you don't derive humor from seeing Superman act like a prick - which I admittedly like in past books, but generally have no desire to see Superman books repeat - you'll probably be able to knock the score down three points lower than I gave it.

Of course, because it's JMS, whose every project seems besieged by crippling delays, there were fill-ins by a G. Willow Wilson. Not familiar with her work. She does well enough, considering her goal is to focus on supporting characters in order to kill time for JMS, who only did one more issue anyways before bailing to do a sequel to a more lucrative Superman graphic novel. These issues have almost nothing to do with Grounded, but considering Grounded isn't exactly the next great Superman epic I don't think anyone really cared about that.

Most of the artwork is done by Eddy Barrows, who actually manages to string together three consecutive issues this time. Considering he couldn't manage more than two in a row last time I read a project he was on, I'd say his workrate is improving. His work is much better here to boot. Doesn't save the book, but at least it's not ugly.

One last bit of hilarity: This trade has no cover quotes at all. Not all trades will carry them; material from more than five years back tend to lack them unless they're evergreen classics. But this story was given so much press it hit the news. When you've got a heavily hyped storyline you've gone out of your way to get in the public eye and come trade time you can't even muster a semi-positive quote to plaster on the hardcover, you've failed on so many levels.

The Score: 5 out of 10

As cripplingly bad as I expected? Not quite. It's just cripplingly stupid. If you get some jollies from Superdickery, give it a look. Otherwise, it's not really worth the time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain (comics)

Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Dennis Calero
Collects: X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain #1-4

This is a sequel to the original X-Men Noir miniseries. If you're paying attention, you'll notice I never did a review for it, but rest assured I did read it. Here's my one sentence review: I damn near fell asleep during the first one only to be snapped awake by an ending I cold could not figure out. It was honestly so dull I couldn't think up anything to say about it. Bad sign.

This one doesn't really work either, but it's not really Van Lentes fault, in my opinion; bless him, he tries, he really does.

I think part of the problem here is that the concept just doesn't really work well. Obviously with most of these Noir miniseries they're toning down the superhero elements and superpowers are mostly missing. Some writers manage to work around it pretty easily, but it doesn't stick for all of them.

With this one, it's more of a fundamental clashing of the two concepts mixed in with the lack of powers. The X-Men have almost always been a stand-in for race relations, but without powers or general mutations, what made them stick out is now gone. Van Lente goes for a hail mary pass to salvage things, changing it from mutants to sociopaths, with people buying into the idea of crime being infectious like a disease caught from the criminals deemed sociopathic. It's a good effort but it doesn't really work; and since a lot of the elements of the story rely on buying into it, the rest of the house of cards ends up struggling to keep from toppling.

It does manage to feel like noir. I'll give it that. It's got the vast majority of the trappings and a few double crosses for good measure. Unfortunately, noir is not exactly the best fit for the X-Men and I'd say it's pretty clear at this point that editorial didn't really think this through, at least not past "give me a noir miniseries of all our top characters".

The story is alright, considering its inherent troubles. The X-Men that didn't take a bullets to the head at the end of the prior miniseries are out in Madripoor, looking for the gem of Cyrotakk for Cain Marko. Despite troubles, they get the job done. Only, oops, they're double crossed; considering they're broke, the obvious course of actions is to try and track down the double crosser and get to the bottom of everything.

Like I said, it's not a classic, but Van Lente makes it work the best he can. Everyone has fairly distinct personalities and the story flows well enough. He struggles to make it all interesting, but he's basically fighting against the tide here; the transition to noir has effectively robbed the X-Men of their hook and what's left isn't a great deal to go on. Still, he manages to craft a tale that doesn't necessarily go in the direction you'd expect, given the presence of a Cain Marko and a certain gem, so there's that.

The artwork is pretty nice. Bathed in shadows and fairly dynamic. The shadows obscure from time to time - there's a scene late in the book I had a hard time diciphering, thanks to so much shadow drenching Kitty Prydes head that I couldn't tell if she bit the guys nose or headbutted him or what - but other than that it works out.

The Score: 6 out of 10

This - and its predecessor - is a bust. It's not unreadable, but beyond "see your favorite X-Men drenched in shadow and betrayal" there isn't really much reason to bother. This one at least held my attention - unlike the original - but it's not something I can really recommend.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Noir Cyclops is an even bigger dick than Cyclops Classic. He essentially has a chip on his shoulder the size of gibralter and is more than willing to sling insults at the slightest provocation. Then, THEN, by the end, he's revealed to be the biggest douchebag in the cast for reasons I won't mention because of spoilers. It shows Van Lente gets Cyclops, at least; Cyke is, after all, just a massive tool these days.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Infestation V.1 (comics)

Writers: Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Mike Raicht
Artists: David Messina, Nick Roche, Giovanni Timpano
Collects: Infestation #1, Transformers: Infestation #1-2, GI Joe Infestation #1-2

Event comics are often dogshit. This is an unavoidable fact. Sometimes DC will pump out a pretty good one (while Marvel fails every damn time, it seems), but overall it feels like they never work. As usual I got wrapped up in something based on general concept - I can't help it, this one hit all my nerd buttons - and hoped for the best. Maybe IDW could pull off what the other two didn't.

After reading this, all I can say is that while this doesn't necessarily hit the bullseye dead center, this first volume shows promise.

The concept is simple; a zombie virus - controlled by a hive mind - is let loose in one universe. The supernatural special forces of that dimension, the CVO, cannot contain the threat and the zombies gain access to a dimensional portal. From there, they try to take over four others, while the heroes of those universes - the Transformers and GI Joe in this volume, with the other two collected in the second - try to fight them off and keep the problem contained.

The opening issue of the event, Infestation, centers on the CVO, whom are apparently one of IDW's own intellectual properties. I haven't read a damn thing with them before, so it's a testament to DnA's abilities as writers that I was swept up in things - and even finding interest in the characters - fairly quickly. It's a good start to the event and easily sells the stakes.

The Transformers part, however, is definitely a speedbump. It accomplishes absolutely nothing and is essentially the Autobots and Decepticons bickering for two issues when they should be working together against the threat. To tell the truth, the Autobots are the ones that come off badly here. Sure, Megatron is pulling his dickish "surrender control of your forces to me to fight this" heel tactic, but the Autobots are way, way too quick to judge and fight the Decepticons rather than the zombie threat. At least the Decepticons were smart enough - and willing - to put the grudges aside to stop the shit from hitting the fan worse than it already had.

I've read worse comics, for sure, but the only real boon to this section is the art, which is simple and colorful.

The GI Joe section fares much better. Essentially, a few Joes are caught while trying to get rid of a severed robot arm that I just assume was the Terminators for shits and giggles. See, it carries that whole zombie virus thing. Of course, Cobra immediately decides it would be a great idea to ignore the Joes warnings. Soon, the underwater base is riddled with zombies and flooding.

