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.