This one kind of hit me in a weird way. It's not that it's bad - it's fairly good - or that there's a learning curve. There aren't any recognizable Joes, after all, and the only recognizable Cobra agent is the Baroness. The problem is... well, it's all played completely straight without even a tinge of ridiculous, which is not something GI Joe has ever done very often.

I mean, Baroness is ramped up to eleven and is relatively bloodthirsty now, killing her own people for the most minor of things. There are no flashy, eccentric characters. They're more competent and not even half as likable. It's a shock to the system. Cobra to me is the organization led by a dude who carves his damn face into the moon. It's the team with a goddamn serpent-man that takes over because of course, along with magic spores and underground snake cults. It's the terrorist organization with ridiculous schemes who never win against ridiculous special forces agents.

It does not feel like GI Joe. I'd heard IDW's GI Joe went for a more serious take on the whole thing, but I'm not sure I necessarily expected experiments on animals and Baroness straight up killing her men just for looking at her the wrong way. I'm not sure how I feel about it; maybe I'd be more convinced if I read some of IDW's recent Joe material. After all, this is probably an odd place to be trying a property overhaul for the first time.

Take away your expectations - and ignore the few Joe trappings that remain - and you've got a pretty good story of some terrorists fighting to survive, throwing their own men to the wolves if necessary.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Despite some hiccups - and an entirely underwhelming section of the story - this is a decent start to a rare non-Big Two event. I'm not sure it's as good as I'd hoped, but to tell the truth I had pretty high expectations given the concept, so that's not a slam against it. Hopefully the second half is better, but as it is this is a fairly strong event. Considering events usually suck, that's the equivalent of a thumbs up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Uncanny X-Men: Breaking Point (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Carlos Pacheco, Terry Dodson, Ibraim Roberson
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #534.1, #535-539

I've been crapping on the modern X-Men books for a good while now. Not for no good reason, of course. The modern X books mostly suck. I'd actually said last time I delved into Uncanny I was taking a break from X books; obviously, that didn't happen, but I kept pretty clear of Uncanny X-Men.

Kieron Gillen's a good writer though, so I figured I'd take a look at one of the trades and see if he fares any better.

We've got three stories in the issues included. First one is Magneto getting some PR help so the X-Men don't have to dance around the fact that he's on the team. Look, this one is just never going to completely work logically - it's friggin Magneto - but Gillen does his level best. Hell, considering the public of the Marvel Universe are certified morons*, maybe it makes more sense than I'm giving credit for.

The second story - and the one encompassing the most issues - is the "Breaking Point" arc the trade is named after. It follows up on some loose threads from Joss Whedons Astonishing run and wraps that whole "Kitty's stuck as intangible" thing Fraction left behind. Probably won't mean as much if you haven't read Whedons run, but on it's own it makes a fairly decent story of the difficulty in breaking old ways and accepting new ones.

Last one's the best, in my opinion. It's a single issue story of the kidnapping of Hope - the mutant messiah - and Wolverines mission to rescue her. It hinges primarily on Wolverines avoidance of Hope and why. First instinct tells you it's because his best friend died for her, but it goes a bit deeper than that. It's an understandable one; we don't often think about Wolverines role when the tough decisions need to be made, much less what that must do to him inside.

Overall, what makes this whole exercise worthwhile is Gillens handle on the characters. Moments like the aforementioned bit with Wolverine show a better understanding of these characters than we've seen in a good long while. Even Cyclops manages to go without being insufferable and considering he's a massive prick these days that's saying something.

Still, it's far from essential reading. It doesn't really stand alone at all, even remotely; it plays almost entirely off the past few years of stories. If, like me, you're not at all invested in Cyclops, King of the Mutants and his rotting asteroid island, little of what you read will change your mind. Still, it's definitely a step up from before, so if you like the current X franchise, I suspect you'll love this.

Unfortunately for me, I may end up passing on anything further from Gillens run. It has nothing to do with quality. I believe there's one volume left after this before UXM hits Schism territory, so most of the interesting characters are leaving Gillens hands. What he's left with, I couldn't care less about, save Storm and Dr. Nemesis. I may check in, but I'll probably be on the Wolverine side of the X-verse in the future. It sounds more my speed.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Ahh, much better. Probably the best I've seen from the core X title in years. Give it a look; Gillen makes it worth the read.

* I'm at the point where I just assume IQ's for most regular Joes in the Marvel Universe hover around room temperture. These are the guys who turned on Captain America like it wasn't a thing, after all. Turned on Iron Man too after Secret Invasion, for things that weren't even his fault. Then there's their adoration of known mass murdering psychopath Norman Osborn. So hey, Magneto as a hero? Why not, they'll buy it. I swear, they basically ask for the crap that happens to them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

War of Kings (comics)

Writers: Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning
Artist: Paul Pelletier
Collects: Secret Invasion: War of Kings, War of Kings #1-6, War of Kings: Who Will Rule?

While the long running cosmic saga penned by DnA is undoubtedly a critical darling, it's no secret that cosmic stories don't sell all that well. I personally like a good space story now and then, but I admit I've mostly passed up on Marvels cosmic books, despite the insistence from reviewers and a small number of folks on the internet that it's one of the best things going. I picked up War of Kings because, by all rights, it seemed like it it ran with elements from Uncanny X-Men: Rise & Fall of the Shi'ar Empire, which you may recall as one of the very few X-Men related arcs post-Morrison that I actually liked.

It's fairly good, but a bit tough to get into.

The story goes that Vulcan - the third Summers brother and current emperor of the Shi'ar - decides his kingdom is not big enough. Now, the Inhumans have returned to the Kree to lead them to greater glory. Vulcan, being an egotistical, impulsive shoot-first-shoot-again-and-shoot-some-more style imbecile, decides crashing an important Kree wedding and killing several of the guests would be a bitchin' idea. You can probably guess what the reaction was. If you need to be told war immediately followed, you probably weren't very good at connecting dots.

A fair bit of background is at least somewhat necessary. I got by all right with just Rise and Fall as my most recent foray into the realm of "cosmic", but unless you're familiar with that or just the general goings on in Marvel space, a lot of this comic is probably going to go over your head. It relies a lot on long established rivalries and interplanetary relationships introduced in countless other stories and while that's not necessarily a problem, they don't go far enough up front in summing up the important material up front to help the book read well on its own.

Despite the fact that this whole thing sort of picks up right after it, Secret Invasion is not at all necessary; and frankly you should avoid that story anyways, because it kind of sucks.

While we're on the subject of Secret Invasion, I'd like to say this event does what Secret Invasion never could; while both could be read sans tie-ins, War of Kings did it without cutting out the interesting bits and relegating them elsewhere, like, you know, Secret Invasion. Everything you need to know is in this book. On top of that, aside from a sequence involving the Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters from tie-ins are kept out of the proceedings. If it weren't for said cameo, you could have read this series without even knowing there were tie-ins. The rest of Marvel really ought to take notes.

Despite the backstory and history behind the cosmic side of Marvel, it's fairly easy to get swept up in this. DnA do a good job of selling the fact that this conflict, is a pretty big deal. Things escalate quickly and it doesn't have the tidy end many Shi-ar related stories do. For a bit, it seems like DnA is going down a familiar road before that notion is shattered. Some pretty big things happen here for most of the space faring races and it ably sets up some nasty consequences to play out in future stories. If nothing else, the Inhumans have certainly changed; I don't think I've ever seen Black Bolt - whose mere whisper can shatter mountains - use the full force of his voice as much as he has in this one story.

The art holds up rather well and does its job. There isn't much to really point out as particularly great or anything all that terrible. It won't blow you away, but it's not going to tear you out of the story either, so for all intents and purposes that can be classified as something of a win in itself.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

It can seem a bit tough to get into at first, but once you start rolling with the punches it will grab hold of you quickly. Probably best if you start earlier in the space timeline though, like somewhere around Annihilation. But even if you don't this is a good time in outer space.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arkham Asylum: Madness (comics)

Writer/Artist: Sam Kieth
Original Graphic Novel

You'll notice there's no "Batman" in the book title. It's intentional. Arkham Asylum is the star of the show here. Batman doesn't even make an appearance.

It's nice when we get a comic about Arkham Asylum. That type of Batman story is one wisely kept to occasional stories, but when we do get to delve into the madness, it's often a treat. It's rare we get a look strictly at the asylum, however, even in its spotlight stories. This one bucks the trend; the high concept is that the reader spends twenty four hours with the staff of Arkham, seeing firsthand what the staff has to go through on a given day.

This is one of those comics that depicts Arkham as hell*. It's a working environment so harsh and difficult that staff tends to come and go with alarming frequency, frequently leaving the building short staffed. It's a take I've always found particularly interesting, as you have to wonder what a place like Arkham could do to a person. The personalities within go beyond extreme and into downright frightening territory. We even see some staff come and go within the book itself.

Sam Kieth writes and draws the book. He is professional in both aspects. He sells us on the characters within and the trials they go through. Some stick around for the pay or hours, having given up or resigned themselves to the job they hate. Others are there out of desperation, trying to claw their way out of a debt all too many in the world feel the weight of.

Our main character is one such nurse and I felt Kieth really sold her troubles. She's practically trapped there through an ever crazier day, first wanting to get out early, then being stuck with the full shift, then stuck with a double. I actually felt some tension from the book, wanting her to be able to leave the place before the other shoe drops. That's a very good sign.

Sam Kieth's art is even better. He does not draw in some sort of house style. He ranges from dirty to simple to painterly work, depending on what a scene needs. It doesn't look like typical comic art and that's a strength. He sometimes exaggerates the things he draws - and not every choice in how he draws certain characters work** - but it's in a way that serves the story in ways that similar styles just do not manage.

He is, frankly, perfect for this kind of book. His style easily renders itself to giving the sort of nightmarish pictures a book like this needs. This is, after all, something akin to a horror comic. Clocks drip blood, inmates torment the staff, flashbacks show someone losing a limb to Jokers madness. Under a normal sort of artist, it can be quite effective. Under a guy like Sam Kieth, it's twisted. Great work on his part.

In the afterword, he mentions the fanboys perhaps not being pleased with his art style. This is true, I suppose. Sam Kieth does not draw quite like anyone else. But that's a boon; pair him with the right project and it's clear he can really kick ass. I hope he's "let out of the cell" again fairly soon; I think I'd like to read more work like this.

The Score: 8 out of 10

A very well put together OGN that was well worth the time. It's not perfect and it won't change the comics world, but it's a very interesting project. Even if you're not really a fan of Sam Kieths style, I think this book is well worth tracking down, as this is the sort of story his work really meshes with. Give it a look.

* Boy, is it ever hell. By the end, some questions popped up in my mind. What happens if everyone, or at least the vast majority of the staff - were to quit? How the hell does the asylum go on? You'd think SOMEBODY would have to be moved there, or else the crazies would be loose or transferred somewhere else, basically starting the process over. But at that point, how much money would you have to offer someone to work Arkham of all places? Who really runs and keeps it in check? I know the Arkhams built it, but isn't there some kind of institution that would have to regulate it? This is the kind of crap I think about at night.

** I'm not a fan of his choice for Harleys look. For some reason, she has her hair in dreadlocks. It looks damn odd on her. Some give the Arkham games flak for their sexualized depiction of Harley, but even with the cosmetic changes she looks like herself. Here, she looks more like a used up junkie. But that's the thing about a style like this; you're going to find some things that don't work for you, even when the work is this good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Last Zombie: Dead New World (comics)

Writer: Brian Keene
Artist: Joseph Wight
Collects: The Last Zombie #1-5

I guess the lesson to be learned here is "don't judge a book by its publisher".

I almost gave this one a pass only because of who was putting it out. I know Antarctic Press mostly for their comics that take current political figures and throw them in ridiculous situations to capitalize on their notoriety. They're nowhere near Bluewater - who put out nothing but terrible comic biographies without permission and are to comics what "The Asylum" are to movies - but it's enough to send me looking elsewhere.

I realize that's not exactly fair - it's not like DC and Marvel don't put out shit nestled between two covers and I read a lot of their product - but come on; is Steampunk Palin really the kind of comic that's going to inspire my confidence? At least when Marvel pumps out a She-Hulk ongoing you know there's someone out there who wanted it.

The concept grabbed me though, so I gave it a read. I'm glad I did. Brian Keene decides to set his book after the zombie apocalypse - or at least it seems to be over; whether it is happens to be a mystery - which is an inspired move. Almost no one ever goes for the aftermath for obvious reasons, so it's a relatively untapped well to draw from.

Keene goes for it with gusto. The specter of zombies looms large - again, no one is a hundred percent sure they're really gone - but they're hardly the big threats. In the year humanity went underground, as it were, unmanned nuclear plants melted down, your typical roaming gangs formed, animals run free, wildfires raged unchecked and diseases ran rampant. It's a nightmare out there.

A nightmare our cast has to go out into. They lost contact with the Maine bunker, which housed not only most of the government that was left. Obviously, a rescue operation is needed, one that's venturing out into the unknown, to ascertain what happened and if necessary rescue whoever is left of the remnants of American government. No pressure, right?

Keene wisely grounds it all in human emotion. Of course, there's the overall purpose of the mission, but one of our main characters is on board for personal reasons. His fiancee was in the other bunker and he won't stop until he knows one way or another if she's still alive. He's also the center of the twist near the two thirds mark.

There is definitely suspense to the proceedings. Keene fakes us out from time to time and never lets us forget that the zombies could still be out there. But by the end, zombies seem like the least of their worries; they're not out of the bunker long before they're attacked by bandits after their equipment. Worse still, they're outnumbered. We close the book wondering what else might be out there; the apocalypse may be over, but even if the zombies are gone, it's clear humanity has a long way back.

The artwork is good as well. The comic is black and white, but it seems the artist went sans inker. Almost everything looks penciled in, including detail, giving it a unique look among comics. I can't think of many that just go with pencil drawings, with all the shading and such done that way. I like it. Wight has talent.

The Score: 8 out of 10

I had a good time with this one; if Antarctic Press is smart they'll keep this team around on other projects as well. It's pretty well written, well drawn and has a pretty good hook. I recommend it and I'll be keeping an eye out for more. Give it a shot; it's worth the time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Batman: The Widening Gyre vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Kevin Smith
Artist: Walt Flanagan
Collects: Batman: The Widening Gyre #1-6

If at first you don't succeed...

Kevin Smiths second crack at the best Batman story he can tell was received as badly as the first. Maybe worse, in some ways. Some other blogs - and even comic websites - proclaimed it as the "worst comic ever". Now, I'm certainly a fan of hyperbole - when the Muppets guest starred on Monday Night Raw this past Halloween I declared it the best thing ever - but here the exaggeration is a bit unwarranted.

So, basically, story goes like this; Batmans in a particularly reflective mood of late, deciding to have copious amounts of flashbacks. The point of all of it is trying to face the fact that he needs to trust people more. This is compounded by the return of Silver St. Cloud - one of the best love interests Batman had that we've almost never seen since - into his life. Meanwhile, the new hero Goatman - okay, okay, Baphomet - shows up and starts kicking some ass. Soon, Batman is coming to grips with the idea of a replacement and retiring. That's when it all falls apart.

Alright, first, the sexual innuendo is still here. But thankfully, it's not nearly as bad as "Joker strips down for buttsex in gratitude for being broken out of Arkham". Still, it's there and as such, you can never really escape the fact that this is a book written by Kevin Smith. If, for some reason, you manage to come close, don't worry, the book will be damn sure to remind you. This is the one thing about Smith that really irks me; it seems like he cannot go long without piling on the sex jokes or really dirty humor and he is as subtle with it as an oncoming train.

Other than that, Smith's not a bad writer, from what I've seen. Last go around he stumbled, but by this point he seemed to have a better handle on what he was dealing with. His dialogue for Batman is a bit less ridiculous than last time and - sex jokes and out of place humor aside - he goes out of his way to try and tell a story about Batman coming to grips with feelings. He doesn't completely stick the landing - and the "can't I be happy, do I really have to do this" thing's been done better - but he puts honest effort into selling it through flashbacks, the people coming into Batmans life and the circumstances that surrounds him.

Something that didn't bother me as much as I expected were the references, which were derided elsewhere. I usually do not like this kind of thing, especially when it's overdone. Kevin Smith went to the well once too often in Cacophony. He doesn't exactly tone it down for Widening Gyre, but it's not as noticeable anymore. Part of it is that they don't stick out like a sore thumb as much as last time. I think the other side of the coin is that a good number didn't get quite as cutesy as they did in Cacophony.

Smith blows it in the last issue, however, where it feels like the writing just sort of goes off a cliff. This book has a portrayal of Catwoman that is... more jealous slut than sexy, independent woman, which is very unfortunate, but it reaches its nadir in the last issue. Then there's the Silver situation, where Batman gets the idea in his head that she's a robot and... roughly handles her. Then there's the complete and utterly baffling scene with the crossbow, where Deadshot can somehow feel that it's a crossbow pointed at his head - yeabuwha? - and a misunderstanding of, you know, the basic mechanics of a crossbow.

The ending is also a problem. Batman reveals his secret identity to someone right after he got done debating whether the villains should be killed or not with them. You can probably see the problem; even with the book trying its damndest to sell that Batman realizes he needs to trust others more, it's still a questionable decision, especially given the fact that this person isn't even a hundred percent sold on the principles Batman and his organization operate on. There's trust and then there's stupidity.

I've read worse, though. Damning with faint praise, I'm sure, but still. It's an improvement over Cacophony for sure. It's easiest to read this book when you just take it as its own thing and don't try and tie it to any one portrayal of Batman. Seems difficult, especially given the fact that he's picking up and using toys from the Englehart run, but it's the way to go.

Walt Flanagan has also improved, but he's still got a ways to go to be great. There are still noticeable gaffes, like an eye at the wrong angle or place. There's the occasional hideously drawn face, as well. Also, in one of the middle issues where she has her hair in pigtails, his Silver St. Cloud is a dead ringer for Harley Quinn, which I doubt was intentional. Regardless, DC regularly employs far worse artists.

The Score: 6 out of 10

It's an improvement over Cacophony, for sure, but I'd still say it was middle of the road. If the final issue hadn't gone off the rails it would probably be more like a seven. As it is, though, it's a flawed work that could have been better but is still readable.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants (comics)

Writer: Victor Gischler
Artist: Paco Medina
Collects: X-Men (vol. 3) #1-6, material from Curse of the Mutants Saga and Curse of the Mutants Spotlight

Alright, warning up front; there's going to be some spoilers in this here review. To talk about the problems the book has means I'm probably going to have to get into what happens a bit more than usual. So if you don't already know what happens - unlikely, but still - just look at the score and my closing comments.

To say I was looking forward to this one probably goes without saying. If you've read reviews from this place before, you may be aware of that time Batman and Superman totally whupped some vampire ass or the time Batman decided he didn't like zombies and how much I liked them. Though it's waned over the years, I like the X-Men, so taking them, throwing them at some vampires and watching what happens should be a slam dunk, right?

Should be is the key word. This book isn't a disaster or anything; if you turn your brain off you can find some dumb fun in here. The mechanics of the plot, however, fall apart if you ponder them for more than ten seconds.

The plot is, well, basic. Dracula is dead for reasons we're unaware of* aside from the fact that his son did it, said son takes over and has a good idea. Why not turn some mutants, adding their sheer power to the vampire ranks, and use it to carve a place for vampires out of the shadows? Sure, the X-Men may not care for that idea, but free will is over-rated, right?

The plan is to essentially hypnotize one of the mutants, get those that come after their own, then throw a full size assault at Utopia with said new recruits and take over. From there on the sky's the limit. It's not a bad plan, really; and Cyclops made things easier by conveniently locating the mutant buffet in one place.

Funnily enough, it's the mutants who don't have their shit together.

So, Cyclops realizes what is going down. Now, apparently there are enough vampires out there to make you drop a deuce in your drawers. So his plan is to essentially revive Dracula, persuade him to fight with them and slap around some vamps. The recovery of his body parts happens in the tie-ins and Drac is revived as early as issue three. This plan goes south, of course - probably because someone at Marvel suddenly realized "holy crap, we still have three issues to fill" - so, you know, by all rights they are kind of screwed.

Except they're not. See, Cyclops sent in Logan to retrieve Jubilee. Now, he had to assume Logan would be turned, so he had it made so Logans healing factor could be turned on and off. At the pivotal moment of the vampire assault, he turns it back on, Logan snaps back to his senses and the vampires asses are kicked.

Anyone else see the problem here?

First off, they continue to play Cyclops as knowing what he's doing and planning contingencies. But once again, he comes off like a nimrod. They first go to the Dracula option before trying anything else. That goes south. Then he has a nifty plan to have Logan turned when he goes to the vampires, then turned back. Then the X-Men alone wipe out the entire force that is sent to attack them once they bring Logan back and make it to the inner circle of the vampires. That Dracula came back and whupped his sons ass wasn't even necessary by that point, because they would have won anyways.

Which means they could have defeated the vampire army thrown at them at any time. Meaning the hand wringing about how there were too many of them to stop, Dracs revival and essentially everything that happened between mid issue 2 to mid issue 5 was completely unnecessary. There was never anything at stake; turns out the X-Men could fight off that many vampires all along, but figured it would be more prudent to do a bunch of other stupid crap and have Wolverine turned into a vampire and then reverted back because Cyclops is kind of a dick.

There's an entertaining story in here somewhere, but at least three issues worth of scenes would need to be excised, what was left would need slight reworking and the issue count would top out at three issues, with lingering subplots for later arcs or more stuff dealing with vampires. What we get is a bloated storyline that is the worst example of for-the-trade writing. It's six issues mainly because it would make a nice trade they could charge fifteen to twenty dollars SRP for.

Now, the plot problems aren't the only problems. Victor Gischler doesn't seem to have a great handle on some of his characters. Some dialogue exchanges read unnaturally. He seems to know how to write Dr. Nemesis and Dracula the best. Logan suffers; Gischler has him say "come get some". I don't think anyone has said "come get some" without laughter following in about three decades, much less Wolverine.

But hey, it has great art! Paco Medina draws the hell out of this flawed storyline and frankly it's the books saving grace. Clean, colorful work that's damn nice to work at. I just wish it was paired with a story that measured up.

The Score: 6 out of 10

A script with as many holes usually sinks a book. This one was blessed with some very nice artwork, though, which elevates it. It's worth a read as dumb "summer movie" level fun, but it's not something I'd really recommend buying for the old bookshelf. Skip it unless you really want to see some vampire beheadings performed by the X-Men.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Dude, sending in your best man and turning off his healing factor so he's turned into a vampire? Then turning it back on when you feel like it? With absolutely no tactical reason to do it? That's the kind of thing that would go on Superdickery if it were with Superman. And Cyke wonders why Wolverine wants to stab him.

* For some moronic reason the Death of Dracula one shot that is essentially the real part one of this story is not included. It wasn't included in the companion volume either. Thanks trade department for such a monumental screw up; thankfully, the story still reads... well, not fine, given the numerous problems, but it's not a glaring issue; you just won't know the specifics of what happened to Drac or the setup.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Batman: Haunted Gotham (comics)

Writer: Doug Moench
Artist: Kelley Jones
Collects: Batman: Haunted Gotham #1-4

Hey, you know what would have been bitchin'? A spiffy banner that says "Elseworlds" across the top letting me know that, you know, this is an Elseworlds tale. Yup, would have been great knowledge to have beforehand.

Now, don't take this to mean I would have avoided it if I'd known or anything. I like them and I kind of wish DC would just bring the damn tagline back. I guess the old "readers only want stories that matter" chestnut is what nixed that. The problem is that I had no idea it was one of said stories until I cracked it open. I figured it was a Halloween themed Batman collection, of which I know at least one exists*. There's no real indication until you start to realize "wait a minute, Bruce is an adult and his parents are still alive".

So, thanks for that clear branding, DC.

Now that we've established what it is, we'll get into the meat of it. This particular Elseworlds is based around the supernatural, with Gotham - or Haunted Gotham, as the city is oddly named - being essentially cut off from the rest of the world and constantly besieged by dark forces. Bruce Wayne has been training his whole life for some unforeseen destiny laid out for him by his father. Once his parents die by the hands of a werewolf, it finally becomes clear; he is to save Gotham from the devils that claim it as their playground as the Batman.

Doug Moench is a name that I don't see brought up a lot when it comes to Batman discussions. This is despite the fact that he's had a fairly lengthy history with the character; back in the 80's he was on board for three or four years - not all that impressive until you realize he wrote both Batman and Detective for all of that duration - and another multiple year stretch on just one in the 90's. Despite that, I don't think I've seen much of his work collected.

His writing style is... dense, I guess; this miniseries is pretty wordy. This is to its benefit and to its detriment. Sometimes he goes out of his way explaining things, while occasionally it can seem almost poetic, I suppose you could say. At any rate, it's a bit old fashioned and others might not have my level of tolerance for that.

As for the art, it's done by Kelley Jones, who Moench has worked with a good deal over the years. I'm not a fan of his style. I can certainly enjoy an exaggerated style, but Jones frequently goes to the point of absurd. For the cool aspects - his Batman is pretty Spawn like, with ridiculously long ears at times and a cape that seems to never end - there are plenty of moments of ridiculous anatomy, odd body contortion, cowl ears changing length between panels, a leg thrust out into a kick drawn way too long, etc. I want to say it's almost Liefeldian at times, but that doesn't feel fair, as Jones shows a much better grasp at other points.

It's hard to describe what I mean by this, but these issues I have are also offset by the type of story. Horror and the supernatural play to his strengths - where a nightmarish Batman seems right at home - and in that way, his style feels almost at home with the material. I don't know; it's one of those odd impressions you feel like you can never fully articulate. While I'm not a fan, I can see some ways where his style of art can be a strength.

These are, in all, fairly beefy issues contained within. Each is its own chapter, really, dealing with a new threat in this alternate world. Moench and Kelley also keep from going overboard with reacasting classic rogues in their alternate universe as well, leaving new, story specific threats to take their place. This is appreciated; as much as I like elseworlds, sometimes they seem just as preoccupied with showing off the rogues gallery in altered form - plot relevancy be damned - as they are with telling an actual story.

The Score: 6 out of 10

A bit below average, but not outright bad. It's fitting reading for this time of year, even as Halloween has passed and we move on to giving thanks. I wouldn't recommend anyone run out to get a copy, but it's not the comic equivalent of toxic sludge either.

* Turns out the Halloween themed collection I'm thinking of is "Haunted Knight". It was also by a completely different team, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Oops.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

X-Men: Phoenix Rising (comics)

Writers: Roger Stern, John Byrne, Bob Layton
Artists: John Buscema, John Byrne, Jackson Guice
Collects: Avengers #263, Fantastic Four #286, X-Factor #1, Classic X-Men #8 and #43

Poor Jean Grey. Poor Marvel. They've never been able to live this one down.

Jean Grey is the queen of comic resurrections; when the subject is brought up, conversation is inevitably turned to her and someone, somewhere will say "geez, how many times has Jean Grey been resurrected" in such a discussion. The funny part is that the answer is once, in this very story. This is the only time she was brought back from the dead; and hilariously, she wasn't even resurrected here either. It was a retcon that made it so she never died*. It's kind of funny how fandoms memory can be warped so far from what actually saw print.

Anyways, there's no real reason to discuss the story much. It's essentially what it says on the tin. Jean Grey comes back using a loophole Chris Claremont made. Then the original X-Men reform as X Factor, because they can't go back to the X-Men, since Magneto is part of that team and Cyclops actually had brains enough to know that was a bad idea then. The story's not bad or anything, but it's mostly a means to an end, largely to set up the X Factor series.

So, you know how you sometimes hear that comics were better back in whatever decade because they explained everything in exposition and oh won't somebody think of the new readers? Yeah, those people are full of shit. This story is filled with overly explanatory thought bubbles and at times it makes the whole exercise crushingly boring. I don't care who this Captain Marvel is or what her intensely detailed thoughts about Namor are. I'm willing to accept there was a Captain Marvel I didn't know about off the bat.

Though, if you wanted to explain why the Avengers seem to take in anybody off the street, no matter how lame**, I might be interested.

Anyways, if you make it through two issues of "holy crap Jean Grey is alive", you get the first X Factor issue, which is pretty much standard "getting the band back together" fare. Then it stops. Three goddamn issues. I would have liked the first arc of X Factor, at least, since the X Factor issue seemed to be where things started to get fairly interesting to some degree. Nope.

Oh, one other thing this story is significant for. It's the beginning of Cyclops douchebaggification. Dude cold leaves his wife - who he already married mostly because she reminded him of Jean - and his son when he learns Jean Grey is back from the bottom of the bay. He is then more concerned with what Jean will think and how he will tell her about said wife and kids than he is about the family he just walked out on. They couldn't have made him look worse if they tried.

There are also small stories from some X-Men deal way back when that are fairly inconsequential; one of them likes to wax philosophical, but instead comes off as trying too hard.

The art's fine. Nobody puts in offensive or bad work. It's pretty standard stuff for the time. Why Sue Storm has a goddamn mullet, however, I can't figure out.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Nothing special. It's basically a means to an end and significant only in the fact that it's the small arc that brought Jean Grey back to the fold. It's remembered more for the supposed "resurrection" that doesn't happen, for good reason. Not much else of note happens. If you want to have this as a bookend to Jeans death and return, go ahead and pick it up, but you can pretty safely skip it without missing a damn thing.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Dude cold leaves his wife - who he already married mostly because she reminded him of Jean - and his son when he learns Jean Grey is back from the bottom of the bay. He is then more concerned with what Jean will think and how he will tell her about said wife and kids than he is about the family he just walked out on. He doesn't even call said wife either and she finds out about his betrayal by seeing both he and Jean Grey on the goddamn television. Nobody else really brings up any of these things.

* Essentially, the Phoenix entity gave itself a body patterned off Jean Grey. So intense was this conditioning that she actually thought she was Jean Grey. That cocoon at the bottom of the bay held the real Jean Greys half dead body from her attempted sacrifice, where it slowly healed. How this was confused with a resurrection, where she straight up came back from the grave, I haven't the foggiest; to date, this is the only time she ever really came back, though eventually I suspect they'll bring her back again.

** Despite the suckitude of the Avengers lineup whenever I seem to see them pop up, Hercules and Black Knight are pretty cool. The Black Knights costume is great, at the least. But seriously, does Cap just take whatever the hell he can get at any given time? Actually, given the existence of Starfox, I'm guessing yes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wolverine: Old Man Logan (comics)

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven
Collects: Wolverine #66-72, Wolverine: Old Man Logan Giant Sized

Hey, look, it's a project by that king of all hucksters, Mark Millar! Even more shocking, it's, GASP, pretty good without relying on shock and awe gross-em-out tactics. Miracles CAN happen, folks!

Anything with Millars name tends to draw a lot of attention - usually for all the wrong reasons - and several years back this was one of those projects Marvel was making a big deal about. The hype was certainly saying all the right things to reel me in; Mad Max style future starring Wolverine as a Clint Eastwood-in-Unforgiven style character with completely off the wall changes? Sold.

Still, it's a Millar project - and I may have mentioned I'm not really a fan - so I took my sweet ass time in getting around to it.

It's good, though. Millar delivered what was promised; we get a pretty crazy buddy cop adventure with Wolverine and Hawkeye rolling through the desert to the other side of the country. See, Wolverines landlords are dicks and he needs money or else they'll eat his family. Wolverine won't pop his claws - which he's sure to remind us way too often - because of an event in the past, so he needs to get out of the situation another way; so he teams up with Hawkeye, the two roll around in the Spider-Mobile, the Hulk has a whole family of inbred hillbilly Hulks and holy crap is that a Venom dinosaur?

Millar throws every crazy idea he has at the wall and no lie, it makes the book a page turner, even if the overall plot is a bit thin. There's something enticing about these kinds of stories, where you want to see more and more of this f***ed up world and you want to know how it got this way. Putting a wild twist on the familiar is always a good way to drive interest up, which is why these "warped future" stories tend to work so well. Besides, it's just freaking creepy - in a good way - to see something like the Red Skull, now President of his quarter of the US, dressed in Captain Americas costume with a trophy room of items collected from the dead heroes.

It's not all roses, however; with Millar, it never is. Spoiler warning for this paragraph. The way we get to the final fight is a little too obvious, frankly. We know that by the end, Logan will be back to his old self again in some fashion. It's just obvious. Also obvious is the way it's finally accomplished, as it's one of those plot points that you can see coming a mile away. So why Millar went with it, I couldn't tell you. I'd have been much more shocked if he'd gone another way.

Also disappointing is that Mark Millar recycled the premise of his creator owned work "Wanted" for this one. You know, the whole "all the villains joined forced, defeated the heroes and took over the world" bit. The only reason that really worked there is because - despite the fact that ninety percent of the characters were based on Marvel and DC heroes - they were his own characters in a world he owned. Outside of that, it doesn't hold water.

We're told something about there being "twenty villains for every hero" or something, which - if it were true - might make for a hell of a fight for our heroes. But think about this for more than five minutes and it breaks apart. Most heroes - especially at Marvel - don't have a rogues gallery to speak of. Sure, Spider-Man has about thirty villains - not all of them of note - but Cloak and Dagger are lucky if they have one. The Marvel Universe in particular is also very team focused - Avengers, Runaways, Fantastic Four, X-Men, etc. - and the more expansive rogues galleries tend to be attacked to these even bigger teams.

There isn't twenty villains for every hero. There isn't even ten. If we're being honest, there are probably more heroes at Marvel than villains and a good quarter of the villain total are completely lame. We're not even going to get into the experience most heroes have with fighting - and beating - all these villains.

One last sour note that relates to the villains - another spoiler alert here - the big mystery of the book is what screwed Wolverine up so badly that he gave up fighting, but the event in question is flawed. Make no mistake, being conned into slaughtering people you held dear works as a reason. I can believe that would screw with Logan enough to do this. That's not the problem.

The problem is that this all hinges on... Mysterio. The guy whose shtick involves parlor tricks and mere illusions. A human without much more than some experience in Hollywood effects somehow manages to not only make Wolverine see other beings as known villains - like, for example, Omega Red or Bullseye - but to make the body language mimic said villains, make him think they're using the weapons of those villains and to somehow make Logans super evolved senses - including smell - detect them as those villains.

An effects dude who does little more than annoy Spider-Man on occasion somehow does this. Without magic or powers. Anyone else seeing a problem here?

Despite those glaring issues, this is still a good read. It moves at a brisk pace, despite being seven full issues and a giant sized special. Despite the fact that I wanted to know more about the world than was given, I have to give Millar credit for not overloading us with details. He keeps the adventure moving and provides enough thrills and banter to keep you entertained. Despite the plot holes and logic problems, I'd say this is one of Millars better written projects. It's some pretty good fun, which is the kind of Millar writing I prefer, but rarely get.

Steve McNiven provides the visuals and he handles whatever Millar throws at him. This is a tall order. There's a lot of crazy ideas floating around this world they've given us. A lesser artist would not have been able to handle the kind of shit we see here and the book would have been ruined because of it. McNiven pulls it off without a hitch. His work really puts this book over the top and helps keep you from thinking on certain events too much.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Despite the issues I've mentioned, this book is still a lot of fun as long as you don't think too hard on some of the plot twists. It's probably the most I've enjoyed a Millar book since Wanted, at least; maybe even as far back as when he worked with Grant Morrison. Well worth a purchase, if you ask me. The ending sets things up for a sequel; I hope we get it at some point.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories (comics)

Writer: Paul Dini
Artists: Bruce Timm, Matt Wagner
Collects: The Batman Adventure: Mad Love, The Batman Adventures Annual #1 and material from #2, The Batman Adventures Holiday Special

Batman: The Animated Series is, without question, among the ranks of definitive interpretations of the Dark Knight. Such is the quality of the show that even when it was having an off day it was still highly entertaining. It's one of those kids cartoons that really defines "all ages".

So it should come as no surprise that the comic based on the show - which was also frequently written by Paul Dini and drawn by Bruce Timm, the guys chiefly behind it - is similar fun. Though I guess it pushes it a bit with the all ages thing - some things they get away with here and even in the cartoon could be downright risque for a show targeted at kids - it manages to get away with it. Truly, these men are the masters of their craft.

Obviously, Mad Love is the star of the show here. If you've watched the cartoon I'm sure you've seen the episode that adapted it. It won all sorts of awards and took that whole risque thing as far as they could push it. It's also a shockingly realistic portrayal of abuse for a show about a dude who dresses up and fights crime. I can't really say which is better; the comic included here is the original and has a few more scenes, but the episode was a lean, mean machine. Either way it's great and makes the volume worth it on its own, but I'm sure you knew that.

The rest of the volume is filled out with various stories from elsewhere in the Batman Adventures comic series. Most of these - save the holiday piece - were not adapted to the show. All of them are great fun. The simplest way to put it is that these comics are essentially like lost episodes of the show, right down to the art, most of which is done by Bruce Timm. I couldn't give more of a ringing endorsement if I tried.

We also get some commentary on the comics from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm to round it all out, which is also an interesting read.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Just get your hands on it somehow. Even if you've seen the Mad Love episode, the comic is like the "Directors Cut" of the episode. All the other stories are worth the time as well. There's really no reason not to jump on this; these guys prove, as they always did with the show, that you don't always need a complex plot to have a fun Batman adventure.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Batman: Cacophony (comics)

Writer: Kevin Smith
Artist: Walt Flanagan
Collects: Batman: Cacophony #1-3

I didn't have high hopes for this one. This particular book has been slammed up and down the internet. While I tend to prefer judging things on my own, it's pretty difficult to see such negativity about the book and not have my expectations altered.

It's not, however, the vicious attack on all things sacred the comic community would lead you to believe. That it's not completely terrible doesn't mean it's good, though. Because it's not.

As you can see if you glance above the spiffy Adam Kubert drawn cover, you'll see that Kevin Smith - the film director - is behind this book. Obviously they're selling it on those grounds; his damn name is bigger than Batmans on that cover. If you've ever seen one of Kevin Smiths films, you know he employs a lot of vulgarity, dick, fart and poop jokes. He's also written some genuinely good movies, but that tends to be in spite of his writing tics.

Obviously, he can get away with all of that because the characters in his movie are his own. Not to say this is the first time he's worked with corporate characters - there are even references to his past work in here - but still, there's a clear difference. Can you really have jokes about anal sex and poop flinging in a book about Batman and actually try to play it off as a serious read? Turns out, no, it just doesn't work. The fact that Smith has Batman monologue a lot about how he wishes he could leave his foes to die rings false, as well.

Also problematic is that Smith overloads the book with references to Batmans past, I guess to prove his credentials as a Batman fan. In small doses, these sort of references can be a cute wink and nod to fans. A few in this book even made me smile, like the joke Alfred makes about Jean Paul Valley in regards to something Batman says. But there comes a point where you're spending way too much time winking at the reader about the past; there's a nod to Death in the Family that adds nothing to the monologue and in one of the last scenes of the book we have dialogue that brings both Going Sane and Dark Knight Returns to the forefront of our minds.

Worse still, despite Smiths best efforts, there are occasions where characters just don't sound like themselves. Batman in particular over-monologues in the first issue while Joker is turned into a conduit for Smiths usual sex jokes. When two of your three central characters doesn't sound right, there's a problem.

Despite all that, there are things I did like. Smith decides to use Maxie Zeus - a rarely used and often forgotten old Batman foe - as a major plot player for much of the book, while Smiths own created villain - Onomatopoeia - is a fairly novel antagonist, despite the fact that he only speaks in sound effects. Also, while it didn't come off as well as I'm sure he'd hope, I appreciated the fact that Smith wanted to put his own stamp or spin on the never-ending battle between Batman and Joker with his final scenes.

The idea that Jokers toxin - when watered down - can be used as a recreational drug was a good one as well.

The art's by one of Kevin Smiths buddies, Walt Flanagan. That has been slammed too, for both the art itself and the nepotism. It's not particularly great, but it's not terrible either. There are times when it looks pretty good and others where it looks off. He seems to get better as the miniseries rolls on, though; most of the iffier drawings are in the first issue, mostly of the Joker. By issue 3 he's got a much better handle on the character. Given the amount of comics I've read, I've seen much worse.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

This book is a bit under mediocre and just into bad territory, I figure. It's not as terrible as I've seen it made out to be, but it's not worth adding to your bookshelf either. It may be worth a flip through if you really like Kevin Smith, but I wouldn't pay full price for it. For most, it's a curiosity at best.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Mutants vs Vampires (comics)

Writers: Chuck Kim, Simon Spurrier, Chris Claremont and many more
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Tim Green and many more
Collects: X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Storm and Gambit, X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Smoke and Blood, X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Blade, X-Men vs. Vampires #1-2 and Uncanny X-Men #159

So, when they relaunched the X-Men book, they decided to treat it as an event of sorts, I guess you could say. They released a few different tie-ins alongside the story arc, which isn't something you see that often for your typical six issue arc. The only other arc to do that I can think of off the top of my head is Batman RIP, which rippled into some other ongoings (though I don't recall any tie-in one shots).

Thankfully the tie-ins were kept to a tidy number, enough to fill a trade paperback, so here it is.

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Storm & Gambit | Look, I make no bones about it. I'm a mark for Gambit. He's always been one of my favorite mutants. So a team up with Storm, another great character in the X fold? Yeah, I'll take some of that.

This one shot is probably the most directly tied to the main arc, as it showed the mission undertaken by the two heroes to recover Draculas body, which the X-Men kind of need, from an island of vampires. The reasons as to why these two were chosen are a bit flimsy - it's supposedly because they're both current or former thieves, but there's little real thieving involved and more fighting - but it's held together a bit more by the fact that the two have long been good friends and worked together in the past. Either way, it seldom matters, because what we get is a fun little done in one aside to the main story.

Chuck Kim writes a pretty damn good Gambit and Storm, that's for sure. Gambit works nicely as a foil and it's refreshing to see him do something other than worry about Rogue. He has a few nice moments in the course of the comic, plus what was probably the full out best page in the issue. Storm recieves the emotional arc, which ties nicely into her past characterization and makes some of her fears apparent. As far as I know, Chuck Kim only did editing work prior, but apparently he can script a good comic.

As for the art, it's typical Chris Bachalo. Which is to say that it's great, if you like his style. Bachalo typically takes some getting used to as far as his art goes, as it's cartoony and manga-esque at times. But it feels like there's an energy there and he can put together a nice page. I used to be put off somewhat by his work, but by this point I really like his work. Before long I may even love it.

If there's a negative point here, it's small but significant. There are a couple of pages in this comic where it feels like the inker fell asleep at the wheel. They look unfinished. More unfortunate, one of the pages that seems either uninked or poorly inked - it's way too rough and scratchy, which makes it jarring compared to the rest of the issue - is Gambits best moment in the entire issue. Proof that when one cog in the art screws up, it can bring a whole page down.

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Blood and Smoke | More X Club goodness by Simon Spurrier. The X Club seems to have it's detractors in some paces - mainly CBR - but screw them. I like these one shot X Club spotlights. Which makes the fact that an X Club mini by the same writer is on it's way good news for me.

This is another aside to the main storyline, but it's much more tangential. The X Club has some of the other victims of the main arcs opening scene to work on and they're trying to cure vampirism, or whatever hypnotic spell the people are under, if nothing else. They also have a big, nasty vampire locked up. This is not a good plan, as he escapes and Doctor Nemesis seals the lab off until the problem is dealt with.

Like with the Second Coming one shot, Doctor Nemesis has been the highlight for me. His particular breed of smug snark is pretty damn funny and it lends some levity to the generally morbid proceedings. I like all three members of the X Club in general, which to me is a testament to Simon Spurriers writing. After all, Matt Fraction did next to nothing with the team in the stories I've read of his run, so it had to come down to him to pull this off.

If there's a downside, it's the fact that the X Club unfortunately finds themselves unable to come up with a solution again. Which is not necessarily their fault. They can't solve the vampire problem in their one shot offshoot; the resolution has to happen in the main arc. So they're doomed not to succeed right from the start. Hopefully they get the chance to solve a problem in their own miniseries, instead of being hogtied by their accompanying event.

The art is perfectly suited to this manner of story. This is a primarily "dark" story, dealing with vampires that are perfectly okay with chomping down on a dude or three, not to mention dark in the sense that most of the comic is set in a dimly lit lab that loses power halfway through the issue. Gabriel Hernandez Walta uses a unique style that I assume is painted and it definitely managed to pull off a dark, grimy feel.

Good work all around; once again the X Club are a high point in a tie-in collection.

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Blade | Poor Blade. He's had three highly successful movies and is thus probably much better exposed to the general public than about eighty percent of Marvels stock of characters. Despite that, Marvel almost never does anything with him anymore; he hasn't had an ongoing or a miniseries in four or five years now and he very rarely appears even in a guest capacity. He's seen more outside of comics - in video games, for example - than he is in comics nowadays.

Lucky for him, then, that the X-Men are fighting vampires. Which is kind of his thing. Hence, his own one-shot. Savor it Blade; you're probably not going to get another for several more years, knowing Marvel.

This particular one shot, written by Duane Swierczynski, is more or less a prequel to the main event that is the Curse of the Mutants arc proper. The slayers - who hunt vampires for a living, of course - are being hunted down and killed one by one. Obviously this is a problem, so Blade rounds up the survivors and tries setting a trap. As you can probably guess, it goes horribly wrong, since otherwise there wouldn't have been any vamps left to bother the mutants.

It's okay, as far as the writing goes. The issue is mostly there to show how Blade got from point A to point B for the main arc. Still, it's not boring and I didn't lose interest. So that's a plus. Still, it left me desiring a proper Blade adventure by a good creative team, which I'm not likely to get. Blade seems to be one of those characters Marvels okay with letting go into obscurity for lengths of time.

The arts serviceable. I wouldn't say it's particularly great, but it's not bad either. Just not really noteworthy. One thing I noticed is that Blade seems to have a different hairdo these days; he looks a lot less like Wesley Snipes, which frankly was a good look for the character. But it's not a big deal. I think I saw a look like this in live action, so I assume the two-short-mohawks look was from that TV pilot that fizzled out a while back.

X-Men vs Vampires #1-2 | These issues are another one of those anthology deals the X line usually craps out whenever there's been a big status quo shift. Only this time, I guess they decided to do it for the vampires arc. Bad idea.

See, every short story included in this two issue anthology is basically an X man fighting a vampire. Then staking them or killing them some other way. That's it. Sure, a couple are fun - Gambits, where he related taking down a bunch of female vampires to relationships, is particularly great, as is the creative team for Blood and Smoke showing a vampire whale - but there's nothing else to most of them. None are offensively bad, just plain jane.

These anthologies seem to work better when they're stuck to the status quo changes that allow for a variety of shorts, so hopefully that will be where they stay; this just didn't work as well as the one shots did, which is a shame but probably unavoidable.

Uncanny X-Men #159 | This really doesn't have much of anything to do with the plot of Curse of the Mutants. Its only tie is the fact that it's where Dracula and Storm met for the first time. I assume it's here partly to pad the volume out a bit, which I don't really understand. As it is, the volume had a decent enough length and I simply do not understand why the Death of Dracula one shot - which had events that led to the attack on mutants - was left out in favor of this.

Just an odd, odd choice all around and I have to wag my finger at Marvel over leaving out Death of Dracula.

Still, it's an issue of the legendary Chris Claremont run of the X-Men - which is, of course, the run almost everything you ever see of the X-Men outside of comics is based on - so there's that. It's a bit of a dated read - Claremont always was heavy on the exposition - but it still holds up well as an entertaining story despite that. I just don't know why the hell it's here.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

This one managed to be a step above some other tie-in collections I've read. The two issue anthology was a bust, but two great one shots, a fairly decent one shot and an issue from the Claremont era outweigh it handily. If the anthology hadn't been so cookie cutter - and had Death of Dracula been included - this may have had a higher rating, as a fair amount of the contents are fun, enjoyable reading.